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In it’s broadest context, Aboriginal theatre in Western Australia is derived from ancient Indigenous Culture and Tradition. Performance and storytelling is a necessary and critical part of cultural survival therefore it can be legitimately argued that the Aboriginal theatre industry is a 60,000 year old artform, far exceeding any timeline of a “Western Classic”. Perhaps the best-known example of Aboriginal theatre at this time can be found in the Kundu Masks of the Nyangumarta people from the Pilbara. Masks were representations of both animal and spirit and were used in public performance around the campfire at night. At the conclusion of each performance the masks were abandoned on the ceremonial ground. The largest collection of these masks can now be found at the South Australian Museum.

Contemporary Aboriginal theatre in Western Australia grew out of a time of political and social struggle. The first recorded community performances were at the Coolbaroo Club [est1946-1960], which was Perth’s only Aboriginal run club. Productions were of a largely cabaret form providing entertainment for the local Aboriginal community and its supporters amidst the apartheid regime of the day. In the 1960’s and 70’s the Black civil rights movement was in full swing and the Black political theatre of Australia was born.

While Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers [1971] and the Nimrod Street Theatre production, Basically Black [1972] are acknowledged Nationally as the first of the black political theatre at this time, in Western Australia the social-historical theatre movement was taking shape. Led by playwright Jack Davis [1917-2000], his trilogy of plays; The Dreamers [1973], Kullark [1978] and No Sugar [1985] were the catalyst for the genre that has dominated the Aboriginal theatre industry.

In the 1970’s Aboriginal theatre was commonly performed at the then Wellington Street based Aboriginal Advancement Council and played an important role in the social political struggle of the day. By the 1980’s recognition for Aboriginal playwrights and actors had grown and interest came in the form of mainstream audiences and theatre companies who commenced a cycle of producing Aboriginal works.

In 1989 Jimmy Chi redefined the Musical theatre genre with his production Bran Nue Dae – Australia’s first Aboriginal musical, and again with Corrugation Road [1996]. Produced by Black Swan Theatre, both broke box office records of the day.

In 1992 Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre was created and set about defining an Aboriginal determined pathway for authentic Aboriginal theatre in Western Australia. A decade later Yirra Yaakin had been recognised as Australia’s leading Aboriginal theatre Company and produced a body of works by the new era leading WA Aboriginal artists Sally Morgan, Lynette Narkle, Geoffrey Narkle, Dallas Winmar. Ningali Lawford, Mitch Torres and David Milroy. Yirra Yaakin also initiated the development of Australia’s first National Aboriginal theatre alliance and in 2002 the BLAKSTAGEalliance was created.

In 2003 David Milroy’s play Windmill Baby made history as the first Aboriginal play to win the nationally prestigious Patrick White Award. It has subsequently also received the WA equity award [2005] for best new play.

2005 also saw the birth of the Club Savage movement an Indigenous art for Indigenous art sake expression that is presently recording its history with the creation of Jila’s Bush Meeting, the first production from Club Savage artists.

Western Australia has produced a wealth of talented Aboriginal actors who can be defined into three ‘Schools’ of induction. The ‘Jack Davis School’ launched the acting careers of artists such as Ernie Dingo, Lynette Narkle, John Moore, Kelton Pell, whilst ‘Bran Nue Dae’ produced Ningali Lawford, Stephen ‘Baamba ‘Albert and Rohanna Angus. The ‘Yirra Yaakin School’ has produced Derek Nannup, Heath Bergersen, Kyle Morrison, Melodie Reynolds, Irma Woods, Cher Williams and Kylie Farmer.

Notable Aboriginal theatre artists to come out of Western Australia also include Archie Weller, Tasma Walton, Della Morrison, Lanchoo Davy, Isaac Drandage, Dennis Simmons, Mark Bin Bakar [aka Mary G] and acclaimed lighting designer Mark Howett.


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