Life on a tropical island is not always palm trees, mangoes and pretty-coloured fish in the shallows. And on Palm Island, the reverse is equally true: there’s more to life on Palm than the dysfunctional picture painted by the media, after the tragedy of the island’s 2004 death in custody and subsequent violent reactions. ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, version 1.0 and Belvoir joined forces with the Palm Island community to tell a more complex story. According to Devisor/Performer Rachael Maza, all the collaborators were driven by the same burning question: how could what happened on Palm Island have happened, in this country that we think of as “civilised”?
Rachael Maza has a personal connection to Palm Island – her grandparents were sent there from the mainland, and her father was born there. “Palm was basically like a penal settlement for blackfellas,” she says. “You didn’t have to be a criminal, you just had to be black.”
Despite her family connections, Maza had never been to Palm before starting work on Beautiful One Day. She admits feeling trepidation before arriving on the island.
“I was so shocked that what I experienced was the complete opposite [of the media’s portrayal]. It was an incredibly beautiful community, incredibly friendly. You know that experience in little country towns where everyone waves and smiles, graciously points you in the right direction? It was really embarrassing [to have anticipated otherwise]. It was, shockingly, a really beautiful experience.”
At the same time, Maza and her co-collaborators – including the three Palm Islanders who perform in the work – weren’t about to replace one stereotype with another. Everyone at the table knew the story was complex. “There were lots of different agendas in the room”, says Maza, “all bringing different perspectives and life experiences”.
“It seemed like we were a microcosm – it’s a slight exaggeration, we didn’t have any John Howards in the room – but there was a broad spectrum of voices saying ‘What would it be like to have a really hard, honest conversation with ourselves as Australia?’”
All were acutely aware how Aboriginal communities “get brushed with the same broad stroke”. Everyone was keen, says Maza, “to show the complexity, the humanity, the normalness of our communities, our people – to somehow start to break down that chasm between ‘us’ and ‘them’”.
To talk about what happened on Palm Island in 2004, Beautiful One Day needed to also talk about history. “We live with our history all the time,” says Maza, “but nowhere near as present as I experienced it with Palm Islanders.”
Maza recounts the stories she heard frequently on the island – of 1930s Superintendent Curry – ‘Mad Curry’ – who one night killed his adult children, bombed his own house and set out to kill other white staff, until an Aboriginal man ended the rampage by shooting him dead. Of Aboriginal people “living under the Act” – subject to extreme, oppressive conditions, with no law to genuinely protect them. Of Aboriginal people – not convicts, just ordinary people – forced to work six days a week and locked up for a fortnight if they were late for work. Of her own grandmother, rumoured to have been imprisoned and to have had her head shaved for refusing to gratify the desires of the superintendent – who Maza calculates must have been that same ‘Mad Curry’.
What was most telling about these stories, Maza says, was how everybody on Palm had them, told them, knew where and how they or their family members fitted into them. The stories go back almost 100 years now; but Maza says they felt as alive on the island as if they’d happened yesterday. Yet of course, such histories are the polar opposite of the quick media grabs used to characterise Palm Island – or, Maza says, any of the other Aboriginal communities around the country with similar histories and stories.
“We could certainly go off on a conversation about the three-minute grab,” says Maza, “and now it’s getting even shorter – 30 seconds or three seconds or Twitter, Instagram. How small can you encapsulate an argument? It’s just getting ridiculous…”
The craft of theatre, says Maza, is to somehow balance all the elements of the story – and in the case of Palm Island, the story including the harshness as well as the beauty.
“One of the key agendas was to really debunk the stereotype and the myths; another was to ask some really big questions… What is it about this blind spot, or this shoulder-shrugging that we do as a nation, that allows certain total injustices to happen, right under our noses? And somehow there’s something in our brain that OKs it…”
“The history is incredibly poignant, and the thing it continually demonstrates is that blackfellas have – there’ve been moments of resistance and standing up, and then they get oppressed and squashed and silent. And then you don’t hear anything for a while and then it happens again.”
“There’s never been a place of resolution or reconciliation – we’ve never had any sense of agreement on the manner in which this country was founded, on the status of Aboriginal people in this country… There’s a lot more discussion to be had before any of this is ever going to have a sense of resolution.”
Beautiful One Day is the result of vigorous talk, long walks on the island, confronting questions, moments of joy and anger and sadness; and most of all, the evolving relationship of a committed group of people, sharing their experiences and their skills. Maza sees this second season of the show as a chance to deepen both the work itself and the relationship between the collaborating companies and the Palm Island community. “Every time you hit the floor again you get to take it a step further,” she says.
“We’re coming at it with fresh eyes again…we’ve sat down and had quite a major rewrite – it’s developed quite a lot from the last production. I’m seriously excited, like you wouldn’t believe.”
Beautiful One Day
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Tue 26 Nov – Sun 1 Dec 2013