By Pamela Nathan
Anne Kantor and I went to see Hipbone Sticking Out – MURRU at the Playhouse last night. It was confronting. It was powerful. It was outstanding. It was gut wrenching. The house gave a standing ovation. The audience was crying. On stage, the most gut wrenching of all, a young Aboriginal man was crying for the last ten minutes of the performance. His tears came as John Pat lay on a slab dying in a police cell as young John cried for his mother and old John (Trevor Jamieson) screamed in primal agony for help. His crying was clearly not scripted.
Congratulations to Scott Rankin and the Aboriginal community of Roebourne in the Pilbara region who told the story of 16 year old Aboriginal John Pat, who died in custody. And to Woodside for funding the Big hArts’s Yijala Yala Project. His death triggered the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. John Pat’s mother was introduced – a piercing introduction – near the end of the play. She sat in the audience and when introduced began to cry. She sat through the performance and presumably every other performance. The MURRU album records his mother saying:
“ My son has never left me. I remember him every day. There forever remains a hole in my heart. I had hoped much would change with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody but sadly it appears not much has changed.”
As I write this I listen to the MURRU CD. Throughout the performance was the rhythmic beating of boomerangs and indigenous songs chorused against dramatic and changing backdrops of Aboriginal art of the Burrup Peninsula.
The performance was hard hitting. It is one thing to read about our Australian history in our history books and it is another to hear it from the voices of the people who have suffered and who live the history in the living presence and in the knowledge of the suffering of their forbears. Whitefellahs were mercilessly parodied with their artifice and whims. I happened to be wearing huge White Sea pearls, having not changed from my work clothes, and the performance satirised the Whitefellahs and their pearls. At intermission I debated: “Will I take them off”? I decided “No, after all I am a Whitefellah!” This performance not only satirised the Whitefellah, it reversed perspectives in the telling of the violent colonial invasion, of massacres, rapes, leg irons and neck chains and the brutal death in custody. The story was told with humour, anger, pathos and generosity. There was an implicit plea for recognition of racial trauma and cultural rupture and survival. The audience was told that the deaths in custody and the high imprisonment rates today is: “ Your story” not “Our Story”.
A question was asked of the audience near the end of the performance:
We can live in your world but can you live in ours? Our world… of grief, loss and deaths…” and I add resilience, continuity, humour, generosity and fortitude.
Many tears made rivers of grief last night. Feelings of togetherness were palpable and the experiential imaginings of walking in my shoes, down the track, may well be engraved in the rock art hearts of all of us. May we all honour the memory of John Pat and of all who remain incarcerated today.