Photo: Bindi Cole
The NAC studio will never be the same again and it is clear that the sensitive and strong handed guidance of director Rachael Maza has been central to our encounter with Uncle Jack Charles. Tramping on stage followed by his three musicians, Nigel Maclean, Phil Collings and Malcolm Beveridge, Uncle (Elder) Jack Charles moves into Emily Barrie’s multiply focussed set, sits down at a potter’s wheel , plunges his hands into the drippy muddy clay as the wheel spins, getting deep into that substance from which his ancestors came and from the land where his history emerges and brings people closer to their origins. An art form he began while he was in prison and which obviously liberated his artistic spirit.
At the beginning then, Jack Charles did not say a word. He just concentrated on his wheel before speaking of his own experience as an aboriginal activist, musician, actor, singer, poet, legendary drug addict, thief and finally as the personal voice of a lawyer, performing his own defense case against the “crown”. This whole theatrical event is in fact a legal “case” constructed in progressive steps, co-written by Jack Charles himself along with John Romeril, in a way that marks us intellectually and emotionally as this lived experience fuses into an overwhelming stage experience.
The set has the three musicians playing downstage left; a huge screen hangs upstage centre , shelves, teapots , a mass of clay pots, archives, an armchair are on the right; an intimate withdrawal space on the right lies just behind the main flat, lit in a warm orange. Partly jail cell, partly potter’s workshop, partly comfy home corner living room where Jack sips tea, partly courtroom, the acting area is filled with intimate clutter that creates a warm homey feel but that opens the space for a formally sophisticated multi-media show where film, painting, live music, video clips, photos, projections of historical texts from Aboriginal archives, form the background against which Jack Charles and his musicians tell a personal and collective history of aboriginal people in Australia. And it is all performed “clean without any giggle-juice or drugs” he assures us, as he begins speaking right after the first images of Elder Jack shooting up in prison, accompanied by a whaling electric violin that projected us into a steamy drug induced cloud. All this set the stage for his present life style as an actor/writer working with the Aboriginal Ilbijerri Theatre Company in Melbourne.
This goes way beyond political theatre. It is story telling of a particular sort where the narrator incarnates the narrative in the deepest sense as his voice echoes from the depths of past experience and a transgressive sense of irony imposes a creative distance between the story teller and his disturbing material, as if his narrative voice were speaking from another order of reality, looking down on this worldly chaos and trying to make sense of it all.
His case is constructed in several movements. First we see photos of his early life where he lived with a white family and then was sent to the Boxhill Boys School where he appeared to be very happy. There is Jack, one little dark face in a sea of white faces, an atmosphere where he felt white but his sense of identity would soon be shattered when he left and was placed in different residential schools, subjected to the church standards of morality and education and then sent out into the world where he tells us of serious abuse, and monstrous treatment of all kinds that lead to his life as a thief, and ultimate imprisonment as a criminal of the state. .
One of the most revealing moments was the way the performance orchestrated the courtroom hearing where Jack Charles, finally standing behind a lectern facing the audience as though we were the jury, takes on his own defense in his case versus the Crown. His epic monologue is essentially inspired by photos of his grandparents and an attack on the document that produced the founding traumatic decision that sent his people into an ongoing state of psychosis as he put it. We even saw a photocopy of a portion of the original written document signed by Justice William Burton who in 1836, completely turned the Aboriginal world on its head , according to Jack Charles. Burton wrote that “aboriginal natives had not attained a position in point of numbers and civilisation as to be […] governed by laws of their own” (see below) whereas up to that point, aboriginal justice was given the right to decide its own cases of law. Thus, as of 1836, even though these people were not British citizens they were to be subjected to British laws, especially in matters of property ownership and criminal law. Jack Charles exposes a serious critique of this situation based on personal experience but which echoes the texts published in Australian law journals that everyone can now read on line: “Australia remains uniquely mired in the mythologies it embraced in the 1830’s and this is its fundamental divergence from Canada and the United States and New Zealand […]that marks it out as a settler policy uniquely oppressive of Indigenous rights. […] Clinging to this flawed understanding of its history, Australia stands aloof. Australian policy and legal precedent are all predicated on the mistaken assumption that Indigenous people in Australia do not have and never have had any recognized rights to self-governance. […] Australia needs to come to terms with the uncomfortable plurality of its origins”. http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AUIndigLawRw/2008/16.pdf (Page 75, consulted on January 16, 2016)
The final moments of the evening were extremely moving as that little volcano of energy with the wild white hair calls out to us in the theatre, telling us about the consequences of that law on his life.
He is no longer in prison, he is no longer taking drugs, he wants to work, create theatre and get on with this life but much of this activity is difficult because of his criminal record which clings to him. He tells us that Aboriginal justice would allow him to serve his sentence and then “come home to the tribe” and that would be that. However, White justice has expelled him from the tribe and he can no longer function in this society. It has condemned him for life and he shows us his prison number inscribed on a table/ tombstone, suggesting numbers tattooed on the arms of former inmates of concentration camps, traces that can never be forgotten.
Except that in the case of Jack Charles there has been no “truth and reconciliation” between Australia and the Aboriginal people. And he holds up his future “tombstone” showing the number 3944: that is his name by which white justice has classified him until he dies. The image is powerful and we realize that what has just happened is not a theatre performance but a lived experience which we, as Canadians, have perhaps suspected but now we will never forget.
One can only feel respect for these artists and for the mission that this theatre company and other Indigenous theatre companies in the country have undertaken to piece together their own past and make their history known.
Jack Charles versus the Crown.
Directed by Rachael Maza,
Co-written by Jack Charles, John Romeril
Performed by Uncle Jack Charles as himself.
A production of the Ilbijerri Theatre Company, Melbourne Australia
Set and costumes: Emily Barrie
Lighting: Danny Pettingill
Audio visual design: Peter Worland.
Nigel Maclean Guitar and violin
Phil Collings Percussion
Malcolm Beveridge Bass