Coranderrk – We will show the country
by Liza Dezfouli
Where does a play come from? In the case of Coranderrk – We will show the country, a work of theatre re-enacting a hugely significant moment in Victoria’s history, its wellsprings came from research conducted by writer Giordano Nanni while working deep in the archives at Melbourne University. “My initial assumption was that everyone knew about Coranderrk,” says Nanni, who was researching his PHD thesis on the history of colonialism in Victoria when he discovered a dramatic episode of local indigenous history. “I learned about this story from studying the original documents.” Briefly, towards the end of the 1800s, vested interests were pressuring the government to dismantle a highly-functioning, thriving Aboriginal reserve near what is now Healesville. The Coranderrk community rebelled and the ensuing fight for justice, self-determination and the right to stay on their land culminated in a unique Government Enquiry into the management of the station.
“The minutes of this particular enquiry contained the voices of the indigenous inhabitants of the station,” Nanni says. “In this document they were able to express local grievances and requests for self-determination. Other enquiries didn’t collect indigenous testimonies, or if they did, it was superficial evidence.” Nanni was struck by the individuality of the voices in the minutes and how the evidence seemed already to be drama in the making. “It seemed like a fantastic piece of theatre,” he continues. “There are some extremely moving, intimate and harrowing passages; and then there are also parts that are almost perversely funny. I was experiencing all the emotions you feel from watching a play. It is almost a script in itself.”
A few years on saw Nanni, in collaboration with Yorta Yorta playwright Andrea James, and in partnership with the Minutes of Evidence project, including La Mama and ILBIJERRI Theatre, put together ‘a condensed verbatim re-enactment of the 1881 Coranderrk enquiry.’ Coranderrk – We will show the country is a meticulously considered work balancing the truth of the testimonies with the considerations of a piece of theatre. Nanni was always sure it would work as a play but obviously a great deal of editing was required. “I had confidence it would work only with the transcript, that we shouldn’t deviate from the verbatim theatre,” Nanni explains. “But the enquiry went for over two months; so the play involved a lot of selection. I was keen not to mess it up.”
Andrea James voices the challenge of bringing the story to the stage: “I was initially concerned that, because we wanted to be absolutely true to the court transcripts and the form of the commission (question and answer), there would be a lack of drive and dramatic arc. However, the joy in watching the actors taking on the challenge to inhabit several characters is highly entertaining and as an audience member, you are never quite sure who is going to come up to the witness stand next and what he or she will say to add to the drama. It was a great revelation which makes the performances utterly compelling and deeply moving.”
Nanni was determined the work should be impeccable academically and satisfy both historians and theatre-lovers alike. “It had to be theatrical, it had to be entertainment yet have enough historical weight so people couldn’t dismiss it as just another piece of theatre,” he notes. “We use the power of theatre to engage and open up people, but it has academic merit because this is what actually happened; it is based on the rigour of accurate research. Coranderrk tries to capture those two powerful elements together.”
Last year saw a performance presented to descendants of the key players, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal (including those of the station’s manager and community’s champion, John Green), on the land where Coranderrk station once stood. Nanni describes the performance on country as an emotional and historic event: “People were very keen. The descendants brought photos and the Koori Heritage Trust received phone calls; even people directly connected to the story hadn’t got the full picture.” Nanni notes a nice coincidence with this month’s production. “The enquiry was 130 years ago this year: September to December 1881. The play will be performed again at La Mama in November 2011, almost the same month.”
James, whose work Yanagai! Yanagai! about the 2001 Yorta Yorta land claim, notes the resonances and implications of the Coranderrk story with events of today. “The commission into Coranderrk occurred in 1881/2 and it was alarming to see that some 110 years or so down the track non-Aboriginal people were using the same tactics and opinions to disown us of our lands in the Yorta Yorta land claim.”
Nanni explains further: “Edwards Curr very strongly featured in the Coranderrk enquiry. He was a self-appointed ‘expert’ on aboriginal affairs, a member of the Board and one of the key people involved in breaking up the station. The things he said then provide the basis for the logic of the extinguishing of native title in 2001; he tries to justify moving people off the land by saying that people who lived here didn’t have ongoing attachment to the land. Justice Olney used Edward Curr’s words 100 years later – his words are quoted to extinguish the Yorta Yorta claim to native title.”
Collaboration between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginals has been essential to the development of Coranderrk Minutes of Evidence, a crucial part of an ongoing process which not only brings the story to modern day Melbourne, but also creates and maintains powerful partnerships like those of a century ago. “It was always very fulfilling to feel that, in some way, the fact I was collaborating with a non-Aboriginal researcher/writer reflected the positive relationship between the Coranderrk people and their champions Ann Bon and John Green,” James says. “Initially I felt it necessary to negotiate an equal status in the project so that we could collaborate on an even par and Giordano very graciously understood the need for an equal playing field, even though he initiated this project and is its driving force. What is most exciting to me is that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relationships continue to prosper in a creative project which helps us to understand and overcome the ravages of colonisation and its continuing effects.”
James has high praise for Nanni’s work on Coranderrk. “His instincts and drive have always been very strong and his desire for the story to be told has been admirable,” she notes. “He is a dogged advocate for this story and he has absorbed these transcripts wholly. It was so nourishing to work with someone who has researched the material so thoroughly and knew the intricacies of the characters and case so freakishly well. On a mere mention of a moment, he would recall the page and item number of any given moment in the transcripts. He was amazing. So my instinct for dramatic structure, coupled with Giordano’s thorough research and past theatre experience has made for a perfect creative relationship.”
Nanni is quick to emphasise the collaborative element intrinsic to Coranderrk. “A lot of people have helped make this possible. There has been Aboriginal representation at every stage of the Minutes of Evidence project. It is not based on old-fashioned consultative model; it’s more of a collaborative thing. That idea is key. And hopefully it will be a model for the future.”
Nanni feels strongly that presenting this story in theatre has greater impact, over, say, telling it in a research paper or a book. “I am interested in trying to engage people outside of academia. I want to help get this story out to the public, not only to professional academics.”
“The Coranderrk people marched more than 60 miles in delegation all the way to Spring St,” Nanni continues. “It’s different from writing a letter. The one thing that makes Coranderrk story so special and so successful is that it was so unusual to have this enquiry at such an official setting. These are the actual words of indigenous people and of white people back in 1881. This is their victory, their platform to air their grievances and aspirations for self-determination. The indigenous voices are clear in their demands. They are understanding of justice and politics. It is almost as if they are speaking to us today.”
James, herself a Yorta Yorta woman who has been working on Wurundjeri history in this project, notes how there have been people of various backgrounds involved along the way. “Both the Coranderrk mob and the Yorta Yorta had non-Aboriginal champions and friends who supported us in our struggle for justice. It is heartening to see how people such as Ann Bon and John Green were prepared to utilise their knowledge and positions of power to give the Coranderrk residents an opportunity for self determination. Great people like William Barak and Alice Grant, Uncle Wayne Atkinson and Monica Morgan continue to inspire and lead their communities towards self determination and justice. Coranderrk had residents from all parts of Victoria and there were Yorta Yorta people on this settlement, too. It’s so great to see Uncle Jack Charles read the transcripts of his Yorta Yorta ancestors.”
James sees Coranderrk as offering inspiration to those engaged in current indigenous struggles as well as being a celebration of a shared past.“ I hope that this show will give Aboriginal audiences an opportunity to hear how our people have stood up to oppression and injustice over the years and that this will inspire us to continue to speak out when needed. While some advances and concessions have been made, there is still a lot of work to be done. The production highlights the spectrum of non-Aboriginal people’s attitudes towards Aboriginal people, informed by both racism and respect/understanding. The most exciting aspect of this project is that the characters live on through living descendants, both black and white, and in that way, there are still some opportunities for redress, justice, and healing.”
“This is such an incredibly powerful story and its strength lies in its utter truth,” James continues. “It’s such an important part of Melbourne’s history and to see these characters and their passionate words brought to life once again, brings the story once again to the fore. Everyone who resides in Melbourne should have the opportunity to learn about this story.”
Coranderrk is performed by the ILBIJERRI Theatre Company with guest actors including Uncle Jack Charles and La Mama’s Liz Jones. “It is brought to life by people who should be doing this,” concludes Nanni. Coranderrk is proudly supported by the Minutes of Evidence project, an Australian research Council project which includes ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, La Mama, Vic Health, Department of Education, The University of Melbourne, Arts Victoria and the Koori Heritage Trust. Direction of this production is by Isaac Drandic.
Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country has recently been published by Aboriginal Studies Press. – www.readings.com.au/products/17493859/coranderrk-we-will-show-the-country
A new development of the play, CORANDERRK, will premiere at Belvoir St. Theatre in December 2013 (Upstairs Theatre: 7 December 2013 – 3 January 2014 – belvoir.com.au/productions/coranderrk/
Cast: Kate Beckett, Jack Charles, Mathew Cooper, Kelton Pell, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, Bjorn Stewart. Team: by Andrea James & Giordano Nanni Concept Giordano Nanni Director Isaac Drandic Set & Costume Designers Ruby Langton-Batty & Ralph Myers Lighting Designer Damien Cooper Composer & Sound Designer Ben Grant Audio Visual Designer Peter Worland Stage Manager Chantelle Foster Assistant Stage Manager Grace Nye-Butler.