Palm Island, 2004 – Cameron Doomadge (tribal name: Mulrunji), an Aboriginal man, dies in police custody. Frustrated by the state response, members of the Palm Island community make a direct challenge to police power. The station is burned down. Eight years later, the people of Palm Island continue to demand real justice, and all the while life continues.
In 2011, three theatre companies (ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, Belvoir and version 1.0) came together over a shared sense of outrage at the injustices surrounding the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee. But, prompted by the Palm Island community, Beautiful One Day looks for a way to turn outrage into real understanding and new possibilities.
Representing the real voices of the community in this stirring work, Beautiful One Day features Palm Island residents Magdalena Blackley, Kylie Doomadgee (Mulrunji Doomadgee’s niece) and Harry Reuben – as well as Rachael Maza (The Sapphires and ILBIJERRI Theatre Company Artistic Director), who has a family connection to the island.
Through a determined struggle to understand the persistent heavy-handedness of white Australia, Beautiful One Day charts the course of repression, racism and the astonishing resilience of the people who call Palm Island home.
We spoke to Rachael Maza, the Artistic Director of ILBIJERRI and director of Beautiful One Day.
A theatrical documentary is something that is quite fascinating – why didn’t the people involved opt to create a theatrical documentary rather than a film documentary or a theatre piece alone?
Right from the onset, the three companies involved in the making of this production, ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, Belvoir and version 1.0 were all passionate about “the truth” and how do we get out of the way of the experience between the truth and the audience? Drawing on our theatrical expertise, we were determined to present the facts and let the audience make up their own mind.
I first met with version 1.0 in 2011 and saw similarities in the works they were creating and the work we were creating. They are known for their documentary style theatre and their use of verbatim in presenting the written word, such as transcripts and official documents. We at ILBIJERRI were also working with the verbatim as based on aural history. At the time I was working on Jack Charles V Crown and Foley. Each production utilised a combination of both official court documents and community stories to develop the piece.
Beautiful One Day was never going to be anything other than ‘theatrical documentary style’ as it was a perfect fit.
How closely does the piece follow the 2004 incident?
One key element to the telling of this event in Beautiful One Day is that it is the first account of the incident from the perspective of the Palm Islanders themselves. This is both empowering for the community whose voice has been too long ignored, and empowering for the rest of Australians who now have access to a more balanced ‘truth’. Now, eight years on, we can make up our own minds about what and how these events happened.
What other events that take place on Palm Island are looked at by this work?
We soon realised that before we were going to be able to talk about the incidences of 2004, we had to put it in the context of the history of Palm Island. One soon discovers that this is one of many similar events over Palm’s long history. The Island was essentially established as a dumping ground for the removal of all Blackfellas from the mainland, and then a penal colony for anyone who spoke up.
Beautiful One Day draws on the full context of the island’s history ranging from 1897 to 2010. The events of 2004 were not random. They were a product of a century’s worth of systemic oppression. The protests were a response to not just Mulrunji’s death but to the heavy-handedness of policy that has marked the Island’s history. The history of Palm is widely unknown, and the events of 2004 make no sense without knowing the history. These are, of course, represented in a theatrical style.
We also draw on many different documentary materials and interviews with Palm Islander people so the historical accuracy is a very important component in the piece.
The event is quite bleak, but this work is “honest, joyful and poignant”. How did you achieve this?
Palm Islanders are generous, determined, practical, fierce and spirited. With all of these qualities in tow, we created a piece that was honest, joyful and poignant while still asking the hard questions.
How do you think the Australian landscape has changed from 2004 in regards to indigenous issues?
This was the exact reason that prompted the making of this show. Very little has changed in the country at large, and it won’t change unless we are prepared as a Nation to face some hard truths, and have the big conversations “together”.
Can you tell me a little more about the cast of Beautiful One Day? How did the casting process work?
Each of the three companies (ILBIJERRI, Belvoir & version 1.0) utilised their existing artists to join as co-devisors. Paul Dwyer and myself first went to Palm in mid 2011. After a couple of visits it became evident that Palm Islanders: Aunty Maggie Blackley should come on board as ‘Cultural Consultant’ and Performer, soon followed by Performers Kylie Doomadgee and Harry Reuben. All three came very highly recommended by everyone we spoke to so it was a no brainer! All three are strong leaders (Aunty Maggie) or strong leaders to be (Harry and Kylie) and naturally talented!
There is a post-show Q&A on the 28th as well as a forum on the 1st December. What do you hope people will get from these?
With the Q&A we are hoping to allow audiences to ask questions directly relating to the show and gain insight into the creative process of making documentary style theatre.
The forum is to allow audiences to discuss the broader issues relating to Indigenous peoples, politics and how they relate to artistic practice.
They’re both aimed at giving people a rare chance to ask questions, challenge, engage and connect with a range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, creatives and academics.
RN AWAYE! presenter Daniel Browning will host the post-show Q&A (Thursday, 28 November 2013) and join the forum panel with Larissa Behrendt (Professor of Indigenous Research,University of Technology, Sydney), Paul Dwyer, Rachael Maza and Genevieve Grieves (Lead Curator, ‘First Peoples’ exhibition, Museum Victoria) which is hosted by Tony Birch (Sunday, 1 December 2013).