The 7 Stages of Grieving
QTC and Grin & Tonic
Bille Brown Studio
March 17 – 31 2015
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Time is linear and irreversible.
Everything has its time…
Indigenous history has been a long and complicated grieving process since colonisation.
The 7 Phases of Aboriginal History – The 5 Stages of Dying
We cry together, we laugh together, and we tell our stories.
The Grin & Tonic Theatre Troupe has forged a brilliant relationship with our state theatre company, and testament to their determination to jointly bring Australian Indigenous stories to the stage; this production is a fine one. The 7 Stages of Grieving, penned by Deborah Mailman and QTC’s Artistic Director, Wesley Enoch, enjoys its 20th year in 2015. This strictly limited (very nearly sold out) GreenHouse season is followed by a tour, which takes the show on the road and into schools. I’m looking forward to seeing it again, at Matthew Flinders Anglican College. It will be interesting to hear from the students, who’ll be viewing it through Brecht coloured glasses, and who obviously didn’t see the original Kooemba Jdarra productions, directed by Enoch and starring Mailman, in 1994 (a 25-minute version for the Shock of the New festival at La Boite) and in 1995 (at Metro Arts as part of Warana, which became Brisbane Festival). The show then toured nationally and internationally.
I remember Mailman’s sweet, deep-seated sadness, and her wicked humour, cutting unforgivingly through deceptively simple episodic storytelling. History’s a sinister thing, isn’t it? Those who tell it create it, and we can be grateful that this play gives voice to some of the lesser-told stories. Or perhaps I should say, lesser heard. I’ll compare productions only so far as to say that it was simpler then – low-tech – and also, Mailman’s power on stage was already astonishing. We experienced her expansiveness, as if her spirit filled not only the intimate Metro Arts space, but also the entire universe. Experiencing Mailman’s performance in this show was like reaching that state of meditation that allows you to see without seeing, and understand more than you feel you’ve ever been allowed to know.
The only thing black at a funeral should be the colour of your skin.
Chenoa Deemal (Mother Courage and Her Children) is the Aboriginal Everywoman who brings a fresh, light approach to the storytelling; it’s a completely new take, as it should be. She studied acting at ACPA and QUT, but comes from the Thitharr Warra tribe in Hopevale, north of Cooktown in the Cape York Peninsula. The language we hear is Deemal’s language and the traditional elements of this production are her people’s traditions.
Deemal takes centre stage after emerging from the darkness to pour concentric circles of rainbow coloured sand, its phosphorescence glowing eerily, discomfortingly, around a mound of red earth (the land, the source, the spirit, the core of everything) and a suitcase containing the photos of family members who have died. It’s poignant, it’s ritualistic, and the irony and deep sorrow is never lost, only veiled in more comical moments throughout the show. Deemal’s casual comedy shines in Nana’s Story (no matter what you were having for dinner there was always rice), and in Murri Gets a Dress, delivered in stand up comedy style, complete with a hand held microphone. Audience members on opening night shriek with laughter.
Have you ever been black? You know when you wake up one morning and you’re black? …”Hey, nice hair, beautiful black skin, white shiny teeth … I’m BLACK!
… I go to bed thinking, “Tomorrow will be a better day”, snuggling up to my doona and pillow. Morning comes; I wake up, I go to the bathroom. I look in the mirror. Hey, nice hair, beautiful black skin, white shiny teeth. I’M STILL BLACK! AND DEADLY!
Not 20 minutes in something gets me, though I can’t for the life of me recall what it is that sparks the tears, which I blink back, not wanting to miss the next chapter in this stark, raw look at our First People’s mourning traditions and daily struggles. Despite some business as usual moments, which could just as easily be perceived as inspired acting/directing choices, Deemal offers a natural, vulnerable, very real performance. There is grief and there is joy, which wells up and spills over into fierce pride and exultation during a vivid retelling of Sorry Day celebrations.
Oi. Hey, you! Don’t you be waving back at me! Yeh, you with that hat! You can’t park here, eh! You’re taking up the whole bloody harbour! Just get in your boat and go. Go on, get! Bloody boat people.
Director (and Artistic Director of Grin & Tonic), Jason Klarwein, has manipulated mood and meaning beautifully, assembling a terrific creative team to bring this 20-year old show up to date in bold cinematic style. Jessica Ross (Designer), Daniel Anderson (Lighting Designer) and Justin Harrison (Sound & Projection Designer) have created a galaxy of stars and souls and memories and words and hopes and dreams, and a sense of place that is both new and ancient. With its updated political references, and a new ending to raise the stakes, The 7 Stages of Grieving strikes me as The Mountaintop of Australian plays, asking us to consider what really matters, and challenging us to make the changes we want to see in our world.
They’ve written sorry …
… They’ve written sorry across the sky.
Are you walking across bridges yet? The baton passes on …