May 2017 marks 50 years since the 1967 Referendum, when the Australian voting public elected to amend the constitution to allow for Aboriginal people to be counted in the census. Twenty years later the Australian Government appointed a Royal Commission to study and report on Aboriginal deaths in custody. Three decades on and the question is raised – how far have we come as a nation with respect to the treatment of Indigenous peoples?
Yirra Yaakin asks this question with their production of Richard Frankland MA’s powerful play Conversations With The Dead, showing at the Subiaco Arts Centre this month. As well as being a writer, singer and filmmaker, Gunditjmara man Frankland worked as a Field Officer during the Royal Commission. His play draws on this experience. At the heart of the work is Jack, a young and ambitious Koori whose role is to consider the process, policy and attitudes that have led to Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Claire sat down with WAAPA graduate Alan Little, who plays Jack in Conversations With The Dead, to talk about the show.
Why is this such an important piece of theatre?
This play tells a story of one man’s journey through trials and errors when dealing with Aboriginal deaths in custody. Our connection with family and land speaks throughout the play and shows how important it is.
Being Aboriginal myself, I feel strongly about telling this story in the hope that it will offer a closer understanding into the ways of Aboriginals when dealing with death and grief. Deaths in custody still happen today and now we have the opportunity to have a voice and share these stories with those who might not know or don’t understand.
What does putting this play on mean to you personally?
I have a big family and I have had a few relatives in and out of jail. They haven’t been given a chance in life like many others have had. I also have relatives that work within the prisons themselves and hearing true stories of how things really are gives me strength to do justice to this piece of theatre, for all those with us now and in spirit.
I learned about deaths in custody during my journey into acting and it is a common recurrence. So if I can have a chance to make something that sends a message to all, maybe we can finally put a stop to the brutality that happens within the system. It is the sad truth about the play, but again I say these people have not been given the opportunities you have. Its takes a very strong willed person to break a habit and takes an even greater person to make something of themselves in the process.
Tell us about the character of Jack:
Jack starts off as a family man, a hard worker and a friend to many. He makes the bold choice of working with the Royal Commission to help investigate deaths in custody. He is very connected with his people and feels he can make a change by helping as no other Aboriginal person would be up for the job.
Dealing with the dead and digging up their past is very taboo, so for him to go through with this, he has given as much as he has lost in the process. Once he starts, he finds that he is alone on this journey, with nobody to mentor him or help him, he begins to talk to the spirits themselves for company and guidance.
He finds many coping mechanisms to deal with it, through poetry, song, dance, alcoholism and the spirits themselves. A never ending battle of finding acceptance in all aspects of his life.
I feel that he doesn’t want help, he only wants for someone to understand him.
What was it like working with Yirra Yaakin on your first professional show?
Getting the opportunity to work with Yirra Yaakin has been life changing. This is my very first professional theatre gig and I have learnt so much already. The whole company has been more than amazing! The staff have been working endlessly for this show to be great and with so much passion for a piece of theatre makes this experience one to remember forever. We all have had our share of laughs and tears and I am confident that we will put on a performance not to be missed.
Hopefully, I will be able to work with Yirra Yaakin again in the near future. Alan
Conversations With The Dead shows at the Subiaco Arts Centre from 18-27 May 2017. Head here for tickets.
Images: Alan Little in rehearsals for Conversations With The Dead, courtesy Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company.