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Black Cockatoo

"entertaining and informative"

Audrey review: Geoffrey Atherden's story of the first Aboriginal cricket team to tour England conjures bridges to Australia’s troubling colonial history.

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Black Cockatoo

Date: 10 Jan 2020

What an extraordinary chapter in Australia’s history.

In 1868 a team of Aboriginal cricketers from the Western Districts of Victoria arguably made up what was the first Australian international sports team. They would also be the first to challenge the English – the originators of cricket – on their home soil. Black Cockatoo is their story.

The action of Black Cockatoo opens in the present, however, with a flurry of muted panic.

A group of activists storms the Wimmera Discovery Centre, and battens down the hatches in readiness for the inevitable police response. They want recognition of what really occurred during Australia’s colonial past. They want the truth.

While holed up, they discover historical documents and artefacts which launch them (and us) into the story of Johnny Mullagh, the leader of that 1868 Aboriginal cricket team. We see Mullagh and his mates exploited by their white team manager. We see them paraded as exotic curios for the British public. Despite this, the players demonstrate incredible grace under fire, winning 14, losing 14 and drawing 19 of the team’s 47 matches.

Early in the proceedings, the charismatic Luke Carroll, as ‘Curator’, entrusts to the audience a series of real artefacts from that 1868 tour. The baggy cricketer’s cap, for example, has new material on the outside, and also the inside, and the badge has been replaced at the front, but Carroll assures us with a wink that it is essentially the same hat.

But of course, it’s more than a hat. It’s also a device to entice the audience to engage deeply with the living nature of history. I was reminded of that quote of Faulkner’s which has captured the attention of so many historical fiction writers: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Conjuring yet more bridges to Australia’s history, after the opening night curtain, playwright Geoffrey Atherden introduced descendants of that 1868 team present in the audience: cue thunderous applause.

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Atherden is best known for the award-winning ABC TV show Mother and Son, and Grass Roots. He’s also an accomplished writer for stage. In his program message he writes that the historical events depicted are “an important part of the shared history between black and white Australia” and that the play is designed to question “which truth we choose to tell and why we make that choice.”

The story of Black Cockatoo’s composition is as fascinating as the play. The research journey took Atherden all over Australia, and to archives and sports grounds in England, too.

He also worked closely with Cultural Consultant Uncle Richard Kennedy, a Wotjobaluk traditional owner and great-great grandson of First XI team member Yangendyinanyuk. We hear the Wergaia language spoken throughout the play.

“Indigenous language provides a powerful connection to culture and knowledge,” observes Kennedy in the program. “Everything is connected through language; it represents life.”

Director Wesley Enoch’s all Indigenous cast is excellent. Chenoa Deemal exquisitely captures the effervescent and perhaps naive optimism of Marxist-Darwinist Lady Bardwell. Dubs Yunupingu is very funny as the millennial activist Kimberly.

Joseph Althouse pleases the crowd with his long-suffering and jaded English butler. Aaron McGrath captures the subtlety and stoicism of Mullagh. Colin Smith transforms nimbly from oppressor to oppressed.

The pace falls away a little in the second half of the piece, as the objectives of the characters become more complex, but Black Cockatoo is a production that commendably and sensitively asks difficult questions, while remaining entertaining and informative.

The power of the artefacts and the charm of the actors contribute to a rewarding night in the theatre.

Black Cockatoo also plays Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, February 18-22

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