The opening night of The 7 Stages of Grieving took place one day before National Sorry Day.
Also referred to as the National Day of Healing, this annual day of remembrance for the unatonable, extraordinary and vastly under-documented harm committed against this land’s sovereign owners became a calendar marker in 1988.
This play, written just seven years later by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, also had the hope for healing in its powerful, anguished, and thunderously beating heart.
But this time round, at the Sydney Theatre Company and almost 30 years after its premiere, they’ve added a coda of sorts. It doesn’t close, as it has in previous productions, in the biggest, ‘up yours’ vengeance a coloniser of old (or a bigot still living) could snarl at – a joyous explosion of in-your-face, unshackled and animated pride from a phenomenal black woman.
This time, Elaine Crombie, the tremendous and deadly-as performer of this soul-shaking hour of contemporary theatre, ends with a different message, a loaded one which speaks to the reprehensible stasis of history when it comes to change.
As she says, looking to us directly as witness-bearers, and as the words daub large the screen behind her: sorry means you won’t do it again.
This nation has, of course, done it again. Every day, in new ways, old ways, insidious ways, in ways that go without consequence. It ripples, the grief, it rips apart families and communities doing everything they can to stay together despite it all. This ongoing gut ache of uncompensated, unacknowledged genocide and theft is captured in an unforgettable hour of theatre – blending storytelling and performance, song and dance, darkly satirical stand-up and activism, joy and sorrow, upon a stage littered with ash and artefact, cleansed with eucalyptus smoke.
She sits on these scattered heaps, the Woman of this play, and tells in frank words – laced with sometimes mischievous, sometimes cocky, sometimes riotously subversive humour – how it is.
Of the old woman who went to every funeral of a blackfella she read about in the paper’s death notices because she never knew her family, and maybe they were kin.
Of the young nephew whose single act of contempt for the law spiralled his young life downwards into shame, and the smug racist readings of the cumulative results of that shame.
Of the lifeless body of Indigenous man Lloyd Boney seized by police, whose death in 1987 was one of a series that sparked the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Of the suitcase where the dead go.
The seven stages of grief of an ancient nation whose dignity, community, land, rights, recognition and respect have been violated for centuries, aren’t too similar to those lifted from a psychology textbook. At one point, Crombie’s character voices the deeply held worry that her grief has become so everyday, it’s almost inaccessible. Against words like DREAMING, INVASION, GENOCIDE, ASSIMILATION that flash large on the screen behind her, there is the refrain, “NOTHING. I FEEL NOTHING”.
It was when Crombie recreated, in abridged abstract form, the loss of culture through language and expression, that I started crying. And for all the huge, restorative waves of joy that made bearable the bedrock of pain, my sleeves were well and truly drenched by the end. Not that snot on a white woman’s sleeve is any kind of flag to wave. Feel all you want, this play says, but your feelings are just gross hypocrisy without action.
Crombie’s presence on that stage, solitary and vulnerable and indomitable, performing the non-fictitious, performing the truth behind the lie at our nation’s foundation and continuance, puts the audience in a place that is nakedly accountable and unable to look away.
On opening night, and no doubt on all nights to follow, the love in the room for Crombie was palpable, and sometimes even voluble (“We love you Elaine!” someone yelled out when, just for a second, she stumbled).
Shari Sebbens, the STC’s hugely talented resident creative director, is behind this play and her disdain for ornate flourish, pretentiousness or artifice is what gives this play its power and searing political thrust. At the close, the audience is actually encouraged to take out their phones to snap a picture of the screen displaying seven action items for healing – from campaigning to raise the age, to following IndigenousX on Twitter, to donating to Black Rainbow.
Reopening just a few months back, the Sydney Theatre Company’s home at The Wharf has had a sweeping, years-long renovation, but that long, seemingly eternal narrow corridor that shoulders the waters of the bay remains. The stories told in the space we had left reverberates in this long neck. And, once the night rises up at the exit, continue – in sobs, in screams, in tales listened to and passed on, in jokes, in song.