Out of darkness, light blooms on country.
It’s beautiful, ancient. A gentle sloping dune rises like an encircling arm around an ashy firepit and the horizon is streaked with the gradient of approaching dusk. This is the camp site to which Auntie Neecy has summoned them.
The mob barrels in, a gust of unruly, cacophonic life.
Bickering and joking, they’re getting on each other’s nerves and making each other laugh. Even the scowling teenaged Chantelle can’t always resist.
Sapphire Blue is poured into mugs in the same moment a generations-old cooking pot is proudly produced. Chantelle (Dubs Yunupingu) poses for a selfie and sneaks a text to her boyfriend. Carol (Tasma Walton) shrieks when she finds her frilly pink pillow grubbed up with dirt.
The land may be sacred, but that doesn’t mean tranquillity is forthcoming. For Neecy (Roxanne McDonald), the ancestors are silent. While the others grumble, she seems to be the only one listening.
Then, just as the women have almost settled in, along comes a sixth camper.
Alabaster-skinned, with an iPhone X in her back-pocket and a recent New York residency flush on her cheeks, Jadah (Tuuli Narkle) seems like an interloper, primed for awkward intercultural exchange.
She has brought a camera, too; that expensive, alien-looking, profiteering device that snatches moments of time. The rest don’t know it, but this is all Neecy’s idea. She invited Jadah to record their stay.
But not everyone’s happy – especially when they see images of Jadah’s upcoming exhibition.
Neecy has a few other secrets tucked up her sleeve, too.
One of them is hiding inside a cardboard box. She’s so protective of whatever’s inside this mysterious crate, she cuddles it in her sleep. This secret is a shared one, however.
She’s in cahoots with Carol, an office worker at a museum who’s known for rubbing her superiors the wrong way when it comes to speaking up about cultural protocol around artefacts. Hints are made she’ll lose her job.
Written by Yorta Yorta/Kurnai artist Andrea James, Winyanboga Yurringa is a warm-hearted, rambunctious and resonant testimony to the indomitable resilience of Australian Indigenous women and to their diversity.
Romanticised and racist myths about cultural and racial authenticity are jabbed hard with Neecy’s pointed warrior stick. Indigeneity doesn’t look, talk and walk a certain way, we’re told – yet these arbitrary, hard-line criteria are often used to exclude individuals from their right to identity and belonging.
Busted too is the specious notion that Indigenous people all share the one lifestyle, or the same beliefs. There’s plenty of disagreement, difference and discord here – especially between sisters Wanda (Angeline Penrith) and Margie (Dalara Williams). But there’s plenty of love, too.
Inspired by the Yorta Yorta people and country and performed on Gadigal land, Winyanboga Yurringa premiered in a Moogahlin Performing Arts Inc production in 2016.
Directed by Anthea Williams this time, James’ play began its journey to the stage with Women of the Sun, an SBS documentary series by Hyllus Maris and Sonia Borg originally broadcast in 1981.
While the award-winning series focused on individual voices, James knew that her play “had to be represented through various characters” to “celebrate and critique their multifaceted worldviews.”
She spoke with women across the Yorta Yorta nation and this play is drawn from their stories.
The Winyanboga Yurringa of the play – which translates to Women of the Sun in James’ language – are sprung to life by an all-female cast who capture the “warrior-like grace” James’ encountered.
Their characters’ stories interweave and form knots – revealing patterns of abuse, exploitation and violence – but their strength and spirit is undiminished. We see this as they share knowledge and memories of elders past; as they sing traditional songs; as they struggle with their colonialism-born demons; as they break out into a teasing chorus of Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman by the fire.
Isabel Hudson’s set is quietly spectacular. Built of gentle concentric lines, sand, fire and earth, with a painted skyline that appeared to glow in the dim, it emanates a timeless, wondrous calm.
Utterly dependent upon this is Verity Hampson’s lighting, which plays the hues of the light and land, and the rich, textured soundscape and songs composed and arranged by Steve Francis and Brendon Boney.
‘Because of her, we can’ was the theme of last year’s NAIDOC week. Here, the message carries through.