‘I’m relishing the opportunity to bring a current First Nations perspective to an historical series of events that would otherwise lurk untold or deeply archived,’ Andrea James says of her new work, The Black Woman of Gippsland, a 2020 NEXT STAGE commission. She tells us a bit more about her year, the play and her gratitude for the commission.
It’s been a rollercoaster year: you began it as a NEXT STAGE writer in residence with a play programmed in MTC’s mainstage season. Now you’ve received a NEXT STAGE commission for a new work but Sunshine Super Girl’s MTC premiere has been affected due to COVID (though I’m aware it was, happily, able to open in Griffith). How are you feeling about it all right now?
Of course it was a huge blow not to have been able to show Sunshine Super Girl at MTC this year because of COVID. Everybody has worked so incredibly hard to bring this play to fruition and MTC had worked particularly hard to create a super stadium atmosphere in the Sumner. Although I am currently based in Sydney, the spirit of Melbourne and its glorious community brought me up and I was so looking forward to showing this work on my old creative stomping ground.
Thankfully, we were able to recently premiere the work in Evonne Goolagong-Cawley’s birthplace, Griffith, as a part of the Yarruwala Wiraduri Arts and Culture Festival. All of the fantastic folk at Griffith Regional Theatre created a beautiful bespoke theatre at the West End Sports Stadium and the work resonated beautifully there on Wiradjuri land. Such a joy to be in a rehearsal room and theatre after all that our industry has endured this year and we dearly hope to be able to bring Sunshine Super Girl to MTC audiences sometime soon.
What can you tell us about the play you’re working on, The Black Woman of Gippsland?
Ever since I wrote and staged Yanagai! Yanagai! at the Malthouse, I’ve wanted to write a story from my Grandmother’s Gunaikurnai country. I’d read and heard a lot about the legend of a ‘White Woman’ who survived a shipwreck and was ‘kidnapped’ by a clan of Gunaikurnai people in the 1840s. Despite several search expeditions and numerous ‘sightings’ that resulted in dispossession of land, massacres and one of the first tragic Black Deaths in custody of a clan leader, this ‘White Woman’ was never found.
‘It’s quite a contrast to the celebratory tone of Sunshine Super Girl, but one that I think is warranted in the Black Lives Matter era.’
It’s a tragic and fascinating tale and quite possibly one of colonial Australia’s first urban myths that took hold in Melbourne that has had far-reaching and ongoing consequences for Gunaikurnai people. There is a mountain of archival material and a smattering of oral stories that have remained; and the NEXT STAGE residency has enabled me to dive headlong into the story and its various machinations. With a story centred on a Gunaikurnai woman and self-confessed radical “Blakademic”, I’m relishing the opportunity to bring a current First Nations perspective to an historical series of events that would otherwise lurk untold or deeply archived. It’s quite a contrast to the celebratory tone of Sunshine Super Girl, but one that I think is warranted in a Black Lives Matter era.
What does having a NEXT STAGE commission mean to you, personally?
Quite literally – survival. Everything around us has stalled, been postponed or very sadly cancelled. Our audiences are in lockdown and social distancing has made the intimate work that we do with each other and for audiences almost impossible. Having a NEXT STAGE commission keeps our hopes and dreams alive. Although the stages are dark or are opening tentatively, I feel so lucky to be able to still create and write at home and on country. We know this is not forever and the NEXT STAGE commission has enabled me to continue to think big, dream big and to continue to take artistic risks despite the challenges and unknowns around us.
NEXT STAGE is made possible with the support of our Playwrights Giving Circle Donors, The Ian Potter Foundation, Naomi Milgrom Foundation, The Myer Foundation, Malcolm Robertson Foundation and The University of Melbourne.
Published on 27 October 2020