Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2016

Coranderrk: a play, a book and a moment of Melbourne’s history we all should know

CoranderrkI don’t review theatre: I don’t have the expertise.  But today I saw a very special play at the La Mama Courthouse and since it’s only on for a short time, I owe it to my Melbourne readers to spruik it.

Coranderrk We Will Show the Country is the name of the play, and it’s also the name of the book.  The book consists of:

  • an historical introduction to Coranderrk which includes some remarkable photographs showing the achievements of the Kulin people on the Coranderrk reserve.  It covers the period up to the 1881 Inquiry which is the focus of the play;
  • the script of the play, including biographies of the significant historical figures;
  • the aftermath of the Inquiry and the events leading to Coranderrk’s closure;
  • an explanation of how the historical record was transformed into the play.
  • a timeline, maps and archival photos.

The play is unique because it’s based entirely on transcripts from the 19th century paper trail of an heroic struggle for Aboriginal self-determination.  Having been dispossessed of their ancestral lands by European settlement, a small band of survivors from the Kulin Nation petitioned the colonial government for a land grant to set up the Coranderrk Reserve.  There they created an award-winning farm and an impressive settlement.

Following the reservation of the land, the Kulin together with John and Mary Green, enthusiastically embarked upon the task of making Coranderrk their new home. Their vision was to make the station fully self-supporting.

They started by clearing and draining the land, grubbing, ploughing and preparing it for the cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees.  They erected a storeroom and a schoolroom, a dormitory for the children, and bark huts for the adults, each with a fireplace. Within ten years, 32 cottages were built in two straight rows forming a central road along a terrace that overlooked the alluvial flats. They built yards, a stable, a bakery, and a brick kiln, erected 4.6 miles (7 kilometres) of fencing to demarcate some of the reserve, placed 160 acres under cultivation, and introduced 450 head of stock to pasture.  (p.13)

The authors of this book refer to this period as a kind of Golden Age.  It was not a return to pre-Colonial ways of living:

Coranderrk residents knew that their ability to survive required them to adapt to, and raise their children according to, European ways.  Their traditional patterns of land use, lifestyle and many other cultural practices had to be replaced to a large extent by agricultural work, and by Christian and European customs. But in doing so Coranderrk residents were able to adapt to the new while continuing to practise and maintain key elements of their own culture. (p.14)

But all too soon there were plans by vested interests to move them off this land, and so began a sustained, sophisticated campaign for justice, land rights and self-determination.  In collaboration with white supporters, the Kulin people used the legal and political system to force a Parliamentary Inquiry, and the play I saw today is based on the records of that Inquiry.

It’s very good theatre.  To the left, the MP chairing the Inquiry; and Anne Bon, a Commissioner of the Inquiry and an indomitable woman with a passion for justice.  To the right, a succession of white witnesses: the Coranderrk managers past and present; a police officer; a journalist; and a missionary.  In the middle, a row of Aboriginal witnesses: a stockman, a teacher; a washerwoman; a 13 year-old post boy; and William Barak, the clan leader, played with great dignity by Uncle Jack Charles.  I found myself squirming with embarrassment as one white witness after another betrayed their racism by their patronising language and offensive labelling.  It was authentic, of course – the words they were using were straight from the dusty archival materials from the Inquiry – but I felt the awkwardness of the Aboriginal actors having to hear it.

Do read the review at Troublemag and get yourself a ticket to see it if you can.  At only $15 a ticket, it’s the bargain theatrical event of the year, and a story every Melburnian should know.

Authors & playwrights: Giordano Nanni and Andrea James
Andrea James is a Yorta Yorta/Kurnai playwright, director and theatre maker
Title: Coranderrk, We Will Show the Country
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781922059390
Source: personal library, purchased from La Mama Courthouse Theatre, $30

You can buy a copy of the book ($30) at the venue, or from Fishpond: Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country

Many thanks to Glenice Whitting for organising the jaunt!

Update August 13th 2016: To answer Bill’s question about what happened afterwards, you can’t do better than to visit Glenice’s blog:)

Gang of Three


Responses

  1. I’m sorry I missed joining you – thanks for a great post/review Lisa and like you, I hope many people take the opportunity to see it. Considering the recent scandal from the NT we are still squirming with embarrassment and hanging our heads in shame. Sounds like a play that would be good to tour schools.

  2. Two things: I think we have to confront our past (and present) racism head on, expose it to the light so we can see how bad it was and is and so I commend the people who created this play for doing that. And I wondered what happened to the model farm. According to Wikipedia it was closed in 1924 and the people there were moved to Lake Tyers (when I was growing up I thought that was where all the remaining Aborigines in Victoria were). One of the most confronting things I come across time after time is that we thought that we could confine the Indigenous population to a few reservations and they would soon die out.

  3. Yes, I agree. Our history means all our history including the bits we’re ashamed of. We’re no different in that respect, all countries have historical pasts that are uncomfortable in the light of a 21st century day.
    I am sure that the answer to your question about what happened will be answered when I read the book. I’ve only read chapter one, but I wanted to post this while the play is still on. So in due course I’ll be able to tell you what the book has to say about it…but I *must* finish Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time first, if I put it aside I will never finish it.

  4. […] Lisa Hill’s excellent review of the play and the book Coranderrk: We Will Show The Country from La Mama Courthouse Theatre Carlton Victoria Australia can be found at ANZlitlovers blog […]


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