Rosalind Appleby can’t help but be swept up in the fun and familiarity of Bran Nue Dae, home again for the Perth Festival.
Opera Conference and Perth Festival, Bran Nue Dae ·
Regal Theatre, 7 February 2020 ·
Review by Rosalind Appleby ·
What better way to launch the 2020 Perth Festival, with its themes around home and sharing a campfire, than with the iconic, first Aboriginal musical, Bran Nue Dae.
The 30th anniversary Opera Conference revival of the late Jimmy Chi’s smash hit has a warm embrace that is impossible to resist. And the story is delightfully local: Broome boy Willy is kicked out of boarding school and tries to find his way home.
Bran Nue Dae premiered at the 1990 Perth Festival, toured internationally and was adapted into a film in 2009. The revival tour began in Sydney last month, a collaboration between Opera Australia, WA Opera, Opera Queensland and the State Opera of South Australia, with its original director, Andrew Ross, and many of its original Broome cast.
There was a sense of homecoming at the Regal Theatre on Friday night as the people around me sang along, cheered family members on stage and commented: “That’s exactly what used to happen!” There was lots of laughter and the odd tear.
The magic of Chi’s musical satire is its unequivocal welcome; his social justice themes (Chi was awarded the 1991 Human Rights Award in the category of Literature and Other Writing) are couched within universal subjects such as growing up, estrangement, first love and family. Add a huge dose of humour, pathos and enduring songs and it is impossible to resist being swept up in the fun.
On Friday night, energy radiates from the stage as, at Sun Picture’s outdoor cinema in Broome (set and costumes by Mark Thompson), Willy’s friends, decked out in 60s print dresses and Hawaiian shirts, farewell him as he leaves for school.
Marcus Corowa is immediately endearing as Willy, with his playful innocence, anguished expressiveness and gleaming voice. Willy’s opening song, “Acceptable Coon” – “Learn all the white things they teach you in school/ and you’ll all become acceptable coons” – was cut from the original production but has been reinstated in all its provocative glory.
Willy doesn’t last long at the Rossmoyne Pallottine Aboriginal Hostel – a strange place where the priest (the resounding Andrew Moran) worships at the altar of junk food. Kicked out of school, he meets Uncle Tadpole on the street.
Ernie Dingo played Uncle Tadpole in the original musical and the 2009 movie, and his magnetic presence alone is worth the ticket price. Impressively tall with a rascally twinkle in his eye, he had only to walk on stage for the audience to erupt into applause.
Willy and Uncle Tadpole hitch back to Broome with two hippies in a Kombi van, Marijuana Annie (Danielle Sibosado) and Slippery (Callan Purcell). As familiar images of the wheatbelt, New Norcia, Greenough and Broome are projected on the cinema screen, it feels like we are all on the journey. Ngaire Pigram as Aunty Theresa and Teresa Moore as Rosie round out the strong cast.
The ensemble delivers the blues, rock and even German Volksmusik numbers with joyful freedom. Choreographer Tara Gower has incorporated traditional dance moves and they are delivered with fierce conviction. The songs, written by Chi and the band the Kuckles, hold the loosely constructed plot together with their sassy lyrics – “There’s nothing I would rather be, than be an Aborigine, and watch you take my precious land away” – sweet melodies (the syrupy “Nyul Nyul Girl”) and irrepressible groove (the bluesy “Is You Mah Baby?”).
The polished onstage band is directed by original Kuckles members Patrick Bin Amat and Michael Mavromatis, with Pigram dynasty members Bart on guitars and Naomi as associate director.
Bran Nue Dae tackles the issues of deaths in custody, assimilation and land rights. Some references are subtle – Willy’s fear of dying in jail – and others are overt, such as “Listen to the News”, performed with wild intensity in front of a historic photo of Indigenous Australians in chains.
By the end, Chi’s vision for this country is clear as the crazy tangle of relationships and cultures resolves into one enormous family. Thirty years later, as we still struggle with constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we’re still not quite there – sorry, Jimmy. But as the audience laughed and cried together and then rose as one in a standing ovation, it felt like we were one step closer.
Pictured top: Marcus Corowa as Willy with the ensemble in Bran Nue Day. Photo: Prudence Upton.
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