Four years after being assaulted by Transperth transit officers, actor Della Rae Morrison finds hope for the future in the arts industry. Rosalind Appleby reports.
Standing centre stage with arms outstretched, Della Rae Morrison delivers a Noongar translation of Shakespeare with natural authority.
Playing the title role in Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s production of Hecate for this year’s Perth Festival was one of the highlights of the Bibulman actress’s life. Her quiet voice glows as she recalls it: “It was amazing, I was so blessed and honoured to be a part of that – it was more than a show. It was so emotional doing a whole production in [Noongar] language.”
Yet just four years earlier Morrison was hiding in her bedroom suffering post-traumatic shock after an assault by public transport transit officers.
Today, surrounded by her girlfriend and children at her home in Kalamunda, Morrison still finds it difficult to talk about: “It was horrible, it was a nightmare. I was suffering really bad PTSD so I was trying to find a way out of my mind. I stayed in a dark room in my bed.”
The assault happened in 2016, when Morrison was on a train, going home after a holistic counselling course. She had accidentally put her partner’s health care card in her purse instead of her own, and at Perth station, transit officers confronted her for having bought an invalid concession ticket.
“I got assaulted by a couple of transit officers. I was surrounded by about 15 of them. It was just me, no one else, just me.
“Witnesses who walked past thought it was a bomb scare – they thought it was an emergency and they took off… some of those guys were high and they were violent. They were buzzing.”
Morrison has not been on a train since and still battles anxiety and PTSD.
She says experiencing racism is an ongoing part of her everyday life. Mundane activities like catching a bus or shopping can mean being shadowed by security, and she struggles to hail taxis.
But in the arts industry, it is different.
Morrison’s career on stage began in the chorus-line of Bran Nue Dae when it opened in 1989, a production that toured Australia for three years. Her film and television work includes Lockie Leonard (2007) and Thalu (2020).
Healing through the arts
Though she once met resistance from venues to her enquiries about hosting a showcase of Aboriginal performers, Morrison says that generally she’s found equality in the arts.
“You are on the stage playing the lead role, or you have a role in a film, and everyone is waiting on you. On set and you are out in the sun, and somebody comes out with an umbrella and pushes a seat under you and brings you a cup of tea. It’s really weird for me to be waited on like that.”
She describes as empowering the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in this year’s Perth Festival: “Brilliant, so brilliant. Made us all feel so moorditch [really strong and excellent] and proud.”
And then there is Madjitil Moorna, the community choir Morrison founded with the Kalamunda Shire Council 14 years ago, which is particularly close to Morrison’s heart.
“Singing songs together with a group of people, and harmonising is very uplifting. But when you come together singing Aboriginal songs, in language, ooh my heart! People start to open up and can hear the stories of the Aboriginal artists. It is a subtle way of learning about Aboriginal history and issues, without someone preaching to you.”
The group includes non-Aboriginal people and people from drug rehabilitation centres. Morrison says the healing, support and learning that happen in the group give her hope for the future of reconciliation in Australia.
“We sing and cry together. When people come to choir on Monday night who don’t know our history, there’s lot of tears. People get angry, ‘We were lied to, we didn’t know anything about this history, my teachers didn’t teach me about that’. At choir, they learn about the stolen generation, intergenerational trauma and the massacres. That’s where they start to open up their minds. That’s the kind of world I imagine, where people start to be a bit more open minded and learn about First Nations’ history and issues.”
Morrison, a leading activist for race equality and a mentor to leaders of the Perth Black Lives Matter movement, says education is key to resolving racism issues, and it’s something everyone can be involved in.
“All I can say to the wider community is get your head out of the sand and start educating yourself. Start Googling stolen generation, invasion, intergenerational trauma, massacres. It’s all online. Once people start doing their own research and learning, that’s when the penny will drop. It’s the only way we are going to live together as equals: with an equal understanding. Because it’s not just Aboriginal intergenerational trauma, it’s everyone’s intergenerational trauma. We are all affected because it is carried down in our DNA. If we understand each other’s background and history, I believe then you understand each other.”
Pictured top: Della Rae Morrison takes centre stage in the world premiere of Hecate. Photo Dana Weeks