Noongar writer grapples with trauma

29 September 2020

As part of “Come to Where I Am – Australia”, Noongar actor, director, producer and writer Ian Michael has penned a short play that takes a personal look at racial injustice. Michelle White found out more.

Trigger warning: this article contains a reference to suicide.

Not long after the world went into lockdown with the COVID-19 pandemic, Australian theatre presenter Critical Stages Touring partnered with UK presenter Paines Plough to commission writers and playwrights from across Australia to write a 10 minute piece exploring stories of place and belonging.

“Come to Where I Am – Australia” invited reflection on an extraordinary year. The project was based on the Paines Plough project of the same name, which has been engaging playwrights to write and perform short plays about their home towns, and the places that have shaped them, since 2010.

2020 started with apocalyptic bushfires in Australia, which were then eclipsed by a world pandemic. And in the midst of this, yet another death in police custody in the US ignited international protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ian Michael

This moment in history spurred proud Noongar man Ian Michael to write what he believes is his rawest, most honest and gut-wrenching work yet.

“So [my work for “Come to Where I Am”] is called Another Day in the Colony. [That title] is something I use when I joke around with my family, my group of black friends,” elaborates Michael. “If there’s something a white person does or says, that I just can’t find the words for, I’m like ‘It’s just another day in the colony’…”

A multi-award winning actor, director, producer and writer, Michael is a resident artist at WA’s Black Swan State Theatre Company.

The short play he has written and performed for “Come to Where I Am” is a monologue, intersecting current world events with the ongoing trauma and oppression First Nation people have experienced since colonisation.

“I always write for my community. I always write in a way that I hope will make my family proud, and with that is, if other people want to listen, if they want to take something from it, that’s great,” he continues. “What I’m learning now is that I want to make work that is not there to satisfy everybody. I want it to be the truth.

“Doing this piece has actually brought up a lot for me with how I deal with that or how I don’t deal with that [trauma].

“I would like to say that this is the last time I write about trauma. But I come from a place of knowing that we have to keep telling these stories, we have to. I just don’t know how many more of these I can tell, or make myself.”

The thought makes Michael emotional, choked up. He says it’s the most vulnerable he’s ever been in telling stories professionally.

“But you know, in a way, as an artist, when you expose yourself, then you heal yourself. It’s kind of working in this balance of how much do you expose? If you expose too much, you have to heal more.”

He takes a deep breath.

“I’m so completely absorbed by everything… I’ve had enough, I want it all to end. And [the play] talks about my own mental health and suicide, it talks about the system, and if I let the system do that to me and if I let the system win, then it’s won.

“But in this one I think I have exposed myself personally more than I ever have as an artist and as a person publicly, which I’m a bit scared about.”

Ian Michael in ‘Another Day in the Colony’

Like all of the stories commissioned for “Come to Where I Am – Australia”, Michael’s piece has been adapted for an online audience. He will perform his play live online via Facebook and YouTube Wednesday 30 September at 7:30pm AEST (5.30pm in WA).

In three short scenes, Michael covers lot of ground; from colonisation, incarceration, deaths in custody, to how it took the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in the United States to make Australia take a look at its own injustices.

“I talk about seeing Black Lives Matter on television and all these new found allies, reposting stories. I talk about going to the protest during lockdown and then all of sudden, a month later, nobody is talking about it anymore.”

“I want to show people that I’m not the only one feeling this way. What we see in the US and what people see on social media… and share all the time, is happening in their own streets, happening in their own cities and towns. But they’re not reposting those stories. We hear about George Floyd, and in [the play] I talk about seeing that video over and over and over and again. But what about Tania Day? What about David Dungay Jr? What about J.C? Ms Dhu?”

“But black people, we’re so wanting to be connected and wanting to hear those stories, we become so absorbed in them. In a way I find myself personally retraumatising myself, because I’ve made a choice to not look away. I don’t want to look away.”

Michael found this experience of truth telling was amplified because he went straight from performing nightly in Cloudstreet at the 2020 Perth Festival, to lockdown in his apartment, and, like many of us, transitioning to an online workspace and an endless world of Zoom meetings.

“I talk about looking at the screen full of people and looking back at me, but all I’m seeing is 14 white faces on the screen and just… feeling so angry about what was happening in the world and seeing these white people in my home and trying this connection to invasion and land taken away and then … one of the lines in [my play] is, ‘Haven’t you invaded enough and now you’re inside my fucking home?’

“But it’s just how I was feeling in that moment. That’s what the piece is for – how you’re feeling. It became a lot as a black person – because you exist in the world as a black person in lots of white spaces – there was no escape.

“But as an artist of course, I know how lucky I was, the double-edged sword of, ‘I don’t want this. I don’t want you in my house,’ but I am so lucky that I get this opportunity.”

“So every day I was like, breathe.”

You can see Ian’s performance of Another Day in the Colony on the Critical Stages Facebook page for the live event and then on the Critical Stages Touring Screening Room and Paines Plough You Tube Channel.

Pictured top is a screen shot from “Another Day in the Colony” by Ian Michael.

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Author —
Michelle White

Michelle White is a Yamatji storyteller with more than 30 years writing and producing for televison, radio, print and online. She has extensive experience working in the arts and currently serves as Partnerships and Platforming Manager for Community Arts Network. Favourite part of the playground? The flying fox or wherever the food is!

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