Oodgeroo: Bloodline to Country — a review

Editor’s Note:  I have reprinted Rosemary Sorensen‘s article “Ode to Oodgeroo” about a new play by Sam Watson below.

If you can make it get along to this play Oodgeroo: Bloodline to Country at the Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane, July 2-11.

Rosemary Sorensen | June 08, 2009| Article & Photo from: The Australian

sam watson  rhonda purcell & roxanne mc donald in oodgeroo bloodline to country
From right Sam Watson, Rhonda Purcell & Roxanne McDonald – photo from The Australian

TURNING a life as complex and dramatic as Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s into a theatre production was always going to be a huge assignment. The poet and activist’s journey – from a girl who left school at 13 to a woman instrumental in such epoch-defining events as the 1967 referendum – is an epic.

Add to the task the fact that the man entrusted with the initial writing of the script comes to the story with deeply felt emotions almost too intense to interrogate, and you have a very delicate situation.

Sam Watson remembers Oodgeroo as “Aunty” Kath Walker, a woman who inspired many that encountered her, particularly those in the Brisbane indigenous community to which Watson’s family belongs. She was his mentor, and her insistence on discipline and hard work was central to his development as writer and political activist. She was also stern witness to the way young men, such as her son, Denis, could let their passionate hearts overrule their heads.

Denis Walker (now Bejam Kunmunara Jarlow Nunukel Kabool) was involved in trying to set up an Australian version of the Black Panthers. It was the Brisbane group’s ideological links with that militant and violent organisation* that prompted Oodgeroo to write the famous Son of Mine.
[Ed. Note – this is favoured liberal stereotype of the Black Panther Party. In the U.S. introduced social programs like school breakfast for kids from poor neighbourhoods, they nearly won Mayor in Oakland, California with a progressive program. The Party instituted the Free Breakfast for Children Programs to address food injustice, and community health clinics for education and treatment of diseases including sickle cell anemia, tuberculosis, and later HIV/AIDS.]

Oodgeroo “Kath Walker” Photo from Paradigm Oz

The poem speaks of “heartbreak, hatred blind”, then turns instead towards what is “brave and fine, when lives of black and white entwine”.

Watson, as a young man growing up in Brisbane, was closely connected to the strong Stradbroke Island community, of which Oodgeroo was a leader. He watched how the brilliant Aunty Kath, who had travelled the world as one of Australia’s most powerful campaigners for the rights of her indigenous people, was wracked by personal sadnesses that wearied and eventually broke her heart. Paying tribute to all this, getting it right in the public and private sense, has been a testing labour for him, but one he has “always wanted to do”.

“I’ve been nervous all the way through,” Watson says. “I don’t want to let Aunty Kath down.”

The play, Oodgeroo: Bloodline to Country, will take all the thinking, skills, courage and toughness the team behind its production can muster. While it is only Watson’s second play, he is working alongside two men whose experience is up there with the best in the country. Director Sean Mee and dramaturge Ian Brown have plunged their hands into the almost intractable richness of Watson’s “life of Oodgeroo” to wrestle it into a shape that will work on stage. Actors Roxanne McDonald and Rhonda Purcell play Oodgeroo.

At the play’s centre is a moment so breathtakingly traumatic it infused Oodgeroo’s final two decades of life with regret and impossible longing. In November 1974, returning from a committee meeting in Nigeria for the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, Oodgeroo was on board a flight hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. A man died during the three-day siege, and Oodgeroo’s encounter with that vivid tragedy anchors this play.

Watson is still a political agitator, a man who leads campaigns to influence public opinion and governments. He is also an influential academic, and runs a unit called Oodgeroo Studies at the University of Queensland. His novel, The Kadaitcha Sung, written in 1991, is seen as a breakthrough in Aboriginal writing in this country, the first time mythologies and law from indigenous culture were fused with a contemporary urban setting, using elements of conventional (Western) literary genres.

“She slapped me on the forehead and called me a dirty little bugger,” Watson says, about Oodgeroo’s reaction when she read his novel. “The story had a bit of sex and violence in it, but she chuckled, gave me a hug and said, ‘That’s terrific.”‘

It was only in the last few years of Oodgeroo’s life that Watson and she “talked seriously about writing”, but he cannot remember a time when she was not a presence and a source of inspiration for both the storyteller and the reader that he was to become.

“I was always told by the elders and in my family circle that I was going to go right through school and I was a great reader, because all my relatives, the aunties, uncles, elders, were great readers,” Watson says.

“There were always plenty of books around, right through primary school, but I couldn’t find any that featured work by Aboriginal people, and I was horrified. I knew from my own experience in my family that we are wonderful storytellers, sitting round in the dark, with the last light from the hurricane lamps, telling stories.

“I thought, ‘My people have this wonderful treasury, why aren’t they here in these books?’ Finally, I saw Aunty Kath’s poetry appearing in anthologies and it gave me a huge buzz.”

Oodgeroo (she changed her name from Kath Walker in 1987) was particularly good, Watson remembers, at the creepy, shudder-up-the-spine, campfire story, the one that had children edging closer to the circle of fire, as ghostly apparitions just beyond the light’s perimeter would nudge at the boundaries of their imagination. “She always talked about the importance of writing,” Watson says. “‘I had a particular task in life,’ she said. ‘I had to knuckle down andstudy.”‘

There have been several biographies of Oodgeroo, and a couple of books of literary appreciation, but Watson says his own tribute was always going to be created for the theatre.

“I think Aunty Kath would have liked a play,” he says. “It’s a genre so close to Aboriginal experience. Writing it down, that’s important, but I thought, it’s got to be on a stage, in a format that we can take out to people, and children in particular.”

On the other hand, with its drama, politics, personal tragedy and complexity, Oodgeroo is going to be strong viewing.

Oodgeroo was born in 1920 on Stradbroke Island – Minjerribah to her people – one of six children. Their father, Ted Ruska, was a labourer active in workers’ strikes. She left school at 13, in 1933, to work as a domestic. During World War II, with two of her brothers imprisoned in Singapore, she volunteered as a communications worker. During the war, too, she married Bruce Walker, but the marriage didn’t last.

“She had so many strikes against her,” Watson says. “A young black woman, and a single mother. She just amazes me, the energy she had, working long hours, coming home to two children, then going off to a meeting about the advancement league or the referendum.

“This was a woman with a powerful intellect. She drank in knowledge and experience and she could stand up and hold her own in any company.”

Watson also points out she was beautiful, a woman with “so much poise, dignity and authority that when Aunty Kath spoke, you listened.” As a boy, he was also just a little scared of her. A clip over the earwas what he’d expect if he stepped out ofline.

With the encouragement of a literary group in Brisbane, Oodgeroo published her first book of poems – the first by an indigenous poet – in 1964. We Are Going, the title poem of that collection, was a melancholy cry for her people, more dirge than rally. “We are nature and the past, all the old ways / Gone now and scattered,” she wrote. “The bora ring is gone. The corroboree is gone. And we are going.”

But Oodgeroo was simply gathering her strength for the immense work she was about to undertake. She travelled to North America for several years, as poet-in-residence and scholar at a number of universities. She also sat on boards and committees in Australia, contributing to discussions aimed at improving the education and welfare of indigenous people. Her home on Stradbroke Island, Moongalba, became an education centre for young people, with her goal to allow as many as possible to experience her island life, and the ways of “nature and the past”.

She balanced, throughout these busy years, her poetic sensibility with her political commitment, a twinning in her own soul that brought her into contact and deep friendship with her white counterpart, Judith Wright. But it was that other tension – between activism and action – that delivered Oodgeroo her biggest challenge.

“Aunty Kath was a great advocate for reconciliation, even before reconciliation was dreamed of,” Watson says.

“She tried to find a meeting point between the young black radicals coming through, who were talking about black power and revolution, and the white friends and colleagues who had helped shape the struggle for the referendum.”

When she couldn’t find that meeting point, Watson says, her instinct was to go “with her people” and she formed a breakaway group to continue the political campaign. But during the demonstrations against apartheid that were organised during the Springbok rugby tour in 1971, Oodgeroo “stepped back to Moongalba”.

“She feared that young Aboriginal people were going to be shot to death on the streets of Australia, and she didn’t want to be there to have to see that,” Watson says.

Three years later, she faced that fear, in a guise she had never expected, when hijackers held guns to a passenger’s head on a runway in Tunisia. It’s in the belly of that aeroplane that much of Watson’s play takes place, as the audience, along with Oodgeroo, sees all that she has fought for, all that she holds dear, retract and threaten to disappear in the barrel of a gun.

As Watson wrestled with the vastness of the story, and with his love for the woman whose legacy he wants to protect, he realised he was going to have to lay out, within the play, not only some of the relationship between Oodgeroo and her son, Denis (now Bejam, who took over custodianship of the Minjerribah land following his mother’s death), but also something of Vivian’s story: the younger son, a dancer, who died from AIDS-related illness in 1991.

“I was coming to the story from within the family, but not quite within, just on the fringe,” Watson says. “And I knew there were dramas between the principal characters. The challenge was how to present that in a way that will not cause shame, but will still show the drama.”

Throughout the play, imagined conversations – between Oodgeroo and the imperious Mary Gilmore, or her great friend Jessie Street, or the German man held hostage, or the politicians she confronted – move almost imperceptibly into the speeches and poems of the woman herself, allowing those who know the simple, memorable strength of her lines the pleasure of recall.

For the opening-night performance of Oodgeroo, the extended family – grandchildren and great-grandchildren among them – will gather by the poet’s graveside and light a fire to carry to the theatre as a ceremony of cleansing and healing.

The story of Aunty Kath, Watson says, belongs to all Australians, because hers was an “incredible achievement, and we want to pay tribute to that”.

Oodgeroo, he adds, “would probably be a little bit embarrassed” by all the fuss. “She was an unassuming sort of person.”

Oodgeroo: Bloodline to Country is at the Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane, July 2-11.

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