On Saturday night, I went to see the musical HAIR on the Gold Coast. It was an interesting night, enjoying the memories and most of the music. The cast was good and there was a lot of energy on stage.
But in some ways, it seemed to miss the point completely. The main focus was sex; every dance routine with pelvic thrusts and groping hands in fertile pastures.
Smiling girly faces.
Except that’s not how I remember that musical, or that period of my life. Sure there were sex and drugs, but the communal houses I shared, spent much of the time talking politics: Vietnam and the draft, racism and land rights, feminism and women’s rights, pollution, the reef and big corporations, education systems,
emergencies and police brutality.
In my mind, we grouped together to support and help each other survive.
A lot of heavy stuff was happening and life could be tough.
There was also an incredible subversive humour and a creative awakening: Demonstrating was only one form of protest. I’ll give some examples:
Paul Richards and Yeti Theatre turned a small play written for four people, into a rock-musical-come-war-battleground with a cast of 100.
‘On Stage Vietnam’ was choreographed by Vivien Walker,
stage-sets built by the Builders Workers Union and music by Capertillar.
Viet Cong crept through the dark theatre on planks nestled behind seats. Scary!
Pyrotechnics, with the potential to blow off the roof of the Rialto theatre,
exploded over the audience.
Bomber Perrier helped establish HARPO, How About Resisting Powerful Organisations.
HARPO set up the Wholefoods Coop providing cheap bulk food and creating a partnership with local organic farmers.
One caption at Wholefoods read, ‘you are what you eat.
If you eat foods that are shit – you’re going to feel like shit,
and you’re going to be a drag to have around.’ No one wanted that tag.
There was poetry, like Michael Dransfield, published by UQP.
‘listen to your perfume’, he said.
colour the night a cool cool green.
watch the sitar the sound is quicker than the eye
the hashish tastes of air we must get the sky plugged …’
From 1966, the UQ forums opened up debate where anyone who dared could speak,
dissecting, mocking or defending the government, war and capitalism, democracy and bureaucracies.
The number of speakers grew to include a stellar cast of lecturers and students. The audience grew too, and over time this created a many-sided communal setting, a public space that belonged to students and staff.
The crowd could spill across the street, students sitting on fences and rooftops to be closer to the action. More than a thousand would gather in the lead-up to a major demonstration; sometimes a thousand at the more formal refectory debates.
Later debates held in the Great Court, attracted more than 3,000 students.
In every way it was a grass roots youth response to contemporary political and cultural life in Australia. Over many years, the UQ Forum informed and challenged tens of thousands to get involved in political action, and the repressive state response,
as Sam Watson argues, turned activists into radicals. As Stephen Oliver would say, ‘it was proppa solid’ and we were proppa sold on changing the world.
Now we have to battle these same wars again. Perhaps it is every generation’s challenge.
At the end of Hair, the cast lined up across the stage singing ‘Let the Sunshine in’, and holding up a dozen placards. I remember this finale as a call to action, to get out and change this fucked up world. On Saturday night though, all the placards were blank. No one goes on a demo with a blank board on a stick! These signs should have been ALIVE with protest slogans such as ‘STOP Adani’, ‘Save the Reef’, ‘Free Assange’, ‘Manus Island, Australia’s disgrace’.
With nearly 1,000 in the audience – what a missed opportunity!
This incarnation of HAIR was a misreading – and a taming – of our history
that I found disturbing. We might be getting older, we might or might not be wiser.
But let’s continue to resist being Tamed.
If you want to read more of my story, it’s in Bjelke Blues, page 71,
‘UQ Forum as Community’.