Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country.
By Giordano Nanni & Andrea James
Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. 2013
Price: paperback $29.95
The book Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country is an annotated version of the script of a play by the same name, complemented by a couple of excellent chapters on the history of the Coranderrk Aboriginal settlement and another on the play's development, production, and performance. Using the method known as verbatim or documentary theatre, the play's script is composed almost entirely of extracts taken from the minutes of evidence to an inquiry into Coranderrk held in 1881. The inquiry was the outcome of a sustained campaign by the Kulin people, including petitions and deputations to government, for the right to control their own affairs. Historian Richard Broome has argued that for the Coranderrk residents matters of 'right behaviour' and proper governance were at the heart of the inquiry and the broader struggle for autonomy of which it was a part. (1) After a litany of complaints against authoritarian superintendents and repeated calls for the reinstatement of the Kulin people's preferred manager, John Green, a board of inquiry was established. It met over two and half months, hearing testimony from 69 witnesses, including 22 Aboriginal people, and it also generated further letters and petitions from the Aboriginal residents.
The potential of this archival material for a contemporary performance piece was first glimpsed by historian Giordano Nanni, one of the two playwrights, when as a doctoral student he came across the inquiry report and was struck by the power and immediacy of the Kulin people's voices and political visions. He was convinced that their words deserved a wider audience and could still speak to current issues. He shared his idea with historian Julie Evans at the University of Melbourne, and she sensed the scope for a larger research project around questions of historical and structural injustice, the role of tribunals and inquiries in truth seeking, and the relationship between the colonial past and the present in pursuit of restorative justice. The Minutes of Evidence project, funded by an ARC Linkage Grant and including 13 partner organisations, was born. (2) The re-staging of the 1881 inquiry is a central component of this larger project. Nanni teamed up with playwright, Andrea James, to produce the script, and they worked with La Mama and Ilbijerri theatres in developing and staging the play. It has since had three short seasons with more planned.
The development of the play was initially motivated by a concern that the story of Coranderrk is not widely known. This is despite the fact that it is among the most researched 19th-century Aboriginal settlements, certainly in Victoria and probably across south-east Australia. It was Diane Barwick's 'unfashionable' historical anthropology carried out in the early 1960s that established interest in the Coranderrk people's politicking and 'rebellion' against colonial authorities. Historian Bain Attwood gave events at Coranderrk in the closing decades of the 19th-century foundational status in his wide-ranging history of Aboriginal politics. More recently, the settlement has been a site through which Jane Lydon has explored Aboriginal people's uses of photography, and William Barak, leader of the settlement and famous in his own lifetime, continues to fascinate.
The play consists of 22 short scenes, 20 of which are composed of the testimony of an individual witness. Although all the words are extracted from the minutes of evidence, a good deal of selecting and reordering and some editing has gone into crafting the lengthy--a total of 5349 questions were asked--and, at times, rambling or repetitive testimony into a tight and instructive performance piece. Each character gets his/her own scene and was selected to represent a particular position. William Barak, for instance, features in Scene 9. His text is a combination of the evidence he gave to the Inquiry along with extracts from a couple of letters, including one written a number of years later but incorporated 'in order to extend [Barak's] brief testimony' (p. 90). Barak's scene includes some clear statements about the residents' desire to have control over their own affairs: '[We would like it] if [. . .] the Government leave us here, give us this ground and let us manage [Coranderrk] and get all the money. Why do not the people do it themselves?' (p. 89).
The various emendations and additions are explained in this carefully annotated version of the script and in the accompanying discussion of the play's production. For instance, the writers/editors note they 'selected excerpts which [they] felt advanced the central narrative of the struggle for self-determination, as well as others which shed light onto the broader historical climate of the period, such as details concerning protective legislation, nascent child removal and assimilation policies' (p. 193). And they are candid about their bias, saying they '... included a higher proportion of Aboriginal witnesses so as to make them more prominent than in the original Inquiry' (p. 193). Whereas in the original, Aboriginal witnesses had numbered 22 out of 69 (approximately a third), here the proportion was nine from 20 (approximately half). Nanni and James characterize the approach they took to assembling the script and in working on the staging of the play as an attempt to 'balance the needs of history and theatre' (p. 193). Like all historical reenactments, such an enterprise involves a delicate dance between producing dramatic (and in this case didactic) effects and maintaining a certain faithfulness to the historical record.
It is the issues and questions that are raised by these recursive uses of the historical archive that make the play and broader project so valuable, and this publication a rich resource. There is no doubt new audiences will be introduced to Coranderrk's history through this creative project, including a new generation of school children as curriculum materials are developed around it. Just as important, though, is the potential that performances of the play will have for offering insights into affective responses to the colonial past and historical injustice that projects like this are designed to provoke. Some aspects of this are discussed in the publication, especially in terms of the force of the performance on descendants of the late 19th-century Aboriginal witnesses. There should be further scope for exploring such matters through the comment books in which audience members have been encouraged to record their responses at the end of performances. Not unlike 'sorry books', they stand to become a resource for studying contemporary people's responses to the colonial past and perceptions of its continuities and discontinuities with the present. (3)
Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country is a valuable publication, not only for providing the authoritative version of the script of this signal performance piece, but also for providing a model and generating interest in using colonial archives and the historical record in imaginative ways in pursuit of knowledge and justice in the present.
Australian National University
(1.) Richard Broome. 2006. 'There were vegetables every year Mr Green was here': Right behavior and the struggle for autonomy at Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve. History Australia 3(2): 43.143.16.
(3.) See, for instance, Rosanne Kennedy. 2011. An Australian archive of feelings: The Sorry Books campaign and the pedagogy of compassion. Australian Feminist Studies 26(69): 257-279.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2014|
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