Leroy Bilney - writer and star of 'The New Black', the Aboriginal musical
Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 12.05.15
No, not a fashion item, but the title of a new Aboriginal musical which is building support like a rolling stone and will be playing for 2 nights this week at the Gold Coast Arts Centre.
I was lucky enough to see a run-through in Sydney and am happy to put it in the Bran Nue Dae class as a writer for The Age did, though the serviceable songs in it aren't ones I came out immediately singing as Jimmy Chi's and Kuckles' were when I first saw BND on stage in Perth. Where the two shows do coincide is in the presence of actors Ernie Dingo and Lynette Narkle, stalwarts of the Aboriginal stage for almost 30 years now – and still holding their places against a new-comer like Leroy Bilney, a name (and a pair of flashing black eyes) to conjure with both as a performer and as one of the co-writers of 'The New Black'.
Is he The New Black? For this Kokatha lad from Ceduna has penned a script about a Kokatha lad from Ceduna who's whizzing up the legal ladder in distant Brisbane, but who's brought down a rung or three by legal matters in Ceduna – specifically the death in custody of his younger nephew. Jim (or James in Brisbane) is smart, quite open to us about his plans to “infiltrate the system” and “break their strangle-hold”, and majorly patronised by his boss (another stalwart, Bill Zappa), who sees a political future for our boy beyond the law – perhaps as far as The Lodge.
Could we be talking about Noel Pearson?
But the objectivity required by the law is at odds with the Kokatha culture of Ceduna – fiercely portrayed by Elaine Crombie as the dead boy's mum. She sees Jim now as a coconut – black outside but white within – and can see no reason why the jurisprudential rule that says no lawyer can represent a relative should prevent him from skewering the cop she sees as responsible for her son's death at the imminent coronial enquiry. How could we doubt that this will eventually happen when the coroner is played by none other than Robyn Archer – a musical performer far too distant from our stages of late as she plays the arts politico. Her single song in the show is two too few!
But back in Briso, the higher the office floor number, the higher the hurdles for James to leap. Despite a first half closer that sees the legal pair kitted with top-hats and canes, tap-dancing their way to The Lodge and healing the country, we've been forewarned that Zappa's plans to “toughen him up” by disconnecting James from Jim will go one step too far when he proposes that James represent the police at the inquest.
Fortunately, at this point, Jim's white, real estate dealing girlfriend has magically radicalised herself and is quite happy to forego the multi-story apartment, Range Rover and three kids for the Kokotha cause; and, of course, the now barefoot lawyer brings down the cocky cop who's been provoked into complaining, “You lot can't learn not to hang yourselves” via an impeccable display of legal forensics.
Cue for triumphant closing number. But, not for the first time, I was lead to wonder what there was to sing about when an innocent Aboriginal youth has been so mistreated that death seems preferable to life. We've definitely moved on from the feel-good of Bran Nue Dae, both personal and public politics are integral to 'The New Black'. Perhaps we need a new music to go with that?
Special mention must be made of Brisbane's creative Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA) which is where Leroy Bilney, composer/muso Marcus Corowa and director Stephen L Helper first got together and dreamed up 'The New Black'. It's a fertile breeding ground for new Blacks in the arts generally. Wish I could be on the Gold Coast this week (Wednesday and Thursday nights) to see its offspring make music. I'm sure I'll get another chance as this show takes off with encouragement from both Adelaide and Melbourne Art Centres and tours Australia.
Robyn Archer, back on stage in 'The New Black'
Veteran Ernie Dingo plays Jim's father in 'The New Black'