Ursula Yovich in a publicity shot for her role as Barbara - no pink wig is worn in the show!

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 14.12.17

Dates: 06.12.17 : 23.12.17
Location: Belvoir Street Theatre, Belvoir Street, Surry Hills, Sydney

It sounds like a rock group. It is an all-girl rock group, that just happens to be lead by the Kunwinjku/Yugoslav actor Ursula Yovich – an 'Aboriginal' actor who has achieved colour-blind cross-over into shows like 'Mother Courage', 'Snugglepot and Cuddlepie' and 'The Golden Age' so often that you might expect her to feel totally comfortable in today's Australia. But “rock is all about the pain” she asserts early on. So we feel Barbara's Blak anger pretty consistently throughout the show – sufficient to suggest that this is not simply an autobiographical portrait of and by Yovich the co-author (with non-Indigenous playwright Alana Valentine), but a Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright Award-winning text with music – plenty of it.

Yet Belvoir Theatre's audience when I saw the show was predominantly the much-maligned white and white-haired brigade so that one wondered why the show's marketing hadn't enticed in a yoof audience for whom the expletives and punk-inspired explosions of rage would have been mother's milk!

Barbara has two causes for her pain and anger – she was deserted by both parents in her childhood and brought up by her Aboriginal aunt, who is now dying and needs to be embraced one last time; and she has the distinct feeling that Australia is a racially prejudiced country. “You hate us 'cause we're black or pity us 'cause we're black”, she indicts. “Which is worse? You whitefellas have an infection that makes you think that I really am different. Shit you get crazy with hatred or crazy with guilt....This is the meanest, pettiest, most ungenerous country in the world. Because at the heart of this country is a theft, and now the whole place crouches, waiting, calculating about when it is going to be stolen back from them.....theft of community, of culture, of language, of family”.

But not of Country, apparently. For this is a quintessentially Blak play.

At times matching, but mostly trying to calm this rage is Barbara's step-sister Rene, played by the physically disparate Elaine Crombie – a mighty figure to Yovich's ball of fire. Despite their differences, one of Barbara's first explosions comes when a Sydney casino audience disregards a song that Rene has penned and is singing. A stream of abuse at the abuser leads to a physical, almost sexual battle with a security guard. And sex is never that far from the girls' minds, as they tout their “mulga bushes” and admit not only to drinking “St Agnes brandy in a paper cup with ice”, but “when I'm feeling randy, Don't expect me to be nice”; for I'm “A troublesome stunt, Instincts of a cunt”.

Is this modern feminism? Or just the language of someone in thrall to the rhyme?

Sadly, much of this pungent language goes missing in the songs – which are loud enough, but, over an insistent drum-beat, it's hard to really follow the words. By comparison, Debbie Yap's delicate lead guitar is exemplary. Fortunately, there are some poetic goodies between the songs, as in this description of the flight to Darwin – a hard-won trip involving the wonderful reversal of the old cliché; can a non-identifying Aborigine get away with calling themselves an Indian! “Over that beautiful expanse of red desert, and you're in the air among the clouds, and the light is like stupid-making – light, light, light – and it's like a mallet, a gavel, a drum. A drum beating so loud in your ears and it's your heart, afraid you'll be late, afraid of what's your fate, afraid that the past is going to cut you open like broken glass”.


So, many of the people I saw the show with who rose in a standing ovation will have overcome their guilt/pity based upon sympathy with Barbara's righteous anger. But they may have missed more of the complexity of the text in which Rene explains a little of Barbara's psychology: “She hates being complimented because she doesn't know what to do with it. She needs to be fighting and hating things, she gets her energy from being pissed off”.

Which casts doubt over the play's 'happy ending' in the song with the unlikely title, 'Let in the Love'! Beginning with the negative stereotype, “Sitting at the station with cup in his hand/Begging for coins for the theft of his land”, we then pass through ever more positive thoughts about “singing a story to push down the rage” and heading to a grog-free outstation; “We are finding a way to let ourselves be more”; but then, “We are finding a way now to let in the love”.

It's too abrupt a change of direction - however much one might wish for it - unjustified by the bold indictments and unhappy events that have preceded it. But, as a stand-alone anthem sung by Yovich to Yap's solo guitar, I reckon it has message-potential galore.


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Yovich with Elaine Crombie as Rene - a partnership on song, Camp Dogs in the background


Yovich sings, in the shadow of Camp Dog Michelle Vincent


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