Evonne Goolagong Cawley and her chronicler, playwright/director, Andrea James

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 17.09.20

Dates: 07.10.20 : 10.10.20

Just about everyone knows Evonne Goolagong Cawley AC, MBE is the greatest Aboriginal tennis player that Australia has ever produced. But how many know she's Wiradjuri?

Mind you, it's even possible that this specific identification didn't matter that much to Goolagong herself, because her online biography states: “In 1991, prompted by the death of her mother and determined to expand her knowledge of her Aboriginal heritage, Evonne left the USA to reside in Australia”.

Who'd 'a thought this Aussie legend, winner of 92 pro tournaments, a finalist in 18 Grand Slam singles events, winning at Wimbledon twice, the Australian Open four times and the French Open once, chose to live in America???

Well, we're all going to learn a lot more about this 'Sunshine Super Girl' in the coming year as a stage show of that name tours about courtesy of Performing Lines after its opening next month in Griffith - Wiradjuri central, home of the inaugural Yarruwala Wiradjuri Cultural Festival and just “teeming with Goolagongs” according to Andrea James, author and director of this play. “This story just vibrates in Griffith”, she continued, “so I'm excited but incredibly nervous, because it's not just a tale of one woman, it's latent in the community”.

For Evonne did literally come into this world in a mud-floor hut with no running water or electricity in the unpromising community of Tharbogang. Fortunately, her hard-working shearer father impressed his boss, who helped move the family to a more substantial house in Barellan on the other side of Griffith. There they were the only Aboriginal family in town, which, amazingly for regional Australia in the 50s, embraced them – especially when three of the Goolagong kids wandered out the back of their house into the town's tennis club and showed quite a bit of talent. And that support came despite Evonne's first tennis dress being made out of a sheet worn with borrowed shoes and racquet.

“The most humble origins in tennis history”, declared the International Tennis Hall of Fame when nominating her – though James insists the legend that she practised hitting a ball against a wall with a frying pan is one myth too far!

What's amazing is not Goolagong's talent at tennis but her ambition to achieve success in the sport despite both those unpromising origins and the total absence of an Indigenous role model amongst tennis players.

According to James, Evonne was just seven when she was inspired by reading a 'Princess' magazine story about a young non-Indigenous player who went to Wimbledon. At the same time, there were frequent reports about one Margaret Smith (later Court) who came from just down the road in Albury. At 14, she headed for coaching in Sydney – though the less savoury side of that relationship doesn't make it into the play. For her, the significance of this move was the sacrifice made by the rest of her family – 8 kids who didn't get the same opportunity – and the difficulty of staying connected with her roots.

Andrea James admits that creating her play was always going to be tricky, “dealing with a national icon”. But the Yorta Yorta and Gunnakurnai playwright had a few advantages. Her father had grown up in a similar fringe camp for fruit-pickers outside Shepparton, and both she and Evonne have ancestry going back to the amazing William Cooper, the man behind the National Day of Mourning in 1938, the Aborigines Advancement League, many a petition and innumerable walk-offs. That DNA may have driven Goolagong to aim to become Number 1 in the world – as she was in both 1971 and 1976 – and given James a political streak which leads her to call herself “a specialist in Aboriginal performance”. That means she tries to work out how to get complex First Nations cultural notions into all her stage work, “especially our disrupted ceremonies, which cannot be compromised”, forcing her predominantly non-First Nations audiences “to come to us – cop that!”.

It also helped that James was a tennis nut too. Which meant that she knew she had to bring Goolagong's graceful physicality on to the stage somehow. “Not through miming tennis action”, she insisted, but through employing Indigenous choreographer, Vickie van Hout to find that grace via a pair of dancers. Well-known actor Luke Carroll, in an all-Aboriginal cast, also turned out to be an ex-tennis player.

I wonder whether the wonderful all Black cast playing white people in the American musical, 'Hamilton' – coming to Sydney next year – recently criticised by purists, will be brought up re 'Sunshine Super Girl”?

But how has it all gone down with the icon? Negotiations were on-going throughout the process. While that Sydney coach was out, a racist incident at White City when she was called out by the N word had to be in; as was reference to the paternalistic media of her time. And criticism of Evonne's insensitivity in being prepared to play in apartheid South Africa.

“But it was still nerve-wracking to bring Evonne and Roger (Cawley, her English-born, tennis pro husband) to a rehearsal”, James admitted. “I thought it was vital that she see the physicality of the show, for that heightened magic couldn't across on the pages of the script. Fortunately, they were delighted – Evonne even in tears at the end. What a great relief!”.

I hope to be able to report from Griffith after Sunshine Super Girl's world premier on 7th October; and also bring some of the flavour of the Yarruwala Festival – art exhibitions and film shows, more theatre at Warangesda, the former mission were many Wiradjuri were taken for 'assimilation', and cultural tours to Wiradjuri sites at Narrandra, Jerilderie and Leeton. It all ends on 17th October with a 'Celebration at Barellan', home of both the young Evonne Goolagong and the infamous Big Racquet looming over the town's famous tennis courts!


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Evonne Goolagong in her prime


The star of 'Sunshine Super Girl', Kate Beckett, matching the Goolagong smile, photographed by Luke Currie-Richardson


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