Wednesday, January 4, 2012

INDIG-CURIOUS Who can play Aboriginal Roles? by Jane Harrison

Jane Harrison
Photo by permission of Currency House

INDIG-CURIOUS Who can play Aboriginal Roles? by Jane Harrison.  Currency House: Platform Papers No 30, January 2012

Review by Frank McKone

Way back in my innocent youth I played the part of Lick Jimmy in the stage version of Ruth Park’s novel Harp in the South.  (If you would like to see the evidence, click )

Self-aggrandisement is not my desire nowadays, but Jane Harrison’s essay in the Currency House quarterly Platform Papers has raised an embarrassing question.  Who gave me permission to play a Chinese character, presumably entirely fictional, with all my cultural assumptions about his mannerisms which I mimed (or rather mined, since it was a Broken Hill Rep production) for comic effect?

Considering the treatment of Chinese people in Australian history, was my performance an insult rather than a light-hearted touch in a warm-hearted drama (actually about Irish Catholics in down-at-heel Surry Hills)?

Jane Harrison is a playwright, a descendant of the Muruwari people of NSW, who describes herself as “light-skinned”.  Her plays, Stolen, Rainbow’s End, Blakvelvet and Custody have variously won significant prizes, have been produced in Australia and overseas, and been placed on English syllabi in Victoria and NSW.  This essay was based on the thesis which gained her an MA in Playwriting at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

In other words, who am I, a one-time British immigrant, to criticise?

Well, here goes….  What I have found is a highly interesting study written from within the experience of a person accepted and identified as Aboriginal, while able to stand outside as a researcher and creative writer coming to terms herself with the fact that “Those [non-Indigenous people] who do know something about Aboriginal culture might assume that everybody shares in that knowledge, but in my experience ‘everybody’ doesn’t.  [I am] regularly asked … maybe because, as a light-skinned Aboriginal person, I am not seen as ‘threatening’…” 

From her interviews and references to almost everyone one can think of involved in Aboriginal theatre, before as well as since Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers (1968), and even including careful use of Germaine Greer’s Quarterly Essay 11 Whitefella Jump Up: The Shortest Way to Nationhood, Harrison reveals the complexity involved in the apparently simple question Who can play Aboriginal roles?

I represent the people she curiously calls ‘Indig-curious’.  She writes: “We need Indig-curious audiences and an Indig-curious readership.  No Aboriginal person I know wants to exclude non-Aboriginal people from the mix, or expects to see them excluded, but whether it be in matters of research or writing, Aboriginal people have a set of knowledges that we want to express and don’t want to feel like our intellectual property is there for the taking.  So, right now, at this point in our history, we need Aboriginal people to be in control of the message and the way in which that message is expressed.”

This is Jane Harrison’s message, after following up many issues: What causes offence?; Who is writing about us and why?; Aboriginal themes, can they be defined?; Why are they writing (and painting) like us?; Responsibility, anxiety and guilt: the burdens of the message maker; Can Aboriginality be learnt?; Lessons learnt – no longer ‘blacking up’; Why white girls don’t Dreamtime.

If you are Aboriginal, I think Harrison’s discussion will help clarify how to control your message and how to express it.  If you are Indig-curious like me (and I hope we all are) her work turns our cross-cultural mess into understandable elements which might be mixed with care into a new recipe for an Australian culture in this century.

In the meantime, I had better apologise to the Australian Chinese community for my Lick Jimmy act in 1965.  My only excuse is, as Germaine Greer wrote concerning Aboriginal people: “White Australians are in the main anxious to avoid upsetting black Autralians by referring to them in ways they might find offensive, but at the same time they are so unfamilar with black people that they have no way of knowing what gives offence and what doesn’t.” 

Reading INDIG-CURIOUS Who can play Aboriginal roles? is well worthwhile.

Go to for more info about Platform Papers.