National Black Theatre

2008
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National Black Theatre

In 1970 Bob Maza joined a delegation of Indigenous Australians to attend the third Pan African Conference in the United States. There he discovered the political power of theatre and was particularly impressed with the work being produced by African Americans and American Indians. On his return to Australia, Maza became engaged in the local theatre scene in Melbourne. [1]

At the same time, Paul Coe, Lester Bostock, Gary Foley and Jenny Sheehan (a non-Indigenous theatre student from the University of Sydney), had formed a theatre group and were calling themselves the National Black Theatre. Politically driven street performances were a feature of early work, including one performance in which a well-known Aboriginal activist was beaten and arrested by Aboriginal actors dressed as police. The scene was viewed by a lawyer who contacted the Aboriginal Legal Service with advice, prompting them to ring all the police stations in Sydney demanding the release of 'the Aboriginal person arrested'. [2]

The group applied for a grant through the newly appointed Aboriginal Arts Advisory Committee of the Australia Council, but was rejected on the grounds of lack of experience. They were also struggling to connect to plays written in the European tradition. Lester Bostock commented:

We couldn't understand it … It didn't fit with what we were doing … We started sitting around, fooling around, telling our own stories, stories that our parents, aunties and uncles had told us … Someone said, 'Hey that's what we should be writing about.' [3]

The group invited Bob Maza from Melbourne to join them, as he had experience and was starting to write plays with an Aboriginal perspective. In 1972 they collaborated with the Nimrod Theatre to produce Basically Black, a series of satirical sketches. Basically Black toured the eastern states in 1973 and was very popular with Aboriginal people. It was also screened on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) television. [4] The most important breakthrough for the group was the political impact the play had on Aboriginal people. Gary Foley remarked at the time:

I must have talked to thousands of people from the political platform, but I never felt I was getting through as well as I am at the Nimrod Theatre. [5]

In 1974 the National Black Theatre finally secured government funding and opened an Art and Cultural Centre in a warehouse in Botany Street, Redfern. Bettie Fisher was appointed administrator and raised the profile of the theatre by inviting visiting black artists Roberta Flack and Russand Roland Kirk to the opening. [6] The Cake Man, written by Robert Merritt, was the theatre's first formal production, with Justine Saunders and Zac Martin in the lead roles. [7] On opening night, the theatre was so packed that many people stood outside and listened through the walls. The playwright, Robert Merritt, was a prisoner at Long Bay jail and was escorted to the performance by police guard. On the stage at the end of the performance, he was presented with a cake. [8]

Following the success of The Cake Man, the National Black Theatre continued to expand, receiving a grant for $86,000 in June 1975. In 1976 it produced another Indigenous play, Here Comes the Nigger, written by Gerry Bostock. Sadly, the company's administrator, Bettie Fisher, died in 1976 and the company struggled to secure funding following her death. Despite the success of Here Comes the Nigger, funding for the National Black Theatre was cut in 1976–77 and as a result the centre closed in 1977. [9]

Notes

[1] Bob Maza quoted in 'Bob Maza: Playwright, Actor and Director', Liz Thompson (ed), Aboriginal Voices: Contemporary Aboriginal Artists, Writers and Performers, Simon & Schuster, 1999, p 163

[2] Maryrose Casey, Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967–1990, University of Queensland Press, 2004, pp 44–45

[3] Lester Bostock quoted in Maryrose Casey, Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967–1990, University of Queensland Press, 2004, pp 50–51

[4] Gillian Oxford, 'The Purple Everlasting: the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in Australia', Theatre Quarterly, vol 7, Summer 1977, pp 96–97

[5] Gary Foley quoted in Maryrose Casey, Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967–1990, University of Queensland Press, 2004, pp 56–57

[6] Anna Cole and Wendy Lewis, 'Fisher, Bettie (1939?–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 14, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996, pp 170–71

[7] Maryrose Casey, Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967–1990, University of Queensland Press, 2004, p 101

[8] Maryrose Casey, Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967–1990, University of Queensland Press, 2004, pp 104–05

[9] Maryrose Casey, Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967–1990, University of Queensland Press, 2004, pp 109–16

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