Eternal history

The story of First Nations theatre
at the Sydney Opera House

Opera, classical music, fine dining, incredible architecture, and harbour views. This is what most people might recall when asked to reflect on their experiences at the Sydney Opera House.

Since its opening in 1973 the Opera House has carried a deeper legacy, one that embraces, challenges and celebrates Australian culture. 

But what of Australia’s First Peoples and First Nations culture? How does a cultural institution like the Opera House celebrate First Nations work, or more specifically works for the stage? Has it always done so?

For First Nations people, their stories have featured strongly and consistently on Australian stages since the first plays written and commercially produced during the 1960s and 1970s. They focused on individual and family experiences, their life, and history.

A brief history of First Nations theatre

In New South Wales, writers like Kevin Gilbert made their mark with The Cherry Pickers in 1968. Robert Merritt’s The Cake Man was performed by the Black Theatre Redfern in 1975, and Gerry Bostock’s Here Comes the N***** in 1976.

From Western Australia, it was with Noongar writer Jack Davis’ First Born TrilogyKullark (1979), The Dreamers (1982), and No Sugar (1985). 

Deborah Mailman in Sydney Theatre Company’s The 7 Stages of Grieving, 2002.  Photo: Tracey Schramm

By the 1990s and 2000s there were a number of young women performers embracing an autobiographic form, including Noongar writer and performer Ningali Lawford with her one woman show Ningali (1994) (the Sydney Opera House’s original 2019 production Natives Go Wild is dedicated to Ningali Lawford).

In Queensland, a young Deborah Mailman debuted her work The 7 Stages of Grieving in 1996. It was co-authored by Wesley Enoch, who is now the current Artistic Director at Sydney Festival, and will be presented again in 2020 by Sydney Theatre Company. In New South Wales, the attention was on Leah Purcell and her 1997 one-woman show Box the Pony, a semi-autobiographical story about a young diva in rural Queensland.

The cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Sunshine Club, 2000.  Photo: Tracey Schramm

First Nations artists and companies like Nindethana in Melbourne, Kooemba Jdarra in Brisbane and the Black Theatre in NSW developed and presented most of these works. When it came to reaching a broader audience base for these stories many made their way to the Opera House.

When and how they came to be presented there highlights a critical turning point in First Nations programming at the House. The work that followed contributes to this legacy. 

Deborah Mailman in Sydney Theatre Company’s The 7 Stages of Grieving, 2002.  Photo: Tracey Schramm

Deborah Mailman in Sydney Theatre Company’s The 7 Stages of Grieving, 2002.  Photo: Tracey Schramm

Deborah Mailman in Sydney Theatre Company’s The 7 Stages of Grieving, 2002.  Photo: Tracey Schramm

The cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Sunshine Club, 2000.  Photo: Tracey Schramm

The cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Sunshine Club, 2000.  Photo: Tracey Schramm

The cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Sunshine Club, 2000.  Photo: Tracey Schramm

Cradle of Hercules programme, Sydney Opera House, March 1974

Cradle of Hercules programme, March 1974

Cradle of Hercules programme, March 1974

‘Aboriginal Artists Season’ at the Sydney Opera House, 1985. Photo: Sydney Opera House archives

‘Aboriginal Artists Season’ at the Sydney Opera House, 1985. Photo: Sydney Opera House archives

‘Aboriginal Artists Season’ at the Sydney Opera House, 1985. Photo: Sydney Opera House archives

‘The Dreamers’ starring Jack Charles, 1983. Image: Don McMurdo

‘The Dreamers’ starring Jack Charles, 1983. Image: Don McMurdo

‘The Dreamers’ starring Jack Charles, 1983. Image: Don McMurdo

The fight to document history

In looking at the history of engagement with First Nations work at the House, it’s hard to get a real sense of the magnitude and significance of work. The documented history is a minefield to navigate.

Then there is the issue of what makes a work First Nations—Australia’s live performing arts database AusStage has over six thousand recorded entries of Opera House events and productions.

‘Aboriginal Artists Season’ at the Sydney Opera House, 1985. Photo: Sydney Opera House archives

According to the site, the first work to include First Nations casting was in March 1974, just one year after its opening, with The Cradle of Hercules in the Playhouse.

The Opera House archives show actors Jack Charles, Silvia Doolan, Alanna Coorey and Zac Martin appeared in the production, alongside a young Yolngu dancer named David Gulpilil—three years after he starred in the Cannes-nominated film Walkabout.

“Of interest to me is not just the recorded histories, but the experiences of those who were there...”

History, or the ideal eternal history, as Italian political philosopher Giambattista Vico coined, is the perfect course through which all nations pass.

‘The Dreamers’ starring Jack Charles, 1983. Image: Don McMurdo

In practice, however, each nation travels through history slightly differently. The archive merely reflects current state interests. Recorded histories are therefore suspect at best.

Of interest to me is not just the recorded histories, but the experiences of those who were there and how these accounts might shed light on the history of First Nations programming at the House.

It was to this end that I invited Rhoda Roberts AO, Head of First Nations Programming at Sydney Opera House, to share her stories. She had been inextricably linked to the history of First Nations work at the House. I would cross-reference her stories with the recorded histories.

“The House had always supported Aboriginal artists,” she told me, “but it was never in a strategic or consistent manner”.

'National Aboriginal Day' programme 1978

'National Aboriginal Day' programme 1978

'National Aboriginal Week' programme 1979

'National Aboriginal Week' programme 1979

'National Aboriginal Day' programme 1978

'National Aboriginal Day' programme 1978

'National Aboriginal Week' programme 1979

'National Aboriginal Week' programme 1979

Building a legacy 

In recalling her first memory of attending an event at the House, Roberts couldn’t determine an exact date.

“I remember going to NAIDOC Week, or ‘Aboriginal Week’ as it was called then,” she said. “It was mainly country and western music with Wilma Reading, Jimmy Little and Candy Williams—the guys that were around in the 70s and 80s. They would hold those concerts every year.”

As documented in the Opera House archives, Aboriginal Week took place in July 1978 and The Country Outcasts, Urban Island Dancers, and The Waratahs performed. Some years later in the late 80s and early 90s, when Rhoda was involved with the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust (ANTT) producing Aboriginal works with leading creatives, she came in contact with Sue Nattrass, then serving as a Trustee of the Sydney Opera House.

According to Roberts, Nattrass was a big supporter of this type of programming. She encouraged Rhoda to become firmly entrenched in First Nations programming at the House. 

In the archives the program included a ‘Wimins’ Business Solo Series with productions of The 7 Stages of Grieving by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, Box the Pony by Leah Purcell, Ningali by Ningali Jose Lawford, and White Baptist Abba Fan with Deb Cheetham.

There were also international guests and productions, among them: Nga Pou Wahine by Maori artists Briar Grace Smith and Rachel Hose; More Feathers than Beads by Rappahannock nation artist Murielle Borst; and works by Cree/Saulteaux performance maker Margot Kane.

In 2012 Rhoda took the reins of the festival in her new role as Head of Aboriginal Programming, and introduced a more diverse range of Aboriginal artist presentations that reflected the success of the 1997 Festival of the Dreaming program.

This planted the roots for Message Sticks, a program in 2013 that brought together dance, music and public discussions on First Nations issues. Works featured during the festival include Woollarawarre Bennelong of the Wangal, the play Wulamanayuwi & the Seven Papanui by Jason De Santis, the Bennelong Memorial Address by Stan Grant, the historic dance showcase Dancestry, the Yolngu Weavers, and Ngambala Niji.

Getting programming out of the House and onto the Forecourt was a key component of her strategy, realised for the first time in 2014 with Homeground, a landmark celebration of First Nations art and culture. At its epicentre was Dance Rites, a national First Nations dance competition spanning generations, nations, and clans, which in 2018 became its own headline event.

The 1996 program for ‘Ningali’ at Sydney Festival. The Opera House’s ‘Natives Go Wild’ is dedicated to Ningali Lawford.

The 1996 program for ‘Ningali’ at Sydney Festival. The Opera House’s ‘Natives Go Wild’ is dedicated to Ningali Lawford.

The 1996 program for ‘Ningali’ at Sydney Festival. The Opera House’s ‘Natives Go Wild’ is dedicated to Ningali Lawford.

The 1996 program for ‘Ningali’ at Sydney Festival. The Opera House’s ‘Natives Go Wild’ is dedicated to Ningali Lawford.

A new era of theatre

Rhoda’s latest project is Natives Go Wild, a provocative new First Nations cabaret that examines the critical role of First Peoples in circus history, stemming from Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth in the United States, and the FitzGerald Brothers’ Circus in Australia and New Zealand in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

For Roberts, Natives Go Wild is about truth telling, and honouring the resilience of First Nations performers who were lured or coerced to join travelling circuses, many of whom hid their identities to escape the Aboriginal Protection Board.

These children grew up to create their own circus practices, and for Roberts, “a lot of these people don’t know this history”. This new work revives this history through the meeting of cabaret, vaudeville and circus.

The history of First Nations programming at the House will not always be found in archives. It lives instead in the memories of those who were there. These experiences live on in the stories shared by our Elders, peers, sectors, and communities. 

Natives Go Wild opening night

Natives Go Wild. Photo: Anna Kucera

Natives Go Wild. Photo: Anna Kucera

Photography and archival material:

Sydney Theatre Company archives

Sydney Festival archives

Isabella Feros, Publicist, Sydney Festival

Don McMurdo, photographer

Valerie Ng, Records Management Specialist

Tracey Schramm, photographer