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Natives Go Wild

Digital Program

Sydney Opera House

A note from writer & creator, Rhoda Roberts

Like many, I had heard the odd circus story of our people taken to work in what was termed the ‘Human Zoo’ – the Barnum and Bailey Great Ethnological Congress.  This came into sharp focus in 1994 when Jimmy Tambo’s embalmed body was returned from the United States to his people on Palm Island. It was a tragic story of one of our warriors, kidnapped to enhance Barnum and Baileys circus line-up known as the ‘Australian Cannibal Boomerang Throwers’. He was put on display but succumbed to pneumonia so Barnum had him embalmed so he could continue to show his prize.

Years later when I heard of the making of the film The Greatest Showman – I wondered would it show the darker side? So I began to consider a show that would honour our men and women who played significant roles in circus and vaudeville during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It has been a journey through the humbug and hype to unravel the truth and expose the extraordinary individuals who, against all odds adapted and made their circumstances work. By the 1900’s circus was, for many, a way off the Government run missions and a chance for economic independence.

But it came at a huge cost. Aboriginals were not palatable, so they changed their identities, but they were always from country, they never forgot their belonging, it was simply a matter of survival and for some, sadly their fate is still unknown.

Welcome to Natives Go Wild as we shine the light on the untold. The development of this work continues the commitment of the Sydney Opera House Trust. This has been much more than just making a theatre show, there has been tears of the past, entwined with the laughter, the passion, the cultural obligation and joy of today.

There are so many stories, but we could only tell a few to give it justice. The writing took many shapes, there was so much surprising history but our creative genius collaborators have helped us reveal the essence of this history in a short production. Damian Robinson our Musical Director weaved some of my badly written lyrics into a composition with rhythm, chorus and stomp. Our Directors Chelsea McGuffin and Mark Howett were like contortionists bending and twisting, observing male and female cultural elements and combining a story that simply was not black and white. Mark provided a triple somersault to also be our Lighting and Set Designer. Tim Chappel combined the theatrics of bespoke costumes, enabling elements of the culture nuances. Our Chorographer, Waangenga Blanco took on the challenge, unleashing his talent and experience with Bangarra.

Thanks to the extraordinary Steve Howarth (Erth) who brought our Feejee mermaid to life, to Mat Hornby our make up artist, the team at Sydney Prop, Bell Shakespeare, and Maggie Kelley of Wild Spirit for all her support during the rehearsal phase. A huge thank you to you all for your contributions.

Finally the brave cast, who entered uncharted waters, some for the first time, which we are most proud of. It is so important there is the opportunity of intergenerational transfer of knowledge and skills. After all it is our cultural way and I’m thrilled our Director of Programming, Fiona Winning supported our cultural conscience when many in the industry would consider it a huge risk.

In the late 1900’s Beau James and Mika Haka were our new pioneers. They went out to the edge, combining cabaret and circus with their cultural and contemporary voices. I thank them for their guidance in this production. Seini Taumoepeau, our songwoman, brings the voice of our story alive. Waangenga Blanco has created the dance that will have you wiggling your hips. Finally, the younger members Samuel Taukave and Josephine Mailisi reminded us all that the cultural voice of 2019 is as relevant as it’s always been.

I applaud the enormous work of our Senior Producer, Letila Mitchell, who has created a family where nobody gets left behind. From our emerging artists to our seasoned professionals, she has delicately weaved the passion of our creatives and combined the eye of our Directors, ensuring a contemporary platform of expression delivered by a dedicated crew.

What a privilege and a pleasure it has been to write this production.
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Natives Go Wild. 

Director's note, Chelsea McGuffin

To be part of this project has felt like a bit of a dream.  Natives Go Wild has been a long term vision for Rhoda Roberts and to be asked to be part of the team to bring it to life still seems unreal.  It has been a process over a few years and we could endlessly dig deeper.  We have had a few waves of creatives who have all contributed to the process in great ways and also shared their personal stories. There has been a real vulnerability and honesty that I have encountered in this work which is different from any other process I have experienced.  I can only thank everyone for the trust. I feel very honoured to stand with the team who present this work on stage, and the team that has worked so hard behind the scenes. Thanks to Rhoda and Mark for opening my creative thinking to new ways.  This work is full of stories which need to be told and understood, and are told through the eyes and bodies of an outstanding creative team who have their own stories to share as well. 

About the show

Fascination and fear drove the circus culture of the late nineteenth century. The voracious ambitions of the likes of PT Barnum & Bailey not only exploited the ignorant audiences of the day with their calculated fake news and humbug, but more menacingly, they kidnapped, mistreated and imperilled numerous performers from all corners of the globe as they “collected specimens” of the world’s culture.

Australia became a particular exploitation ground for Barnum’s agent Robert A. Cunningham. He procured Australian Aborigines from Hinchinbrook and Palm Islands to exhibit as ‘natives and savages’ in his Ethnological Congress of Strange Tribes, or the Human Zoo as it became known.

These ‘great showmen’ built their empires and fame on falsehoods and fascination as they brought the wonders of the wild world to their titillated audiences by “recruiting” their human zoo.

Characters were created as curiosities for public spectacle. Many of the performers perished, while others invented themselves into stars of circus culture to survive in the following decades. Our story takes us into both the anguish and the achievements of these resilient people.

Natives Go Wild introduces us to several of these larger than life characters, as they emerge from history into our show to tell their very real stories with provocative political humour and social commentary through an array of burlesque and cabaret style entertainment. Among the many acts that were created, we meet acrobat William Jones ‘Little Nugget’ and the ‘Wizard of the Wire’ tightrope walker Con Colleano. The Great Con Colleano, an Aboriginal man reinvented as a Spaniard, continued to entertain as one of the world’s renowned circus stars into his 60s, giving  his last performance in Hawaii in 1960. We will also hear stories of the ‘FeeJee’ Mermaid and the Bearded Lady as we explore European perceptions of the Pacific through the distorted lens of the Human Zoo.

The stories of these performers, their challenges and their success continue to live on and we acknowledge them.


Exposing the fallacy of circus ‘showmen’

Debunking the myth of circus showmen ahead of Opera House original production Natives Go Wild. Learn the truth of a business that coerced and scammed First People, who were put on display and forced to perform.

The Creative Team

Meet the incredible cast and creative crew behind the world premiere Sydney Opera House season, Natives Go Wild. Bringing it to life is a cohort of stellar international First Nations cabaret and circus performers, spearheaded by a creative team of global renown.

Rhoda Roberts

Rhoda Roberts
Writer & Creator

Natives Go Wild is conceived, written and fearlessly led by Rhoda Roberts AO, Sydney Opera House Head of First Nations Programming.  A proud Widjubal woman, Rhoda has over 20 years of experience developing, participating in and curating work that focuses on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

As the curator behind Sydney Opera House’s First Nations festivals Homeground (2014-2017) and Dance Rites (2015-2019), Rhoda has been a conduit of sharing her culture with the people of Sydney. She is also a highly regarded journalist, actor, producer and writer behind projects such as the 2000 Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, as well as the Opening Ceremony “Awakening” segment, and the Festival of Dreaming.

Chelsea McGuffin

Chelsea McGuffin

Chelsea McGuffin is a circus performer and leading circus director from Brisbane, QLD and is leading our mob as the Director of Natives Go Wild. Chelsea began her training at the Centre for Performing Arts Australia in dance where she then moved on to work in circus companies such as Circus Monoxide, Flipside Circus and CIRCA Contemporary Circus. Since founding her own company, Company2, she has been committed to creating her own work which combines her dance background and passion for circus.

Listen to Chelsea on the Deadly Voices podcast and hear all about her directorial decisions for this exciting new circus.

Mark Howlett

Mark Howlett
Assistant Director, Set and Lighting Design

Our creative team is rounded out by Helpmann Award winning theatre director and lighting designer Mark Howett, busily finalising the incredible set and lighting design, while assisting Chelsea McGuffin’s theatrical direction. Mark has worked with a number of internationally acclaimed directors including Rufus Norris (Cabaret, Savoy Theatre, 2012); Neil Armfield (The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company, 2013); Stephen Page (Rites, Bangarra/Australian Ballet, 1999); and Francesca Zambello (Love of Three Oranges, Opera Australia, 2004). In 2016 he was appointed as Artistic Director of Ochre Contemporary Dance Company, Perth.

Tim Chappel

Tim Chappel
Costume Design

We are very excited to be working with Academy Award-winning costume designer Tim Chappel and his iconic style which has brought to life major movie and stage productions including Priscilla, Queen of the Desert The Musical, Miss Congeniality and Guys and Dolls. Currently Tim is the genius behind the outrageous costumes on Channel 10’s The Masked Singer. We can’t wait to see what he has in store for The Great Wizard of the High Wire and the exotic ‘FeeJee’ Mermaid…

Damian Robinson

Damian Robinson
Music Director

Tying the show together with an original score is producer and composer Damian Robinson, the creative force behind the band Wicked Beat Sound System. Damian has spent many years leading the Sound Design and Engineering for multiple Sydney Opera House productions including shows for Opera Australia and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Sneak Peek: Natives Go Wild Costumes

Tim Chappel's Design for the 'The Ringmaster'
Tim Chappel's Design for the 'FeeJee Mermaid'
Tim Chappel's Design for 'Con Colleano'

The Cast

Mika Haka

Mika Haka
The Ringmaster

To start off our cast we introduce incandescent queer Maori performance artist, Mika Haka. An absolute firecracker in New Zealand’s performance art world, Mika’s life has been an ongoing production of both the fabulous and the revolutionary. After discovering disco in the ‘70s, Mika has worked with Carmen, Dalvanius Prime and others to develop striking stage shows. He erupted onto the screen with Harvey Keitel, playing a takatapui role in the film The Piano. He has recorded seven albums in Maori and in English and has received an APRA Maioha Award nomination recognising his contribution to contemporary Maori music. Mika will be leading our cast as the as the effervescent Ring Master.

Listen to Mika on the Deadly Voices podcast

Waangenga Blanco

Waangenga Blanco
Con Colleano, Choreographer

Next we introduce our ‘Wizard of the High Wire’, Mer Island dancer Waangenga Blanco. Waangenga is a star of the stage after dancing as a celebrated principal artist for over 13 years with Bangarra Dance Company. He won an Australian Dance Award and Greenroom Award for his performance in the 2014 production of Patyegarang. Waangenga broke out on screen in 2009 featuring in the acclaimed film Bran Nue Dae, and then again in The Turning (2013) and Stephen Page’s SPEAR (2016). Most recently he won the Helpmann Award for Best Male Dancer in 2018. He hopes to inspire his deep love and connection to Country and culture through his work. Waangenga also stepped into the role of Choreographer to lead the movement of our cast in Natives Go Wild. 

Josephine Mailisi

Josephine Mailisi
Contortionist, 'FeeJee Mermaid'

We are very excited to welcome to the stage Niuean multidisciplinary artist Josephine Mailisi. Josie is a talented contortionist, aerialist, choreographer and dancer. Some of her career highlights include MOTIVE 2018 where she was an aerial hoop soloist and co-producer, and the 2018 All Blacks vs China half time entertainment where she performed as an aerialist. Josie will be bringing our ‘FeeJee Mermaid’ to life through mesmerising contortion.

Listen to Josephine on the Deadly Voices podcast

Beau James

Beau James
'Little Nugget', Clown

Beau James is from the Mununjali clan of the Ygambeh Nation from South East Queensland. With over 25 years of experience working as a circus artist, physical comedian and cabaret performer. James has worked for a variety of Australian companies writing and producing their own collection of works through which they strive to highlight life within the LBGTQIA+ community, focusing on issues such as race, gender, culture and sexuality. See Beau showcase their circus skills and escape from a straitjacket, inspired by William ‘Billy’ Jones AKA ‘Little Nugget’.

Seini Taumoepeau

Seini Taumoepeau

Bringing in a touch more Pacific flare, we welcome Seini Taumoepeau AKA SistaNative, a Tongan Australian who has a career spanning over 30 years in the performing arts as a presenter and a performer. She has been involved in broadcasting since she was 13 years old and is committed to extending the stories and narratives of Oceania and refers to herself as an orator and song woman.

Listen to Seini on the Deadly Voices podcast

Samuela Taujave

Samuela Taujave
Warrior, Savage Native

Last, but definitely not least, we welcome Samuela Taujave AKA Skillz. Rotuman musician, performer and visual artist currently managing and performing in Rako Pasefika. Performing as the warrior, the strong man, the savage native. See the story come vividly to life in Natives Go Wild.


We would like to acknowledge the contributions of all who have worked on Natives Go Wild from its very first inception to our performance here at the Sydney Opera House including creative and production contributions from Casey Donovon, Steven Oliver, Ria Hall, Susan Broadway, Sarah Fields and Neil Simpson.

Natives Go Wild was conceived and written by Sydney Opera House Head of First Nations Programming, Rhoda Roberts AO.

Directed by Chelsea McGuffin (Company 2) with co director Mark Howett (The Secret River) also acting as set and lighting designer. Costumes Designer Tim Chappel (Academy and BAFTA Award winner for The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and Musical Direction is by Damian Robinson (Wicked Beat Sound System).  Make up by Mat Hornsby.

Special thanks to the incredible Natives Go Wild crew:
Annie Winter, Production Manager
Emma Patterson, Stage Manager

Sydney Opera House team:
Fiona Winning, Director of Programming
Kate Di Mattina, Head of Operations & Business Management
Letila Mitchell, Producer
Brigid Collaery, Account Manager 
Walter Hart, Production Manager
Hannah Worrall, Marketing Manager
Georgia McKay, Senior Communications Manager
Esther Crowley, Marketing Associate
Alice Nguyen, Communications Coordinator
Genevieve Smith, Marketing Coordinator
Olivia Langford, Programming Coordinator
Emily Martin, Corporate Counsel
Susie Anderson & Josh Milch, Digital Programming Associates
Dan Ingham & Coral Chum, Creative
Leonie Jones, Mark Kilroy & Catherine Engstrom, Video 

Media Partner


With thanks

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.