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.