'Bran Nue Dae': Still wonderful and still hitting hard after 30 years

Bran Nue Dae
Bran Nue Dae

Bran Nue Dae
Director/Associate Director: Andrew Ross, Naomi Pigram
Starring Ernie Dingo, Marcus Corowa, Teresa Moore, Andrew Moran, Danielle Sibosado, Callan Purcell, Ngaire Pigram
Regal Theatre, Wandaraguttagurrup (Subiaco, WA) until February 15
Presented by Perth International Arts Festival and the West Australian Opera

Bran Nue Dae, the first Aboriginal musical, is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a national tour. Locally, it is playing in the Perth Festival to enthusiastic audiences.

Its music is an exuberant mix of country, gospel, folk, rock-and-roll and blues. Its choreography draws from traditional Aboriginal dances, Broadway musicals and other influences.

It is original, eclectic, soulful and feisty, speaking of dispossession, racism, resistance and hope.

It first burst onto the stage in 1990, fresh from Broome, Western Australia, where it was conceived by local musician Jimmy Chi, in collaboration with the Broome band Kuckles. The 2020 production features original Kuckles band member Patrick Bin Amat as musical director (and on-stage band member) and much-loved Yamiji actor Ernie Dingo in the role of Uncle Tadpole, which he played in the 1990 stage play and 2009 film.

Its narrative is semi-autobiographical, telling Chi’s story - in the persona of Willie - of being sent to a strict, 1960s Catholic Perth boarding school for Aboriginal students and returning to his sweetheart in Broome. In Chi’s words: “It is my story but it is also yours and everybody else you know who seeks love and happiness in a world clouded by injustice”.

The opening scene presents the audience with the aged Willie singing the scorching solo, "Acceptable Coon", bitterly conveying the Aboriginal experience of marginalisation, regardless of effort or achievement.

The musical’s brilliance is in the way its blunt candour is articulated with effervescent song-and-dance numbers underscored with Aboriginal humour - the tried-and-true method of coping with racism.

Its burlesque-style central song demonstrates this blending:

There's nothing I would rather be
Than to be an Aborigine
and watch you take my precious land away
For nothing gives me greater joy 
than to watch you fill each girl and boy
with superficial existential shit

Whether you know Bran Nue Dae from the 2009 film or you have never seen, you must rush to see this stage version. Its creative genius and jubilant, talented performances breach the fourth wall and invite the audience in - the comedy is infectious and the darker sequences penetrate.

The fact that Bran Nue Dae is still relevant demonstrates how little has changed since its creation.

Chi won the 1991 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Drama Award and the 1997 Australia Council Red Ochre Award. In 2004, the WA government officially recognised him as a “State Living Treasure”.

Despite this, he lived with mental health issues and died in 2017, lacking the treatment that he needed – which makes "Acceptable Coon" all the more confronting.

Chi knew the truth about Australia and Bran Nue Dae is a hammer for smashing the comforting mirror that white Australia holds up to itself. But it also points to a different future – of recognition, appreciation and understanding.

Bran Nue Dae is a touchstone of Australian culture.