'The only Aborigine and lesbian in the world'

Issue 

'The only Aborigine and lesbian in the world'

White Baptist Abba Fan
Directed by Cathy Downes
Written and performed by Deborah Cheetham
Presented by the Adelaide Festival Centre and the Feast Lesbian and Gay Cultural Festival
Phone (08) 8231 2155

Review by Natalie Woodlock

"Long before she was a gay Koori opera singer, Deborah Cheetham was a white Baptist Abba fan." This sentence, used on the publicity, is an apt description of this play.

White Baptist Abba Fan is written and performed by Cheetham and tells her story. Dialogue is interspersed with snippets of opera, accompanied by piano, cello, viola and clarinet.

Cheetham is now an acclaimed opera singer and has performed professionally since the early 1990s.

She was taken from her mother as an infant and brought up in a white middle-class Baptist family. The first sentence she was taught to say was, "I'm Deborah Cheetham and I'm an adopted Aboriginal".

Cheetham describes her childhood as one of growing up the only black person she knew. Conversations she had in early childhood with her mother are recounted. Why was she the only Aboriginal person she knew? Why was she adopted? She was told that her mother had abandoned her as a baby, leaving her in a field.

Speaking of her emerging sexuality, Cheetham says: "By the time I was in my teens, I had forgotten about being the only Aborigine in the world and was more worried about being the only lesbian". Being head of the choir in the Baptist Church and being homosexual collided eventually, and Cheetham was thrown out of the church.

What distinguishes White Baptist Abba Fan as a very valuable piece of theatre is the insight it offers into the trauma of being part of the stolen generation. Like many other kids taken from her parents, Cheetham did not meet her family until she was in her mid-20s.

With no memories to contradict what she had been told, it came as a shock to learn she had not been abandoned but taken from her mother. Deborah's mother was told that the Salvation Army would take care of her baby while she went to work picking beans to buy food and clothes for her child. When she returned, her baby was gone.

White Baptist Abba Fan is very moving theatre. Deborah Cheetham's experiences of being taken, struggling to find her Aboriginal identity, being a lesbian despite disapproval from her white family and becoming an acclaimed opera singer later in life are told with passion and humour.

Cheetham's performance is excellent. A highlight of the Feast Lesbian and Gay Cultural Festival.