Oodgeroo: 'A keeper of the law, a teller of stories'

Oodgeroo: Bloodline to CountryWritten by Sam WatsonDirected by Sean MeeWith Jonathan Brand, Darren Brady, Simon Hapea, Roxanne McDonald, Rhonda Purcell and Emma PurseyLa Boite Theatre Company

Black people "are getting stronger all across the world," declares Kath Walker, the renowned Aboriginal poet, who later in life adopted the Indigenous name of Oodgeroo Noonuccal (of the Noonuccal tribe of Stradbroke Island, off the coast near Brisbane).

"It's my country. I'm never going to leave it." It is early on in the marvellous new play Oodgeroo: Bloodline to Country, by well-known playwright, author, filmmaker, lecturer and political activist Sam Watson. Watson is national Indigenous affairs spokesperson for the Socialist Alliance.

This moving portrayal of scenes in the life of Australia's most famous Aboriginal poet consists of a dreamtime-style series of flashbacks to events in her past, centring on a dramatic incident in which Walker was a passenger on a British aeroplane seized by Palestinian hijackers in 1974.

In the play, Walker befriends a German fellow passenger. As was her lifelong way, Walker tries, this time unsuccessfully, to intercede between the Palestinian militants and the German banker.

"I am an Aboriginal woman from Australia. I am used to all this", Walker said.

The incident appears as a vehicle to highlight the difference between Walker's (Noonuccal's) pacifist approach and the militant views of her older son Denis Walker, who was a founding member (along with Sam Watson) of the Australian Black Panther Party in 1971.

The Brisbane-based Panthers were established on the inspiration of the US Black Panther Party, who galvanised the North American Black power movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Denis and Watson went on to be involved in the establishment of the Canberra Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972 and the development of a strong Aboriginal rights movement in Queensland in later years.

"All political power grows out of the barrel of a gun", Denis insists at one point, debating with his mother.

All the while, Oodgeroo's younger son Vivian, a talented dancer, appears as a spiritual presence, showing her the way toward reconciliation with her home country and her culture.

Early on in the play, we see Kath Walker as a young domestic servant for a wealthy family in Brisbane, standing up for herself against the racism of both the mistress and the master of the household.

We then see her meeting up with her husband Bruce Walker, a waterside worker, and Denis's father. For a time, Kath joined the Communist Party of Australia, the only party of the period that rejected the White Australia Policy.

Writer Mary Gilmore also appears, stressing to Kath that, "Your words have power. Your stories belong to us all." Gilmore encouraged the initial publication of Walker's poetry in the mid 1960s.

Another presence in the story is Jessie Street, radical lawyer, feminist and Aboriginal rights supporter. Street and Walker became leaders of the movement which culminated in the successful 1967 referendum that gave the Federal government the right to make specific laws for Indigenous people.

Another character is Pearl, a young Aboriginal woman of the Stolen Generation. Pearl was raped by a group of policemen, and told Kath, "That's why I don't want to be Black."

Kath befriends her and assists in her later education as a lawyer. Pearl is later able to explain to Oodgeroo that the old forms of organisation for Aboriginal rights must change: "We have to make our own way now. It's our time."

Oodgeroo, in her later life, concentrated on her Aboriginal cultural centre on Stradbroke Island, educating thousands of young people, Black and white, in traditional Indigenous ways. She died in 1993.

In a voice-over to finish the play, Sam Watson says, "Oodgeroo was a keeper of the law, a teller of stories. The moment she left us, a light went out in our lives. Her wisdom will always carry us forward."

In a discussion between the cast and audience after the play, Watson added: "Her life was a wonderful journey. We wanted to present a story that played a vital part in the history of Queensland and Australia.

"The power of her writing and her political work for Aboriginal rights, especially in the earlier period of the 1960s, made an enormous impact. Today, there is a clear link between Auntie Kath and young Blacks, learning about our history and culture," Watson said.

He confirmed that there are plans to stage the play in other cities.

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