Sheppard moves them along

July 24, 2010

Chasing the Lollyman
Presented by deBASE Productions
State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

“Move them along!”, referring to police strategies to deal with loitering Aboriginal people on Australia’s urban streets, was a phrase parodied to hilarity by Mark Sheppard during his acclaimed one-man show, Chasing the Lollyman, which ran at the State Library of Queensland during NAIDOC Week.

During more than an hour of acting, singing, dancing and rapid costume change, Sheppard explored his memories of growing up in raucous scenes of childhood antics with older family members and reflections on his identity as an urban Aboriginal and a Murri man.

Mixed with the anecdotes was sharp satire addressing the representation and portrayal of Aboriginal people by the media, the complex field of Indigenous identity, police prejudice, the legacy of Aboriginal missions, Aboriginal political representation and national reconciliation.

Sheppard, a member of the Muluridgi and Mbarbarum communities, grew up in Mareeba, in north Queensland. After studying Aboriginal Music Theatre at the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts in the late 1990s, he completed a Bachelor of Arts (Theatre) at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

He has since worked with companies such as Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre Company, Black Swan Theatre Company in Perth and Kooemba Jdarra in Brisbane.

Sheppard was inspired to create Chasing the Lollyman, produced by deBASE Productions, by “wanting to share storytelling and yarns; it really started sitting on the back veranda with my housemates, Liz Skitch and Fiona McGary, and telling some of these yarns”.

He wanted “to create a conversation about the stories that connect us to each other and to discuss how we can explore our sense of identity and being comfortable in our own skin”.

The performance began with Sheppard’s recollections of the childhood game of “chasing the lollyman”, in which an uncle, on family days out, would don a hessian sack sewn with lollies and sprint off with the children in hot pursuit.

“It was”, Sheppard said, “all about community”.

A skit in the show called “Finding your Inner Aboriginality” was an initiation into Aboriginal language and customs. It was earnest in tone and strong on parody.

Sporting glasses, scarf and a clipboard, Sheppard took on the demeanour of officialdom, delivering a seminar presentation on Aboriginality with “objectives”, “strategies” and “outcomes”.

The audience soon grasped the meaning and pronunciation of Muh! (can you believe it?), bigesmob (a large gathering of people) and Gibbiddum (give it to them), comprehension vital to our survival of the show.

Sheppard said the skit “was inspired by that word, Aboriginality. Some people see it as a threat or a way to define someone, so I thought it would be interesting to look at how this is sometimes used to define someone.”

In fact, Sheppard eluded any attempt to neatly categorise his identity, even as he located himself within a dialogue about Aboriginality. His sense of self, social, cultural and sexual, was as complex and multi-faceted, even contradictory, as with any other human being.

His humour also embraced himself and audience, so we were not so much spectators as part of one big conversation. Audience participation further broke down barriers as we were cajoled and persuaded to engage in verbal banter or join him in creating an improvised dance.

But the reality of the unequal playing field in our nation surfaced throughout the show.

The media penetrates our lives at every level, but how many Aboriginal faces lead in the news, drama serials, or even travel programs? Sheppard showed how it could be done with a new TV holiday program, Queensland’s Best Kept Secret — Queensland’s Missions.

As the presenter, Sheppard initiated us into the local customs and attractions on an Aboriginal mission, whether eating local food or staying with an Aboriginal family in their modest home “built to accommodate three families”.

Confronting stereotypes, inequality and racism was inescapable, even as we were enthralled in “having a laugh”.

Sheppard said: “Humour is a great way to look at anything that’s a bit hard to look at; it defuses any tension and makes it okay to talk about almost anything. It also means you’re not up there preaching, you’re up there talking to people.”

As Sheppard changed from superhero, Neighbours star, TV chef (“Mark Oliver”) to politician, I was also reminded of Frantz Fanon’s claim that the dreams of the colonised “are muscular dreams, dreams of action, dreams of aggressive vitality. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running and climbing. I dream I burst out laughing, I am leaping across a river and chased by a pack of cars that never catches up with me.”

The show ended on a serious note as Sheppard, representing the first Aboriginal prime minister, delivered an eloquent, sobering and thought-provoking monologue invoking hope for unity, Aboriginal recognition and dignity in the future.

Was this an endorsement of national “reconciliation”?

“My vision of a future Australia is what I was trying to express with the final speech”, Sheppard said. “It is about recognising the past and coming together to be truly one country in the future.”

His speech also highlighted the conundrum. While there are many Indigenous achievers who have succeeded in their chosen fields of endeavour, a number of Aboriginal MPs, activists and advocates, there are still very few Indigenous figures at the upper levels of decision-making in government and national life.

Genuinely connecting to each other and being comfortable in our skins will become a reality only when we no longer live with the unacceptable inequalities and injustices for Aboriginal Australians.

Chasing the Lollyman left the mark of its brilliant wit, but profoundly reminds us of the scandalous political and social realities that do not befit a nation that prides itself on egalitarianism and “a fair go”. Post-colonial Australia remains a goal, not an achievement.

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