'York': the truth and terror of Western Australia's racist history

The cast of York telling the history of racist murder in the early settlement of the district
The cast of York, telling the history of racist murder in the early settlement of Western Australia. Photo supplied

Written by Ian Michael and Chris Isaacs
Directed by Clare Watson and Ian Wilkes
Starring Shakira Clanton, Isaac Diamond, Jo Morris, Ben Mortley, Benjamin Narkle, Jacob Narkle, Sophie Quin, Maitland Schnaars, Alison Van Reeken, Elise Wilson
Black Swan Theatre Company in collaboration with WA Youth Theatre Company
At Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth until August 1

York is an inland, regional town in Western Australia, one of the first districts settled by white invaders after the establishment of the Swan River Settlement. It is Ballardong Nyoongar country and was the site of massacres and the first hangings of Aboriginal people in WA.

The old York hospital, built in 1896, is a now a hostel for visiting school groups. It has a widely-known reputation for creepy paranormal occurrences.

The history and the menacing stories come together in this new play, written by Ian Michael and Chris Isaacs.

York opens with a tree-change couple — one Aboriginal, the other non-Aboriginal — moving into the old hospital, with plans for renovation and a stylish country life.

An ancient tree growing in the garden is introduced, and looms large later in the narrative. We are told it has rotten roots and a canker in its limbs.

The first act is a sophisticated mix of light comedy and gothic horror, as the old hospital's ghosts emerge and cause mayhem. While the touch is light, it is genuinely frightening.

However, the second act moves into the true story behind the hauntings and the comedy falls away. Like an archaeological dig, layers of violence and racism are revealed, first in the period immediately following WWI, and then the earlier times of settler brutality.

York is the product of four years of cross-cultural collaboration. Co-writer Ian Michael is a proud Wilman Nyoongar man born in Darwin and raised in Bunbury, and the play was co-directed by Nyoongar performer-writer Ian Wilkes and Black Swan State Theatre Company's artistic director, Clare Watson.

Aboriginal cultural protocols were meticulously followed in gathering the York district's stories of settlement from the Ballardong point of view.

“York is a truth telling conversation,” said Wilkes. “Aboriginal people have been telling the truth for many years now and Australia has continually struggled to listen.”

Australian history “has been manipulated with false accounts and deceitful governmental laws and rulings”.

“Our system is not broken, it was built this way. It is running as it has been for 200 years. We are the ones who need to break it and rebuild it together.”

York is intricate and complex, just like all our histories and it is just as terrifying.”