From the book by Meme McDonald and Boori Monty Pryor
Njunjul, the Sun is a coming-of age play, where young people have to leave home to discover themselves, and where they have a choice of going back home to live a transformed life, or staying and coping with the new life that a new environment offers.
Although it is best known to us through Western culture, as a truth that goes back to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, it’s common to all evolving cultures, and it’s never easy. To use just two western examples American writer Thomas Wolfe said in 1940, “You can’t go home again”, and in the 18th century the poet William Blake wrote about the painful necessity of leaving the age of innocence and entering the world of experience.
And for any Aboriginal person in any Murri mob within modern Australian society, the choice is essential, unless you want to stay on the mission or in the reserve or, even more radically, have nothing to do with western society, like the Ramingining community from north-eastern Arnhem Land, who appear in the ground-breaking film Ten Canoes.
To a certain extent 16-year-old Njunjul (played by Isaac Drandich) has this choice. He can stay in the ironically-named Happy Valley, a disadvantaged settlement of huts on the edge of Townsville where, for some unexplained reason, his house has been bulldozed and he is reduced to eating flying fox stew and apple pie. Or else he can go to Sydney to stay with an aunt and uncle who in some ways have managed to break through the black barrier and make a go of it in white society. “My boy,” says his aunt in Happy Valley (played superbly by Roxanne McDonald, as one of her many roles in the play), “you’re not fitting in here, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes you need to grow in some other garden.”
But if he goes, he has to leave behind his brother Cedric, his dark shadow who eventually kills himself out of sheer frustration, and whose fate tempts Njunjul to do the same in Sydney. And when he does arrive he finds that his uncle, who had seemed so much in control of his destiny, with a good job teaching about Aboriginal culture in city schools, is himself as disturbed and discriminated against as Njunjul. There are family rows (Uncle Garth, played with great spirit and vitality by Aaron Fa’aoso), has married a white woman who doesn’t understand his problems, and it seems as hard to make things work for him as it is proving for his nephew, who wants to give up and go home.
The play says important things about coming to terms with who you are, and realising that not everything is going to be rosy for ever, a lesson we all have to learn if we are to become proper grown-ups. It has wit, lots of humour, deadly dialogue and some breath-taking physical movement (choreographed, I assume, by Wayne Blair, as no specific credit is given in the program notes).
And the cast is of the calibre that we have come to expect from Kooemba Jdarra. Roxanne Macdonald is a skilled character actor who can transform herself from passive township aunty to slick basketball player with the change of a cap; and relative newcomer to KJ, Aaron Fa’aoso, who made such a strong impression in Howie the Rookie, shows us that he can play more than just one kind of character. Actor/dancer Mark Sheppard is a grim reminder of the pain that many indigenous people feel in the in-between world they are forced to inhabit, and Kerith Atkinson is cute and seductive at the same time.
Which brings me to Isaac Drandich, who plays the title role. He is called on to perform at many levels, from the introspective brooder to the young man full of hope to a typical teenager trying to make out with the mob, and he does it very well, making the final scene, where he accepts his aboriginality to the fullest, almost a tear-jerker. I just wish he (and the other young cast members) would lose that upward inflection!
So far, so very good. But regarding it objectively as a play rather than a performance, I have to wonder whether the text presents both theme and format in a way that is a little old-fashioned for modern audiences. There are too many pious clichés and too much trite philosophy, spelling out sentiments that could well be left as sub-text. And there’s a bit too much of the poor-blackfella-me for my personal liking Aboriginal culture, especially as Kooemba Jdarra rightly presents it, has outgrown this blatant self-pitying and now prefers to give us a welcome and more positive spin, showing the great achievements of indigenous people and the strengths of the various cultures.
Within the text itself, do we really need to have truisms like “There’s good and bad in both cultures”, or “Don’t forget where you come from”, spelt out so obviously? In great drama, these points are made not through dialogue but through action, and no matter how true and important the ideas are, they would work better if we were left to intuit them for ourselves. And this is why, for me, this production is more of a simple morality tale than a full-on gutsy drama, and although it’s the ideal play to tour to schools and youth groups, its vision is as unsophisticated as that of Njunjul himself.
There’s nothing wrong with a good morality play and this is a very good one but in style and format it’s a step back for Kooemba Jdarra, rather than an illustration of chairperson Lorna O’Shane’s stated vision of seeing Kooemba “emerge from its chrysalis and herald metamorphosis rather than change”.
The company has been doing that very successfully for its 13 years, and I’ve watched it with enthusiasm and admiration all that time. This play, though, is the kind of production that Kooemba might have presented 10 years ago, when they were still part of the fringe culture, rather than in their solid place in today’s mainstream theatre world where no allowances have to be made.
Kooemba Jdarra in association with QPAC
Adapted and directed by Wayne Blair
Playing 22 June–5 July at 6.30pm Tuesday and Wednesday, 7.30pm Thursday, Saturday, except Saturday 1 July at 2pm
Duration: 90 minutes, no interval