Whispers of This Wik Woman

Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts (Kooemba Jdarra)


By Fiona Doyle (Oochunyung)

Professional production

“We all have a story to tell. Whispers is a story that belongs to Awumpun. A Woman of Strength, Culture and Destiny.” These are the words on the front of the program to Whispers of this Wik Woman, and it is how the performance begins. There is a sacred talking and story circle centre stage which doubles as Awumpun’s various houses and where her journeys and adventures take place. Props are in loose heaps at either side of the stage, so that changing clothes and, with them, personas is all part of the action. A back screen tells the historical dates of the stories and shows a stable world of sea, land and sky. However, it is a world in the process of change: the missions lay down rules for conduct and how to manage lives and families until the bauxite miners arrive and the Wik people have to fight for their own country. Through it all Awumpun is the strong matriarch both resisting and accommodating change, speaking up for the old ways and languages.

Fiona Doyle plays the three parts of the storyteller, the Wik woman Awumpun, and herself, the granddaughter of the Wik woman, and she is mesmerising. She inhabits the straight-backed, indomitable Awumpun totally, moving with a dancer’s grace about the circle, her rather stern face confronting all who attempt to bully or cross her, from the mission superintendents to the anthropologists and administrators, owning her story circle and her story in a dramatically intimidating way. All other parts are played by a fine cast, who move in and out of roles merely with an unobtrusive change of clothes. The two women (Roxanne McDonald and Rhonda Purcell) resemble at times a Greek chorus, gossiping about Awumpun’s refusal to have her baby up at the mission, giggling at the miners. They are a wonderful foil for the strength and passion of Awumpun. As mission gossips they have their headscarves, shapeless dresses and bible, then they become various members of the community over time, and finally confrontational elders in a land rights claim who refuse to allow Awumpun’s claim that her mob had has much right to the north side of the Embley river as to the south side. Their sneering (and constant in various roles) argument that she is really an Aurukun woman rather than a Weipa woman is at the heart of the story, for Awumpun has followed her country from the moment her father sent her back up to Weipa as a young bride.

Her strength has never diminished throughout the years with setbacks like the absence of her husband Kelinda (Anthony Newcastle) through work and war and later through the drunkenness which followed the coming of the bauxite miners, the compulsory placing of her daughter (Fiona’s mother) in the mission dormitory, the enforced exile to Thursday Island, and continual attempts by various outside influences to undermine her culture. Ben Daley, the white feller in the cast, plays various miners, anthropologists and administrators, wearing an often funny series of outfits from the boy scout khaki look to clerical collar and the obscenely short Stubbies of a Department of Community Services worker on TI. Exaggerated though his grotesque pelvic thrusting was, he summed up the whole sorry, misguided muddle of what TI had become through an administration that took no account of the difference in languages and culture of the various indigenous people who ended up there.

But this is also a very funny theatre piece, beautifully directed by Steve Gration. I hesitate to call it just a play, because its fluid story line moves through dance, song, action, involvement of the audience, symbolic moments of great power like the quelling of the cyclone, and deliberate moments of quiet narrative like the granddaughter Fiona’s memories of trying to look after her drunken grandfather and then the quite harrowing enactment of the memory. Even the sweeping of the story circle takes on symbolic significance, as she comes to terms with “that little red pebble.” “Our way of life started to break,” she says, “the mining mob either wanted something from us or that belonged to us.” The fun is in the big fights, between the gossips and Awumpun, in the canteen on TI, in the kangaroo courts of local justice, and in the land claims tribunal. The granddaughter’s proud recollection of her Nanna’s ability to break up the goings-on at the dances with the bauxite miners (with the aid of a torch) celebrates another part of a feisty life that has never been afraid to stand up for “my country, my daughter, my house, my almond tree”.

Fiona Doyle is not afraid to look at the differences between tribal and language groups and thus their competing interests, which make a mockery of the policies of various governments that one solution fits all. The evening began with a short talk by Sam Watson, Chairman of Kooemba Jdarra, who gave the background to the publication of Whispers by the University of Queensland Press, after it won the David Unaipon Award, and the development into a piece for performance. He spoke about the power of the stories handed down through the maternal line, and then apologised for the slight delay in starting because of family travelling from Weipa for the premiere who had been held up on the road into the city from the airport. They finally arrived some time into the performance and were greeted warmly from the stage. The importance of family that was at the core of Awumpun’s journey was thus literally realised and acknowledged.

I was dismayed to read this week that Kooemba Jdarra is one of the companies to lose some or all of its funding from the Queensland Arts Council. If indeed Arts Queensland wishes to fund more regional initiatives (as one report stated was the basis for their allocations), it is hard to fathom how this decision could have been reached. As Sam Watson stated, “this production strengthens our commitment to our regional and remote communities and it is a privilege to present an original and most compelling story.” This is indeed one of the most compelling and important things I have seen this year. We need to see more of such stories. Awumpun’s sweeping of her story circle cannot be forced under the carpet through lack of funds. It needs to be celebrated and brought into the light of day at every opportunity.

Directed by Steve Gration

Playing preview Tues 13 Nov, Wed 14 Nov to Sat 24 Nov 7.30pm, matinee Sat 17, 24 Nov 1pm, no performances Sun, Mon.

Duration : 1hr 40min, no interval.

— Barbara Garlick
(Performance seen: Tue 13th November 2007)