Perfect political poignancy

Beautiful One Day (Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Belvoir)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

September 23 – 26

Far North Queensland’s Palm Island is a place of perfect beauty. But this is an image not often projected in the negative media coverage of the Island’s life, especially since the 2004 death in custody of resident Mulrunji Doomadgee, resulting riot, declaration of a State of Emergency and the trial of police officer Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. That is, until “Beautiful One Day”, from Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre and Ilbijerri (Australia’s longest running Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre company), which gives voice to the local Indigenous community with a view towards understanding and a new future.

And the show’s appeal is certainly its authenticity. More theatrical documentary than dramatic presentation, it interweaves personal stories of the performers with court transcripts, interviews with Palm Island locals and re-enactments. Starring in the production’s cast are three residents of Palm Island, including Doomadgee’s niece Kylie who takes audience members from anger to sorrow as she laments of how it breaks her heart to know that her uncle isn’t on the island anymore.

The Palm Island story is, of course, about more than just one incident and the production does an excellent job in balancing its story with initial inclusion of some history of the treatment of Australian Aboriginals on the island, beginning with its hostile origins as a virtual off-shore penal colony for Indigenous Australians under the auspices of the paternalistic Aboriginal Protection Board. A monologue from Dwyer which lists the prohibitions of the Aboriginals ­Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act’s total control is a shocking reality check, with punishment for its breeches including imprisonment and public humiliation. It also serves as humbling indication of the resilience and strength of a proud group of people.

When the circumstances of Doomadgee’s death from injuries of the type usually found in car and plane accident victims are explored, they are handled from within this context. The result is an intelligent response that sees Hurley blamed but not demonised at the expense of long-term issues. The incident is shared as a recreation, wisely from the show’s non-indigenous actors; actress Jane Phegan shares the verbatim court transcript words of lawyers and investigators, as well as the coroner’s post-mortem report, while Paul Dwyer speaks the verbatim ­transcript responses of Hurley, the officer charged with Doomadgee’s assault and manslaughter (and later found not guilty).

beautiful one day pic

Not only is the recreation enacted live on stage, but it is also used as visual reference upon the four backdrop screens within subsequent show scenes. Although clever in their early-show incorporation of live video, projection of historical documents and photos, and archival footage, at times, there is so much happening on stage already that these can appear as a distraction from the drama. However, the final act inclusion of intercut projected interviews with real Island residents serves the show well, cementing its thematic ambition to not perpetuate blame, but rather foster understanding.

Cultural nationalism in the arts needs to be promoted. “Beautiful One Day” is not just important as an Australian work, but as one that does not shy away from the discomfort of our post-colonial history. It has many confrontational moments, but they are tempered by both humour and poignancy, eliciting an understandably complicated emotional response befitting the importance of a story that continues to have legacy to this day. “Beautiful One Day” is essential not because of its politics, however, but its humanity, making it a perfect example of theatre that matters.

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