The year is 1969. I know this because several characters seemed keen to tell me so. The other key year of note is 1967 when a Referendum question was overwhelmingly passed to remove references in the Australian Constitution that were discriminatory to Aboriginal people. Two years on though and change is slow to come to the outback. Racism is rife and there is a clearly established pecking order. You challenge it at your peril.
Things come to a head in the Pilbara where a combustible mix of forces converges – a rodeo swaggers into town full of machismo and sense of superiority; a ‘coloured’ girl (white father, aboriginal mother) who is a political student dares to stand up for the indigenous townsfolk who are understandably leery; three hippie activists escaping the Vietnam draft arrive; and, as improbable as it sounds, a certain pair of politicians about to fight a Federal Election rock up to check out conditions on the ground.
There is no doubt playwright David Milroy has a specific viewpoint to expound. That he does so in a “Jack and Jillaroo musical” which is full of songs and comedy is an interesting and entertaining choice. This is both a feel good show with everything from a drag act to hilarious bush poetry; to a serious drama that explores the harshness of life in such a rigidly stratified society, the edicts of faraway politicians be damned. It straddles that divide reasonably well though the tonal shifts can be abrupt.
For me the play works best when it focusses on the personal cost of the choices its characters make within the context of what is set up. That larger framework felt forced in the early going with characters delivering awkward exposition to describe the political and social climate of the time. Notably, John Gorton (Ben Jeakings) provides a searing indictment of the ‘politics of denial’ while being played largely as a buffoon. His partner in this unlikely comedy duo is Gough Whitlam (George Carter Zillessen) who will lose the election but manufacture a 7.1% swing to Labor that sets up his ascension as Prime Minister three years hence.
Within this construct there are two simple but quintessentially human stories. Political student Molly (Simone Detourbet) wants to meet a mother Pansy (Shanice Tabua) she has never known; and local indigenous girl Tilly (Teresa Moore) is sweet on star rodeo performer Knuckles (Conor Mavromatis) and wants to dance with him at the ball.
The personal obstacles both face resonate far stronger than any political ‘debate’ on hand. Molly’s father Wetherill (Nelson Baker) resists his daughter’s desire to see Pansy, out of shame and under pressure from rodeo boss Buckley (Jack Sheppard) who has very clear ideas about the place of ‘blacks’ (and women). Tilly’s quest is fraught with danger as it’s a line that if crossed comes with great risk. Both storylines arrive at happy conclusions but not without dramas along the way.
To the performances and Moore is a standout as Tilly. She has the best singing voice and uses it expressively while providing the character with real resolve and dignity. Detourbet has a fine scene with Baker as father and daughter clash in a dramatic highpoint while bringing feistiness to her character throughout. The interaction between Molly and Tilly, initially strained before they bond as allies in their separate causes, is the heartbeat of the piece and well conveyed by both actresses.
Props to Sheppard who gives what could otherwise have been a thoroughly loathsome character enough flair and energy to make his carnival barker Buckley engaging. James Schultz plays Molly’s brother Billy with impressive intensity as he carries a major dramatic thread to do with their mother. On the other side of that coin, Shane Pickett, Mathaias Kepa and Dakota Morrison, bring the laughs with their hippie draft dodgers. Kepa has a strong stage presence and good voice while Pickett threatens to steal the show as the most unlikely of rodeo queen contestants. Mention also to Brian Anau whose bush poem had me squirming and laughing in equal measure.
Musical Director Wayne Freer was also the solo musician on keyboard and guitar and the songs were a likeable mix of ballads, sixties style pop, and indigenous numbers. The majority of the cast were not particularly good singers but the character of their performances carried the day. The stage was red dirt on wooden floorboards with a tree stump, wooden fence posts, and a raised platform at one end. The lighting design accentuated that dirt to give a real sense of place.
This was a funny and entertaining production with a serious undertone that, if nothing else, had me looking up both the Referendum results and the 1969 election. But it was the human cost that people faced during those turbulent times (and in many ways still do) that struck a nerve.
Rodeo Moon is written by David Milroy and co-directed by Rick Brayford and Eva Grace Mullaley with Musical Direction by Wayne Freer, and stars the Aboriginal Theatre students Jack Sheppard, Nelson Baker, Conor Mavromatis, James Schultz, George Carter Zillessen, Ben Jeakings, Shane Pickett, Mathaias Kepa, Brian Anu, Simone Detourbet, Teresa Moore, Dakota Morrison, Shanice Tabua, Katrisha Jackonia, Stephanie Binder, Aiesha Blurton, Nicole Brockman, and Meiching Riley. There is one final show at the Enright Studio on Thursday 19 November.