Cold War In The Family
Between 1955 and 1963 the British conducted a number of nuclear tests in the Maralinga Desert near Woomera, South Australia. Despite an initial 'cleanup' in 1967, in 1985 it was conceded that significant radiation hazards existed in the area. In 1994, nearly 40 years after the tests began, the Australian Government acknowledged the severe effect the tests had on the Aboriginal owners of the land and paid $13.5 million in compensation to the local Maralinga Tjarutja people.
"It was probably Australia's first worst-kept secret," says Trevor Jamieson who, in Big hART's NGAPARTJI NGAPARTJI ONE, narrates his family's history in the Maralinga area, their first encounters with non-Indigenous Australians and the religious missions, and their experiences during the Cold War and the fallout of the Maralinga testing. "It's a topic that a lot of people have never known about," he says. "Many Australians haven't even heard of the British coming here to test atomic bombs in their backyard during the Cold War."
Written by Jamieson and Big hART's Creative Director Scott Rankin, the production was awarded the 2008 Deadly Award for Most Outstanding Achievement in Film, TV and Theatre, with Jamieson also winning the 2008 Sydney Theatre Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role.
"My side was to look at the storytelling of the families out in the dessert," Jamieson says of the creative development of the production by him and Rankin. "I went out and sat down with the elders and got the testimonies of the people who actually witnessed [the nuclear testing]." The play also weaves in the parallel experience of a Japanese woman who experienced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the Cold War experiences of an Australian soldier. "It's written so each of the three stories reflect each other and is interwoven so people understand how nuclear testing has affected a lot of people in different parts of the world," he says.
In a style that has become popularly associated with Rankin and Jamieson, Ngapartji Ngapartji one mixes traditional storytelling, tragedy, humour, pop-culture references and direct audience participation to both entertain and educate audiences about the history of Indigenous Australians; a style Canberra audiences will recognise from Big hART's Namatjira. The use of visual artists onstage, painting in the background during Jamieson's storytelling also originated with Ngapartji Ngapartji one, Jamieson saying that despite not being actors, many of the artists love the new experience. "They always ring up and ask when we're touring the show again," he says.
Early on in the play, Jamieson teaches the audience to speak some Pitjantjatjara by taking them through a rendition of Kata, Alipiri, Muti, Tjina (Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes) and explaining the importance of language to Indigenous Australians and the speed at which many languages are dying.
"It's a struggle, but the only reason is modern technology," Jamieson says. "My family only came out of the dessert 50 years ago and the younger generations are still adapting to change. Technology and exposure to western culture dilutes our language and cultures, but in some ways it keeps our stories alive. We have videos and iPhones and apps to help us record our stories and ensure they continue. The language is still strong out on the land but it's a constant struggle to ensure it survives once it becomes exposed to the western world."
The production is also just one part of Big hART's Ngapartji Ngapartji project based in Alice Springs, which aims to reengage marginalised Indigenous communities.
"There's a whole many different levels to the project – engaging with young people and making small films," Jamieson explains, "but also talking to the elders about the life of the town, what happened in the old days. We're trying to join the gaps between young and old. We also go into the prison system and sit down with people and teach them music. All of it is aimed at bringing to the community a sense of culture and the ability to tell stories in a theatrical way."
Ngapartji Ngapartji one is an incredibly personal story for Jamieson. Throughout our conversation he constantly draws attention to the temporal proximity of the events of the play and the fact that they occurred in the lifetimes of a majority of the audience. Recounting, night after night, the story of his family's suffering not simply from exposure to western society, but from exposure to one of the most destructive forces ever created by humans, is clearly unlike any other performance.
"Each time I come back to it, it's always hard. To come back and read it again, you think of all those emotions and they slowly come back to you," Jamieson says; and then, "Look, it's just bloody hard," he says, sighing tiredly, as though the thought of the story itself can take the energy out of him. "There are points in the show that it's really hard for me to go back to. I've got all these old feelings – the displacement of my family; what's happened to my family. For people to be brave like my family were and to lose people like they did, they're still suffering post-trauma. These are my people. They've just got incredible strength and I don't know how they do it."
Ngapartji Ngpartji one will show at The Playhouse at Canberra Theatre Centre from Wed-Sat July 25-28. Tickets from Canberra Ticketing: (02) 6275 2700 or www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au