It is often said that history repeats itself, but while the similarities are there, the form always changes. The National Black Theatre, was founded in Redfern in 1972, and grew out of the struggle for land rights that was occurring at the time. 35 years later, Moogahlin Performing Arts has continued the tradition of First Nations theatre in Redfern, and the ongoing fight for Indigenous sovereignty.
Co-artistic director and co-founder Dr Liza-Mare Syron recalled this history as one of the reasons behind the company’s formation.
“We started the company kind of out of respect for the Black Theatre and in memory of Kevin Smith.”
Smith, a nationally recognised actor, laid the foundations for Moogahlin, inspiring the five Rs that shape the company today. These are respect, reciprocity, relevance, responsibility and relationships.
Joining Syron as co-artistic directors were Frederick Copperwaite and Lilly Shearer, and together the three established Moogahlin to produce work by and for First Nations artists, with the goal of shaping the national conversation, much as the Black Theatre had done in the 1970s.
“The reason why they started The Black Theatre was to give our people a voice, and theatre is a stage, a platform for our stories and our voices and our language.”
While at the time community-focused arts projects involved First Nations people, the founders of Moogahlin saw a gap in the ongoing involvement of the community, as Syron reflected.
“These community cultural development projects are [about] empowering communities without empowering the artists, without empowering the community to take leadership roles. I realised you had to have a company so that Aboriginal people could empower Aboriginal people.”
These early experienced influenced the approach Moogahlin has taken as a performing arts company, and has led to a focus on developing new work. In 2019, Moogahlin, in partnership with the Sydney Festival and Carriageworks, where it is a resident company, will present the third Yellamundie, a biennial playwriting festival that showcases new work by First Nations playwrights. One play will then go on to be developed by Moogahlin and brought to the stage.
Describing the process of selecting the plays, Copperwaite highlighted that while the writer may come from any artistic background, the qualities inherent in the script are the same.
“You respond to good writing. You can imagine the story in your head or it excites you and you want to know what happens next.”
In the 2017 edition of Yellamundie, The Weekend by Henrietta Baird was selected for further development and will be staged in January 2019. A one-woman show, Copperwaite noted that the story emanates from the local context Moogahlin situates itself in.
“It was about this community, this area, Sydney, but also Redfern/Waterloo.”
In the process of its development, however, The Weekend travelled to Canada and received input from New Zealand, as part of Moogahlin’s partnership with two other First Nations performance companies, Tawata Productions in Wellington, New Zealand and Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto, Canada. As Syron highlighted, this not only enables the further building of relationships and respect through reciprocity, it opens Australian Indigenous playwriting to a broader audience.
“Often here in Australia we write in a bubble and the cultural bubble is an even smaller bubble so it's really good, rigorous process to take the work outside of where it's written.”
Yellamundie in 2019 will also host the international forum, with representatives from Native Earth and Te Rehia Theatre from Auckland.
However, unlike their international counterparts, the lack of a dedicated First Nations theatre space in all of Australia is a reminder of the core demands set out by The Black Theatre and the obstacles they faced in the 1970s, as Copperwaite noted.
“One of the reasons The Black Theatre folded was because when spaces were being given out to some of those early companies that went on to become the Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir, The Black Theatre company was the only theatre company of that group around that time that would regularly be knocked back for funding to get space.”
Syron also returned to this fundamental desire for space.
“We don't need another company commissioning, making or developing work; we need space. We need a venue for all the work that we're making to go into that people can come and see. So we have a sovereign space.”
As part of the Blak Artists Kinection program, run by Moogahlin in partnership with Performance Space, four young independent First Nations artists noted that space was their greatest need. Addressing the directors of both Moogahlin and Performance Space, the demand was striking in its unity.
More broadly, Syron articulated that this was an issue at the national scale.
“There's not one Indigenous theatre company, [or] performing arts company that has their own venue, and think about how many arts centres there are in this country. They still will not give Aboriginal people the responsibility of a venue.”
Imagining what this future venue might look like, Syron and Copperwaite speculate that it would be just as much a community meeting place as a performance arts venue. For now, articulating that ongoing connection to place, land and time runs throughout the work of Moogahlin and the acts it stages.
To view the program for Moogahlin’s 2019 Sydney Festival performances click here: http://www.moogahlin.org/2019/