Aboriginal IssuesFeatureReview

A journey into Indigenous identity

Six years in the making, One Billion Beats is one of those rare theatre experiences in which aesthetic impression and central concerns are perfectly matched. As audiences take their seats they face a dominant back projection holding a culturally specific message establishing at once that norms other than those of a privileged white elite are acknowledged.

Romaine Moreton performs One Billion Beats Photo: Supplied
Romaine Moreton performs One Billion Beats Photo: Supplied

The museum-like stage design with plinths, specimen bottles and artifacts suggest immediately that there is a past to be interrogated.

The performance opens with the projected image of a bull sketched in charcoal on the wall of a rock shelter near Campbelltown. Drawn by a Dharawal artist, the bull can be dated to 1788. As the stage lightens Moreton appears looking upwards at the image like a guide, a guise she holds throughout as she revisits scenes from her life paralleled by cinematic images of Aboriginals across time. In intimate conversational mode she addresses the audience telling them a story of four cows and two bulls that wandered away from the early colony into the bush.

As an image of the steel mesh cage enclosing the cave drawing fills the screen Moreton questions why such valuable heritage needs continued protection from vandalism. Is it a desire to deny that the peaceful Dharawal had lived in the region following patterns of hunting and gathering for thousands of years until driven out by farm “grants” that led to clearing and fencing. Eventually drought led to tension and around Campbelltown despite efforts by those sympathetic to the Dharawal, ignorance of the local Indigenous groups and farmers’ fear lead to Macquarie ordering a punitive expedition. The consequence was the Appin massacre (April 17, 1816), an attack on an Aboriginal camp in which as reported by Captain Wallis “some were shot and others met their fate by rushing in despair over the precipice”. Is it a national refusal by post-colonial society to confront their murderous history?

The cage gives way to the image of an immense black bull, noble in his self-containment, and of a beauty and power that obliges respect. Again and again the back projection shows us brutal scenes of stampeding cattle subdued by the power of a cracking whip (The Overlander, Harry Watt, 1946), the frightened creatures driven ultimately to their death, a sacrifice to colonisation and empire. The parallel between cattle and dispossessed Aboriginals is vividly evoked in the terror experienced by both girl and bull when in a desperate bid for freedom from their captors they are thwarted by non-negotiable barriers. Visually the link is always present and on the stage in the form of a metal watering trough for cattle. The parallel is reiterated in the image of Aboriginals drinking from a cattle trough, not only dispossessed but also dehumanised, and Moreton dips her hands in the trough as she speaks of the humiliations of her schooldays.

Moreton experiences a brief age of innocence during which she forms a friendship with a white girl, Bronwyn. When invited by Bronwyn to stay overnight she overhears the girl’s father tell her not to bring that “black bastard” into the house. A defining moment for her, she sees herself as polluted and polluting, a negative image expanded and intensified by school. The compulsory shower for Aboriginal students assumes that Aboriginal children are dirty educating them, and the other children, to perceive Aboriginals as an untouchables class. Additionally, the task of washing their towels at lunchtime affirms the Aboriginal children’s position of servitude and limits their contact time with others.

A young Moreton feels the injustice of the principal’s ridicule in response to her genuine puzzlement about the working of the hot water system. She senses that his treatment of her is motivated by the same dismissive attitude apparent in the station-hand of the aptly named We of the Never Never (Igor Auzins, 1980). “You’ll never teach them anything, Missus” he says to a thoughtful Mrs Gunn who replies that she would rather learn from Aboriginals than teach them. Her response is greeted by the station-hand with a shake of the head implying that, with all respect, his boss’s wife is slightly touched. The “anything” means European beliefs and methods and it is said totally without awareness that “them”, the Aboriginal people, possess thousands of years of collective knowledge.

Such dismissiveness was given “scientific” support by Sir Colin Mackenzie (1877-1938), his image maniacally proliferating on the screen, whose work supported the view that the Australian Aboriginal was low on the evolutionary scale and doomed to extinction. Such biased “scientism” while ridiculous still holds the power to hurt. As Moreton describes it, Mackenzie’s racial arrogance sliced through her body like a scalpel.

However, as Moreton indicates, there are moments encapsulated on screen when the Aboriginal was not a marginalised figure. In the 1918 film The Enemy Within (Roland Stavely) Sandy McVea, well known in boxing circles, was cast as assistant detective, Jimmy Cook and helps uncover a ring of German spies. An Aboriginal boy is shown as friends with four white children in Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart, 1947) and plays an important role in their search for a stolen horse. Both films require tracking, a highly specialised skill, and eventually the tracker became a contested figure as servant of a detested colonial authority. Jubbal (Ed Devereaux in embarrassing blackface) betrays his own blood (Kamahl as an Aboriginal) to his colonial masters (Journey out of Darkness, James Trainor, 1960), and in turn, is ritually willed to death. The “native” tracker of Rolf de Heer’s film of the same name (2002) reverses the balance of power taking revenge on the genocidal policeman who has hired him to bring in an Aboriginal murderer.

Images and ideas are reversed and transformed on screen as Moreton develops her theme. The stampeding herd in Australia (Baz Luhrman, 2008) is turned back from a suicidal plunge into a precipice by the boy, Nullah, who draws upon the ancestral knowledge learned from his grandfather. The humiliating shower is transformed into a ritual cleansing as Delilah tenderly washes the ravaged Samson, healing him, it seems, from the devastation inflicted by an uncaring society in Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009). The orphaned Nullah, unlike Jedda (Jedda, Charles Chauvel, 1955) is given the freedom to know who he is, and Delilah recognises that salvation lies in caring for each other.

Moreton has some wonderfully affirming moments. As a child she wanders from hut to hut and is welcomed to the meal that has most appeal for her. Her mother permits her to pack a “port” and take up residence at different times with different aunts who give her the gift of acceptance. She has an uncle with a love of books, of learning. As she walks around her living museum telling us with compassion and humour of her great grandparents, grandparents, parents, their flickering, fragile images projected onto the plinths, we feel the strength of her conviction that she no longer needs a flag as she knows who she is. Knows in her bones and with every heartbeat that she is a descendant of the 2,500 generations who lived on this land for 100,000 years. With the image of Truganini projected onto her back, she boldly reclaims the future. One Goenpul/Jagara and Bundjalung woman with a mesmerising presence, a resonant voice and who makes poetry a site of mighty resistance, has the power to wake us from our dream.





One Billion Beats was superbly supported by Lou Bennett and Sean Bacon at the music-sound desk, and by lighting designer Hugh Hamilton. Although it was performed a mere four times at the Campbell Arts Centre in February March 2016, it is hoped that the production will go on tour so that all Australia can see and be moved by this courageous and beautifully produced theatre event. Associate-producer Vicki Gordon will do her best to make this happen.

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