Kylie Coolwell and the Battlers of Waterloo
Venue: Wharf 1 Theatre
Written By: Kylie Coolwell
It was a pleasant surprise as I waited outside The Factory for my meeting with Kylie Coolwell to see three familiar dogs rounding the corner and hear the familiar cry “Agro” before Kylie came into view. A well-known figure in Waterloo, Kylie Coolwell is the writer of Battle of Waterloo, which was an attraction at Wharf 1 Theatre from June 1-27. She is also the owner of Agro, Princess and Snoop.
It is a surprise too to Kylie that she is now a successful writer. In the early days she dreamed of being a dancer and making it into the wonderful Bangarra Theatre Company. She attended the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts but was then drawn towards acting. She had the idea that she might like to write a full-length play when she took part in Play Writing Australia’s “Redfern Salon” for aspiring writers. What began as a 3-page writing exercise at the Salon became, with the encouragement of Tom Murphy, Sarah Goodes (the play’s director) and Polly Rowe, and the support of Sydney Theatre Company initiatives, a passionately felt two-act play.
While a first play for Kylie, Battle of Waterloo is also a first in achieving a clear-sighted, loving portrayal of Indigenous life in inner-west Sydney and an affectionate evocation of the place where she has lived for six years. Kylie, a resident in one of Housing NSW’s walk-ups, expresses an impatience with the general public’s perception of Waterloo as “an impoverished drug and crime-riddled housing commission estate”, which she feels is heavily influenced by the media in search of sensation. She is impatient also with the perception, fuelled by real estate interests, that the high rise towers are “scars on Sydney’s inner city landscape” keeping property prices down.
Perceptively, she points to the high visibility of the towers as an ever-present reminder that the poor exist, however much the increasing middle-class presence wishes the towers, like the Block, razed to the ground. While Kylie sees the TV series Redfern Now as an excellent production showcasing Indigenous actors – she had a minor role in the first episode – at the same time the show’s aim of presenting a more middle-class Indigenous population glosses over injustice. The poor for whom the Block was home, and a home away from home for those Indigenous people coming from interstate, have been “moved on”. People cannot be dispensed with for the benefit of larger enterprises that serve the interests of more powerful others.
The gap in understanding is the basis of Kylie’s play. As she points out, the first half of the play shows the social problems faced by the close-knit family inhabiting a small unit in the James Cook/Joseph Banks high rise complex. One of the problems she feels most strongly about is the disenfranchisement, the loss of place, experienced by the Koori male. Her character, Ray, played by Luke Carroll, has returned from a three-year jail sentence to find that, in his absence, his former girlfriend, Cassie, played by Shari Sebbens, is about to graduate from a TAFE course in fashion design. With the encouragement of Auntie Mavis (Roxanne McDonald) Cassie is looking to embark on a career.
Kylie portrays Ray’s response with a sympathetic discernment. He wants to re-establish himself as Cassie’s man and as a family member, but also to reaffirm his presence in the neighbourhood. He tries to match Cassie’s ambition by getting a job. However, as Kylie points out with some bitterness, while men like Ray have been given training in construction work in jail they will not succeed in finding work. She adds also that construction training is all they are offered, as if no other options are possible for them. Unable to fulfill Cassie’s and Auntie Mavis’s expectations of him as a man, Ray is drawn into the more negative role of being a man in the neighbourhood.
Despite his good intentions, he is not able to offer Cassie the moral support she needs. Kylie, however, is to keen to emphasise that, despite the rather inevitable failure of the male characters to find fulfillment, the play offers hope through the character of young Jack (James Slee), a schoolboy and promising football star. He seems to be impressed by Ray’s posturing but at the same time to know that a more certain future for him lies in pursuing an education and opening up his options.
Although the warm and engaging Battle of Waterloo has had immense and deserved success, Kylie remains her unaffected, forthright self. She has plans for the future and already has another play in mind. This one, she says, will be set in Northcott and she intends to be more inclusive in her choice of characters. Northcott has always been a controversial place, sometimes the subject of sensationalised media stories, at other times the object of rather over-celebratory projects intended to demarginalise.
Undoubtedly Kylie has shown the ability to effectively dramatise the gap between public perception and private experience, and I look forward to seeing Northcott on stage.