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Winyanboga Yurringa

Venue: Belvoir, Upstairs Theatre
Written By: Andrea James
Directed By: Anthea Williams

Winyanboga Yurringa, which translates from Yorta Yorta as “Women of the Sun”, is a moving, funny and beautiful play about Indigenous culture, community and women. Its writer, Andrea James, a Yorta Yorta/Kurnai woman, was inspired by the groundbreaking TV series of that name co-written by Hyllus Maris and Sonia Borg and first televised in 1981.

Dubs Yunupingu, Roxanne McDonald and Angeline Penrith (Photo: Daniel Boud)

While the original series gave insight into the lives of Aboriginal women from the 1820s to 1980s, James’s play portrays the experiences of contemporary urban Aboriginal women who, while linked by kinship, are of widely different backgrounds.

There may be little to connect them so separate are their worlds, and so diverse their Aboriginal identity, but the power of the play lies in making us feel a timeless and numinous connection that goes beyond appearances, words and differences.

On entering the theatre, the audience is invited to contemplate a translucent backdrop, giving an impression of a wide sky, a low ridge suggesting both hill and shelter, concentric rings of sand, and at their heart, the remains of a past campfire waiting to be reignited. When Aunty Neecy (Roxanne McDonald) steps into this sacred ground, the special place of her grandmother, she seems to be the living presence of this ancient land.

Her tranquility is short-lived, however, as the would-be campers she has summoned
can be heard arriving, and the teenage mobile-dependent Chantelle (Dubs Yunupingu) emerges from the darkness, sulky and resentful. Noisy, argumentative, grumbling, three women tumble in – Carol (Tasma Walton), scared of creepy crawlies and the bickering sisters, Wanda (Angeline Penrith) and Margie (Dalara Williams) – to be joined eventually by latecomer, the apparently white photographer Jadah (Tuuli Narkle) whom they immediately resent. So why are they there?

Neecy must wait before the moment is right to reveal the contents of a large cardboard box and her purpose in summoning the women on country. Gradually each of the group reveals the challenges in their daily lives. Museum curator Carol feels inferior in her workplace and is disturbed by the normalising of cultural theft, Wanda is the victim of domestic violence and angry with the world at large, park ranger Margie feels her own kin will disapprove of her lesbianism, and a vulnerable Chantelle can’t free herself of a sadistic boyfriend.

The troubles of Jadah are multiple, and while she is given a hilltop soliloquy in which she reveals the pain of feeling black within yet being white in the eyes of the world, her character is the most difficult to access.

Despite escalating interpersonal tension, an exasperated but determined Neecy achieves her goal. Chantelle, the truth teller, symbolically lost and found, brings the group together in celebration of their common cultural heritage underwritten by Carol’s courage in taking back her grandmother’s cultural objects from the museum. In a final deeply moving and resonant scene, these valued objects are restored to their ancestral and rightful place.

There are several unforgettable moments in this performance, for instance, the lovely golden dawn that heralds transformation, and the final moments when in an encompassing darkness we listen to the women’s harmonious ritual chanting. The design team of Isabel Hudson (set), Verity Hampson (lighting) and Steve Francis and Brendon Boney (sound) beautifully embody the meaning of sacred ground.

Congratulations to director, Anthea Williams, and to her committed performers, for bringing James’s powerful and lyrical piece once again to the stage.

May 4-26, 2019.

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