“Until recently I’ve been pretty half-hearted about Welcome to Country,” Jack Charles confesses as he faces a room of social workers at a drug and alcohol rehab centre in Melbourne’s Fitzroy. A short Koori man with fuzzy white hair floating around his head like a dandelion, Jack’s initial sense of ‘country’ was Box Hill Boys’ Home, his “first and foremost siblings” approximately 250 white children. But today, at 67 years of age, Jack is an elder. Taken from his mother (a Yorta Yorta woman) when he was ten months old, it has been a long journey to performing traditional welcome. Well, sort of traditional. “So, anyway,” Jack finishes, walking back to his plastic chair, “Welcome to Country”. Mid-crouch, he pauses and cocks a bushy, white eyebrow at the small group. “I’m still on my learners’ for Welcome to Country,” he adds apologetically.
When I meet Jack again he’s surrounded by handwritten notes and storyboard sketches in preparation for his new show, Jack Charles V The Crown. Jack wants his criminal record – the four digits that define him – scratched. “Clean as a whistle” for the first time in 30 years (“Listen to my diction,” he says proudly, his voice brassy, bouncing off the walls), Jack is planning to make a case for his defence – on stage. The audience will be the jury.
In 1971, Jack co-founded Australia’s first Indigenous theatre group, Nindethana (‘place for a corroboree’), which originally consisted of seven Aboriginal actors living in hostels across Melbourne. “We want to put on plays where Aborigines have a chance to act. They don’t have to be about racism,” Jack told the press at the group’s launch. “We want to do plays where the Aboriginal actors will play ordinary people – a milkman, a postman – because Aborigines do these jobs.” Performing at the legendary Pram Factory in Carlton, the first successful sold-out show was called Jack Charles is Up and Fighting and bore the simple catchphrase, “It’s tough for us Boongs in Australia today.”
The rise of Indigenous theatre coincided with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, pitched on the lawns of Old Parliament House in Canberra. For Indigenous actors such as Jack, the likelihood of landing roles at the time – even when the characters were Aboriginal – was extremely low. Often white actors scored the parts and ‘blacked-up’ for the mostly lap-lap roles. When Jack auditioned for the television role of Detective Napoleon Bonaparte in Boney (1972), an Indigenous character created by author Arthur Upfield, the producer told him they were looking for an actor with blue eyes. “I was completely floored,” recalls Jack. “I had read all 29 books of Upfield’s Boney and I’d always thought of the character as a small, squat fellow, a neat Aboriginal package – like myself.” The lead went to James Laurenson, an actor with a British and Sri Lankan background. He was made to black-up for the role – Indigenous actors were furious.
On the set of Ben Hall (an Australian television series, which aired in 1975), Jack and his Indigenous co-star, Justine Saunders, were made to ‘black-up’. It was as if they were considered inadequate at playing their own people. Discerning viewers would have noticed a quiet rebellion: the gradual lightening of Jack’s skin as the series progressed. “By the tenth or eleventh episode, I started to avoid the make-up room. I’d put my dungarees on, jump on my horse and go straight out to the set, far away from the make-up people.”
The star of films such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Bedevil (1993) and Tom White (2004), Jack Charles recently gave the performance of his life, quite literally, in Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s documentary Bastardy (2008). The film shadowed Jack as he drifted in and out of street hovels – and jail – for seven years, before witnessing him finally swim to the surface of his heroin habit.
Frequently recognised as the fella who sang and played the guitar in the Degraves Street subway, Jack’s dedication of jazz number ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’ to John Howard when he lost the federal election in 2007 made him a street-busking hit.
His schoolmates from the Box Hill Boys’ Home got in touch. “We thought you were dead,” one of them exclaimed before urging him to join their civil class action against the Salvation Army, the organisation that had run the home. Initially Jack refused to join the lawsuit. The lawyer had to convince him. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen Jack, you’re never going to get any money for being stolen, for being taken from your mother, but you’ve been cruelly mistreated here and you can get compensation for that.’ He said I ought to think of it as superannuation.”
In the coming months, Jack is expecting a large file of typed witness accounts from his ‘siblings’ detailing the events of his time at the boys’ home. As the sole Indigenous boy at the school, Jack looms large in their memories. He is worried about what he might be forced to remember. “I really don’t know how I’m going to absorb it,” he says, “but I’ll have to read it. I’m an elder now. I have to follow through.”
Jack talks about the next 30 years as if his life is just beginning, although his knee is a bit sore after a driver knocked him off his scooter – “Can’t go for long walks, do corroboree, jump over fences, climb down buildings, you know.” Aside from that, though, Jack’s up and fighting. “I remember meeting my namesake on the way up to Dubbo where we were filming The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” Jack says when I remark on his seeming longevity. “We were all on a mini-bus and we had to learn our lines by the time we got there. Anyway, at a petrol station, there was this short old Koori man, a bit like me I guess, standing around and he said his name was Jack Charles. ‘So’s mine,’ I said. Immediately, he went, ‘then you’re Blanche’s boy.’ And I am. Anyway – he was 93 then. So I figure I’ve a few more decades in me yet.”
Jack Charles V The Crown will be performed as part of the Melbourne Festival, 12–17 October.