Culture

Theatre

A tale of triumph and exploitation: ‘Black Cockatoo’

By Steve Dow
The little-known story of history-making Aboriginal cricketer Johnny Mullagh and his team is told in this new play

Aaron McGrath rehearsing as Johnny Mullagh in Black Cockatoo. Photograph by Prudence Upton

When Unaarrimin, AKA Johnny Mullagh, died aged about 50 on his land in 1891, having refused to be rounded up onto reserves and missions like so many of his mob, the Harrow Cricket Club in Victoria’s Wimmera region paid for the Jardwadjali man’s funeral.

At the service, the Reverend J. Kirkland paid tribute to Mullagh’s career as a great cricketer, but patronisingly referred to him in the racist rhetoric of the era as “a noble type of an almost extinct race”.

Mullagh had been a fighter and a survivor. “He knew how to play the system, literally and figuratively,” says Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch. “If you think of cricket as a game of strategy, not just hitting a ball willy-nilly, then you go, ‘Here’s a man with a strategic brain who knows how to play the game.’”

In 1868, a group of Aboriginal men from country Victoria, among whom Mullagh was the dominant all-rounder, became the first Australian cricket team to travel to England for a playing tour. Their story is one of both triumph and exploitation.

The historic cricket tour almost never happened: while the states had assumed control of Indigenous people’s lives, the cricket team failed to seek permission from Victorian authorities to leave Australia.

“They were smuggled out of the country,” says playwright Geoffrey Atherden (Mother and Son). “The police were told the team was going to Bendigo. They didn’t; they went to Queenscliff and rowed out to a boat that was waiting for them offshore, which took them to Sydney, where they departed.”

A decade ago, Atherden started writing a movie about Mullagh and his cricketing cohort. It failed to come to fruition, but he has now adapted it into a play, Black Cockatoo, which will premiere at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre (January 4 to February 8) as part of the Sydney Festival, before heading to Riverside Theatres in Parramatta (February 18 to 22).

Atherden says there is evidence that English crowds “came to see a group of natives, rather than a group of cricketers”. More spectators turned up on the days when the men were compelled not to play cricket but to compete in staged battles, do mock war dancing, throw boomerangs and wear “ludicrous costumes”.

Enoch, who previously directed Tom Wright’s play about Indigenous servicemen, Black Diggers (Sydney Festival 2014), is directing Black Cockatoo, with an all-Indigenous cast of six. Five cast members will alternate between playing Indigenous and white characters, with the sixth, Aaron McGrath (the eponymous Jasper in Rachel Perkins’s film Jasper Jones) playing Mullagh.

The play is set in a museum backroom, with a large storage unit containing itemised boxes and a big, rolling ladder, which serves as a theatrical way of moving from one era and place to another. Atherden has had to imagine Mullagh’s personality by drawing on limited historical documentation, such as cricket scores and newspaper match reports.

“What Geoffrey has written is this kind of empowerment Johnny Mullagh gets; this ability to demand of the world his rights,” says Enoch.

“I love that as a narrative: from this compliant, wide-eyed, excitable man, then comes a very firm, thoughtful advocate for rights. Mullagh comes back to Australia and finds all his extended family have been moved off to government-run reserves and missions. You get a sense of, what could he do in the face of such overwhelming oppression?”

Enoch says while the Aboriginal cricketers earned prize money for activities like running races during their English tour, it’s unlikely that they were remunerated for playing cricket. Atherden similarly says there is no evidence the team was paid for playing cricket.

“All of it was an extension of a kind of paternalism,” says Enoch, whose own Noonuccal Nuugi family comes from Stradbroke Island in Quandamooka country in Queensland. “That was the colonial project: ‘We are the superior race that is going to control this weaker race, and they will die out.’

“At the same time, they’re working out protection laws to make sure that [with] half-caste, quarter-caste, octoroons, all of that bullshit, that they have ways of managing the growing Aboriginal population.

“It’s such an inbuilt contradiction: on one hand the narrative is, ‘They’re dying out, they’re disempowered, they have nothing because they are an inferior race.’ On the other hand, here are these fantastic role models that are out there winning – in this case cricket – but also having families, and that doesn’t enter into the narrative; that doesn’t stay in the pages of history as something that should be recorded.”

Atherden has consulted and taken feedback from Indigenous people in writing Black Cockatoo, including from the original director attached to the project, Isaac Drandic. But is it problematic that a non-Indigenous playwright is telling this Aboriginal story? Enoch points out that Atherden has a trusted history of working alongside Indigenous creators on projects.

“The discussion at the moment very firmly is, how do you get Indigenous writers and Indigenous directors to the forefront?” says Enoch. “I totally understand that. At Sydney Festival, we’ve got so much work in that genre [including a new production of the musical Bran Nue Dae by the late Jimmy Chi, Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Te Rēhia Theatre’s premiere play Black Ties, and Jane Harrison’s new play The Visitors].

“There comes a point where certain narratives, certain stories should always be something that we have a say over … I’m very clear on saying this is Geoffrey Atherden’s take on a particular narrative, done in consultation with a whole lot of [Indigenous] people.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

@dowsteve

Aaron McGrath rehearsing as Johnny Mullagh in Black Cockatoo. Photograph by Prudence Upton

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