Playwright Jane Harrison on Australia Day: ‘This isn’t just black history people are forgetting’ | Culture
Seven men gather on a headland overlooking a stunning harbour for a crucial war council. The date is 26 January 1788 – and it’s a moment they’ve been anticipating for 18 years, the last time a “nowee” sailed along this coast. Then, there had been just one large wooden vessel, full of strange white-skinned aliens. But those visitors had left after a few days.
Now they’re back.
Over the past few days, locals around the bay have witnessed one tall ship after another gather in the heart of their ancestral country. So seven leaders, representing the clans who stretch their unbroken relationship with this country back 40,000 years, have been summonsed. Their task is to decide their people’s fate. Should they drive these intruders back into the sea? Or welcome the visitors to country with the hospitality customary among their people?
That’s the central premise of Muruwari playwright Jane Harrison’s The Visitors, making its world premiere at Carriageworks as part of this year’s Sydney Festival.
Harrison describes herself as “a black of all trades”: lecturer, author, artistic director and playwright. Until now her most celebrated work was her 1998 play Stolen. But the film rights of The Visitors have already been optioned, and she’s currently 20,000 words into a novel based on the play’s essential conceit.
“The Visitors is inspired by the film 12 Angry Men,” Harrison tells Guardian Australia. Sidney Lumet’s 1957 McCarthy-era classic, set in a New York jury room, sees Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) hold out against his fellow jurors.
“Each of the seven Aboriginal elders in The Visitors has his own distinct point of view,” says Harrison. “One is a philosopher, another a warrior and a third is a younger man who hasn’t finished being initiated yet. They’re flawed, like we all are.”
Moogahlin Performing Arts, the Indigenous theatre company producing The Visitors, wanted to use New South Wales-based actors. Only one, Glenn Shea (involved in the project from the first reading in 2011), is from Victoria.
Harrison’s groups are given generic names – “Bay people”, “Eel mob”, “Spear clan” – rather than their historically correct titles, like Gadigal and Camerigal, because she has no wish to offend descendants of those Indigenous people actually there when the first fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour.
“Lots of Australians still don’t know what Australia Day represents,” Harrison says. “Some think it’s when Cook arrived in Botany Bay, not the day the first fleet settled in Sydney Cove. This isn’t just black history people are forgetting. It’s white history, our history.”
This war summit is a product of Harrison’s imagination. “There are no first-person accounts of January 26, 1788 from an Indigenous perspective,” she says. “The closest we’ve got is the William Dawes’ account in his diaries of talking to Patyegarang, learning her language. But I’ve read a lot of first contact history, from the Dawes diaries to Tim Flannery. And incidents referenced in the play actually happened.
“Cook had come and gone 18 years earlier, so the mobs had stories of what had happened, and they weren’t great. There’s a reference in the play to the waters of Botany Bay turning the colour of sunset after Cook’s men slaughtered stingrays, some of which were 100 years old.
“Of course, I’ve taken artistic licence.”
At one point, the seven elders watch in horror as one of the visitors is hanged. “The hanging actually happened, but some weeks after the first fleet had arrived,” Harrison explains.
Despite the sombre soul of the play, it’s also very funny as the men tease and compete with each other – like blokes at a typical Australian barbecue – trying to deal with a genuine crisis though unable to avoid the normal joshing.
But the “Juror 8” of Harrison’s play is the deep thinker from the “Eel mob” from way out west.
“He’s a philosopher who can see both sides of the dilemma,” Harrison explains. “Like the real-life Bennelong, he has ambiguities. Bennelong was happy to go to England with Governor Phillip, wearing fancy clothes and dining in the halls of the British aristocracy. But when he came back he took off his clothes and walked down the streets of Sydney as part of his community again. Some of the first contact Aborigines were diplomats while others were warriors – as reflected in the play.”
There had been times during the long gestation of The Visitors when Harrison was tempted to scrap it and rewrite it from the perspective of women instead. Bennelong’s wife, Barangaroo, for example, was much less ready to compromise with Phillip and the other visitors during those crucial early years of the colony. While Harrison eventually decided not to take that creative route, the script retains marks of that deliberation.
What the seven will decide is in doubt until the last few pages of Harrison’s script. Does their unanimous vote stand the scrutiny of history? Unlike 12 Angry Men, this jury is still out.