Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

White Crocodile, Black Skirt: Theatre for Young People and Cultural Memory

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

White Crocodile, Black Skirt: Theatre for Young People and Cultural Memory

Article excerpt

If memory is where images and the past are in some way stored then drama like other art forms, is a kind of cultural memory preserving the thoughts, modes of thinking and feeling and images created by and in someway characteristic of particular time, place and culture.1

In his keynote address at the International Drama/Theatre and Education Association conference (IDEA) in Brisbane in 1995, Peter Abbs commenced by quoting Vaclav Havel who said that, 'the main instrument of society's self-knowledge is its culture'. Abbs went on to pose a series of questions: 'What if the dominant culture tends to promote self-ignorance or self-indifference, self-indulgence or some form of self-alienation? What if that culture in one way or another, for whatever reason, conscious or unconscious, tends to withhold the cultural means for the continuous development of thinking, feeling and imagining? Well, what then...?'.2 His question, posed at an Arts Education conference, alludes to loss of personal agency at the level of cognition, emotion and imagination. The provision of 'cultural means,' whether it be a rich education, proper care or a sense of one's history, has direct bearing on the 'continuous development' of individual agency, active citizenship and human relations. For example prolific TYP playwright Richard Tulloch, speaking at the 1987 International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (ASSITEJ) Congress, described his education as a child in Australia during the late 1960s to early 1970s: 'At our school our education about Aboriginal people was limited to learning about how clever they were at surviving in the desert and throwing spears and boomerangs and hunting kangaroos. If we thought of them at all, it was as a [people], who were regrettably wiped out early in Australian history'.3

Disenfranchisement takes many forms. Tulloch's comments, delivered as part of a paper discussing the work of Indigenous playwright Jack Davis, describe an Anglo-Australia 'cut-off' from its history and cultural heritage, raising its children in a climate of collective amnesia or misconception. In this climate, how can children grow to adulthood and build a good society?

This essay observes how theatre for young people has the capacity to move young people beyond the fictions of past cultural narratives. This article explores how two plays, Blow'im by Elverina Johnson and Children of the Black Skirt by Angela Betzien, seek to recover suppressed stories from Australian cultural history. The plays fulfil a common purpose, in that each act as a holding place for cultural memories, stories and insights lost in the more hazardous compilation of collective memory. The term cultural memory, both in its literal sense and its abstract connotation, refers to 'a remembrance of things past' and 'dominant constructions of the past'. In the case of Blow'im, the audience is asked to remember the Indigenous Brass Bands that toured throughout Australia (1901-1970) and in our remembrance recognise an inspired story of Indigenous self-determination during a period of rapid, unacknowledged and unsupported cultural change. In the case of Children of the Black Skirt, we are asked to remember childhood experiences of orphans in the face of institutionalised abuse and in turn explore the question: how does our treatment of children reflect our social order and shape future generations?

Whilst one may argue that something cannot be remembered without first being known, each play serves as a pre-text (stimulus text) to further enquiry and thus the potential formation of new knowledge. Each play is an entry point into past experience, which when viewed through the principles of arts education practice4 underpinning both plays, may be refuted and/or debated. The presence of these performance texts within the education context invites alternative narratives to reside within Australian cultural history, and young people's interaction with these narratives provides one touchstone for future reflection upon this complex history. …

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