Jack Charles v the Crown: a theatre review

Jack Charles v the Crown: a theatre review

by

Howard Adelman

Currently, a series of Australian plays is being performed at the Berkeley Theatre by Canadian Stage called, “Spotlight Australia.” We saw the first in that series entitled “Jack Charles v the Crown.” It is rare, for it is an autobiographical play with Jack Charles as the sole performer and co-writer (the other co-writer is John Romeril). The play is directed by Rachael Maza who, in real life, is Jack’s niece. She grew up in the shadow of this talented Australian actor and performer. [Jack along with Rachael’s father established Australia’s first Aboriginal Theatre Company in Melbourne in 1972.] Rachael was the director of that marvellous Australian film, Rabbit Proof Fence. Jack Charles is an older aboriginal Australian who hails from Boon Wurrung, the territory in East Victoria stretching from the Werribee River to Wilson Promontory. The Boon Wurrung people make up one of the five Kulin nations.

“Nation,” not tribe, as I shall elaborate in a future blog, is the proper term for that people. As the governments and civil society entities of Western settler states came to realize and finally acknowledge, those states have been constructed on land once owned and governed by aboriginal peoples. At Massey College, where I am currently a Senior Fellow, events open with a tribute paid to the aboriginal people on whose lands Massey College was built. This ritual is becoming widespread. For example, after students stand for “O Canada” in Etobicoke schools in Toronto, a statement is read as follows:

“In keeping with Indigenous protocol, I would like to acknowledge this school is situated upon traditional territories. The territories include the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis Nation.”

“The treaty was signed for the particular parcel of land that is collectively referred to as The First Purchase and applies to lands west of Brown’s Line to Burlington Bay and north to Eglinton Avenue.

“I also recognize the enduring presence of Aboriginal Peoples on this land.”

I first encountered this ritual in New Zealand. There, for example, at Massey University (35,000 students) in Palmerston in North New Zealand, the university is even given a Māori name, Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa. For years, all events have been introduced with a tribute to the Māori people, the previous owners of the land on which the university was built. The ritual is now becoming more widespread in Canada. I will have more to say about this ritual in tomorrow’s blog, but suffice it for now to state simply that ritual is not about any action that changes the world, but about acknowledging and recognizing the world we live in and offering a path to negotiate our existence in the world through a process of creating community. Rituals establish a shared community.

The play at the Berkeley Theatre also opened with such a tribute, the same one that is read at the opening of events at Massey College in Toronto.  In this case, the relevance cannot be missed. For the drama is a story told by an older victim of state-sponsored political abuse of aboriginal peoples. In this case, Jack Charles was snatched from his parents at the age of only three months to be “civilized” as an Australian in a residential school.

The results were otherwise. Jack was sexually and physically abused and the results of his isolation from his family and the abuse to which he was subjected wreaked havoc on his life. This part of his life is told as backdrop drawn from his documentary, Bastardy, in which pictures of his heroin habit and self-injection as an addict (toy-yon – it) and voiceovers of his criminal record of thieving (nyeelam-but pinbullally – bul) taken from court records are read as the court documents are projected onto the screen. Jack spent years in prison, (Baambuth – al), one time serving a five year stretch. Though that is the backstory, it is not what the play is primarily about.

Jack is a talented actor (djilak-djirri – dha Jack) and singer (yinga-dha koolin Jack) and the performance is accompanied by a three-piece trio as backup to Jack when he sings and plays his guitar. There is also a potter’s wheel on stage. For a good part of the drama, Jack is sitting at the potter’s wheel molding clay bowls (marnang-bul Jack) as he tells his story to the audience. Clay and its molding are openly symbolic as well as true to his life, for Jack taught pottery when he was in prison. And the play is about clay and how we are molded like clay by social institutions and our own will to survive and thrive. The play is primarily about Jack as a proud Kulin man (dullally koolin) ready not only to tell his story, but to confront the criminals who abused and jailed him.

This is done with such humour and irony that the juxtaposition of the entertainment and the horrific nature of the tale make the autobiographical account all the more powerful as Jack sings and tells his life story (dhumba – dha ba yinga-dha weegan-dha Jack). The play, if it is a play, for it is as much performance as a drama put on stage, reaches what I would characterize as its climax when Jack stands confronting his judges and asks, not for his redemption from his crimes and misdemeanours, but for the redemption of the people who did what they did to a young aboriginal child. This is all done in a speech that is without bitterness, a speech that in fact has all the formality and politeness of the culture of English courts, but said with both irony and playfulness, “warm of heart” and “sharp of wit” as Rachael notes in her catalogue notes.

Jack owns up to the fact that he was a heroin addict and a thief to service his addiction and is willing to take responsibility for the crimes he committed. He stole jewels and money. He is fully aware that, through his acts, he created a sense of intrusion among his victims. But the white system of laws and government stole much more people and lives. Our state trafficked in cultural genocide. Jack asks the judges whether they are willing to acknowledge and account for their sins. In the process, he compares black and white systems of justice.

When an aboriginal in his own community commits an offence, he is either banished from his people for a specific time or metaphorically wounded in the heel by a spear. But then, after being punished, he returns to the community with his dignity intact as a full-fledged member of the nation. In contrast, in white justice, the person is given a record that follows him for the rest of his life and affects whether he can be employed. In America, as documented in 13th, a person convicted is deprived of his right to vote as a citizen. Further, as Jack wryly notes, when he was about to travel to Britain to receive an award, the British immigration department, five days before he was scheduled to depart, turned his request for a visa down because he had a criminal record.

As Jack “tickles” the consciences and consciousness of the members of the audience, and avoids self-righteous ranting and berating, the very performance becomes an act of redemption so appropriate for the Passover/Easter period. The result is not only the strengthening of the aboriginal community, but through empathy, strengthening the community of aboriginal and non-aboriginal community members as well as “the ties that bind” all of humanity as the play is given a world audience.

It is hard to convey how powerful the play is with a total absence of self-pity. Self-pity is the dark side of sincerity and this drama avoids that pitfall totally. Instead of self-righteousness, the drama offers a source for us to reflect upon and determine how we ought to act as Jack asks the judges, not so much to pardon and set aside his sentences, but to acknowledge their own part in a criminal activity and to themselves seek redemption.

The play is more than a dramatization of a personal life, for it is a parable about the backs upon which modernity was developed and the absences from cognition, from acknowledgement, from recognition, to the presence of ever larger senses of community which at the apex recognize that we are all part of the same humanity. This is not simply a story about extreme abuse and suffering, but it tells a story about the costs of modernity that both stresses and facilitates redemption.

How appropriate to stress the performative, not as a sound bite or a thoughtless tweet, but as a repetitive act each evening to allow us all to become batter and part of a much-improved world more conscious of our common humanity. For our aboriginal peoples may have been among the groups most negatively affected by the process of modernity, but to a lesser degree victimization goes much further. We have transformed our world into a hyper-technical system without any grounding in redemption. Entertainment and performance have, in good part, become part of a system for abusing respect for sincerity, for truth and for others. Sea levels may be rising but see-levels have been declining precipitously. The liberal imagination may have delivered us a powerful foundation for individual freedom, but it has also come at a great cost that has left individuals increasingly isolated without sovereignty over themselves and the ability to determine their own destinies. Humans around the world, increasingly left to fend for themselves, provide a terrific opportunity for slippery soap salesmen to sell a fraudulent bill of political goods.

Thus, although Jack committed crimes, he was the greatest victim by far of his felonies, even as he openly acknowledged the discomfort, the sense of personal invasion, that robbery and theft of personal belongings instill. Though Jack’s survival never seemed to be in danger, his sanity was. Nothing came easy. He suffered from PTSD in the worst way. One song he performed was “No Son of Mine” that begins:

Well the key to my survival
was never in much doubt
the question was how I could keep sane
trying to find a way out.

Things were never easy for me
peace of mind was hard to find
and I needed a place where I could hide
somewhere I could call mine

I didn’t think much about it
til it started happening all the time
soon I was living with the fear everyday
of what might happen that night.

Though he once hid in booze and heroin, the play ends with a degree of recognition about society. Jack Charles sings, “Love Letters in the Sand.”

On a day like today
We passed the time away
Writing love letters in the sand

How you laughed when I cried
Each time I saw the tide
Take our love letters from the sand

Chorus
You made a vow that you would ever be true
But somehow that vow meant nothing to you

Now my broken heart aches
With every wave that breaks
Over love letters in the sand

Now my broken heart aches
With every wave that breaks
Over love letters in the sand.

Jack Charles lived a life of promises that had as much sincerity, depth and permanence as letters written in the sand. He grew up with a broken heart and a shattered soul. Yet he redeemed himself through performance and theatre making it possible for us to be redeemed as well.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Decline of the West –
Part I Donald Trump: Racist

by

Howard Adelman

As Donald Trump goes down in flames in the American election, focusing on him seems more and more like a bore. But I believe a summary of him is needed in order to understand what has happened to the Republican Party and analyze how it became the site of a political civil war and what the path the war is likely to follow in the election aftermath. I want to write about Trump and the Republican Party, in turn, to understand what is happening in America, and, then in turn again, what has happening in the West. For the American rise of populism is far from unique, though it certainly has its unique characteristics. I have already tried to point out what a pathological liar Trump is; in this blog I will focus on Trump as a racist. I want to do this in enough detail so I can ask the even more important question of how the Republican Party could have nominated someone so unfit to be president of the United States and, in turn, to be the effective leader of the Free World.

I was asked over the Yom Kippur Holiday by one of my sons why I fasted so strictly since I was not an Orthodox Jew. Though I said that I always fasted even when I rebelled against Judaism as a kid, this was not an answer. And I am not sure that I have one. I have many. One is that Judaism is a religion which mocks itself and its God. On Yom Kippur, the holiest of the many Jewish holidays, the story of Jonah is read. Though many would interpret it otherwise, Jonah is a hilarious satire of both prophets and of God. The juxtaposition of that story and the most sacred day of the year is what makes Judaism a terrific religion and contrasts with the fanatics, currently mostly of Muslim origin, who not only deplore but punish satire. Sacredness and the freedom to mock are perhaps fundamental to our well-being.
In the West, truth is held to be sacred. At the same time, no one that I have experienced in my almost eighty years of life is so worthy of mockery as Donald Trump. When he utters such malapropisms on torture re waterboarding as: “I said I love it. I love it. I think it’s great,” and re nuclear power, “With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me,” the material for laughter is abundant. He is a very easy target given his bountiful faults. If only he were not such a menace. So I want to address the question of why such a menace could go so far and what it means about America and the world. Clearly, that is not a question that can be adequately explored in a short essay or a series of short essays. But it can be probed. That is what I intend to do beginning with a synopsis on Donald Trump.

I mentioned in a recent blog that in the second debate, while Trump virtually identified and even equated Islam with extremism and fanaticism, Hillary Clinton refused to go there by ignoring the possible connection between mainstream moderate Islam and the small minority of extremist murderers among them. Thus, when a zealot can parade in front of a mosque in Walthamstow in Great Britain handing out handbills that insisted that “any Muslim should kill” anyone who insults the Prophet of Islam, why did members of the mosque not make a house arrest and turn the picketer over to the authorities for prosecution for perpetuating a hate crime in contrast to Islamic regimes which still have strict Islamic blasphemy laws on their books (often enforced)?

In the second debate, a woman stood up and in a quiet and unassuming way asked how each candidate would deal with how she felt and the general consequences of her and other Muslim citizens of the U.S. being labeled as security threats. The account I offer is the best I can do to provide a coherent summary of Trump’s mangled syntax. Trump replied by initially acknowledging the existence of Islamophobia. But he neither expressed empathy for her situation nor expanded on the nature of that Islamophobia. Instead, he inflated Islamophobia by pivoting and insisting there was a problem that could and should not be hidden by political correctness.

He then went on to justify that concern by a factoid on the slaughter at San Bernardino. Neighbours, he had claimed, had seen the ammunition being collected, had witnessed the bomb-making apparatus, but had reported nothing. This just happens to be totally false, supported by no evidence. In one statement Trump revealed both his anti-Muslim prejudices and his vicious and inconsiderate mendacity. Trump is a verbal terrorist not only collecting the explosive material and preparing bombs, but lighting the fuse.

Trump has been the prime individual in the United States stoking Islamophobia. He has said: “Look, we are at war with these people (my italics) and they don’t wear uniforms…vicious, violent people that we can have no idea of who they are, where they are from. We are allowing ‘tens of thousands’ into our country.” In another rant he said, “They’re here. And I’ve been saying. This is going to be like the Trojan horse. We’re letting tens of thousands of people flow into this country and they are bringing in, in many cases, this is cancer from within. This is something that’s going to be so tough and you know they stay together, so nobody really knows who it is, what’s happening. They are plotting. They keep plotting, and this has been going on for so long and everybody knows it.”

The U.S. is NOT admitting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. Yesterday, my son introduced me to a new site created by one of the close friends of my younger boys who went on to Silicon Valley to make a fortune. As a Canadian, he wanted to give something back to America and reinsert a measure of Canadian civility into American politics. He created a site that allows a Trump supporter to have a conversation with a Clinton supporter. I tried it out. I put in my phone number and within thirty seconds the phone rang with a Trump supporter at the other end. I have never met or talked with a Trump supporter. As I inquired, I learned that he was an economics major in a small university in Philadelphia.

This Trump supporter insisted that America was allowing tens of thousands of Syrian refugees into the country and no one knows who they are or what they stand for. There needs to be at least a two-year moratorium on such admissions. He knew the Trump party line on this issue very well. I pointed out that the Obama administration had only admitted 13,000 Syrian refugees last year, far fewer per capita than most countries in the West and far fewer than Canada, its northern neighbour with one-tenth of the population. Further, because of security clearances and vetting those refugees, waiting times for refugees waiting to get to the United States were interminable. Further, if one is a terrorist, there are far easier ways to get into the United States – as a student, as a visitor, on business.

If any refugees are terrorists, they would be very few. In any case, the real danger comes largely from home-grown extremism, and not only Islamicists. Further, the fault is not from other Muslims ignoring terrorist preparations. Nor neighbours who are non-Muslims failing to report out of political correctness and fear of being branded anti-Muslim. There is absolutely no evidence that neighbours, Muslims or non-Muslims, witnessed the San Bernardino terrorist collecting arms and preparing bombs. This is another of Donald’s fantasies put out as if it was an established fact and echoes a total lie from 2015 that, “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated after 9/11. “There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down.” This would-be president has absolutely no boundaries to his capacity for fabrication and lying.

But he not only recognizes Islamophobia and stokes the anti-Muslim backlash. He is also a racist pure and simple. This does not mean that he does not treat some Blacks well and fairly. It means he has a deep prejudice against those who are Black and against other minorities. The birtherism issue for which he was the main propagandist over the years is perhaps the best-known indicator. When he finally admitted recently that Barack Obama was born in the United States, he did not apologize. He certainly did not ask for forgiveness. Instead he lied again and blamed Hillary for starting the whole birtherism fraud. But by then he had upped the ante. “ISIS is honouring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS, OK? He is the founder. He founded ISIS. And I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.” In addition to being a racist, Trump should perhaps be called Trump Four-Four instead of Trump Two-Two.

But there is also Trump’s behaviour in specific incidents. On The Apprentice, there was a Black sound engineer whom he repeatedly referred to as “monkey” and whose hand he refused to shake when they first met. Instead, he turned to one of his assistants and asked, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, who’s this [effing] monkey?” He followed that with a more offensive remark. “I’m not gonna let this [effing] monkey touch me unless he washes his hand.” He required one of his assistants to accompany the sound engineer to the washroom to observe him wash his hands before allowing him to put a mike on him. But his racism was on full display when we unbelievably heard Donald Trump refer to a single Black American at one of his rallies as “my African American,” as an expression of his tokenism.

But what about Lynn Patton, his Black female Vice-President of his foundation and VP to his three children working in the corporation? She has an excellent background with a degree in law, extensive experience in relief work with recognition as a Mass Disaster Shelter Supervisor and with legal experience in litigation with respect to product placement. Though paid by the foundation, she also provides personal assistance to Eric, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, including personal appointments, media appearances, travel as well as home and business responsibilities. In a video she released and in a number of TV interviews, one specifically with Greta Van Susteren on MSCBC during the Cleveland Convention, she explained why she came out in support of Donald’s campaign for the presidency.

He was not a racist at all, she insisted. As a woman and Black, she has always been treated fairly. “As a black female executive at the Trump organization, I can no longer remain silent about the repeated and reprehensible attempts to align my boss and his family with racist hate mongering groups, campaigns, and messaging.” “As a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, who rose against all odds to become one of the most established and respected doctors at Yale University, there was no amount of money in the world that could buy my loyalty to a family that subscribed to such intolerant and bigoted ideologies.”

But the evidence of Black hiring within the corporation and talk of Blacks elsewhere tells a different story. Not about the treatment of her as a Black and as a woman, which I am convinced was totally fair. In the first debate, Hillary dated Trump’s racism back to the days when he was managing his father’s real estate holdings in Brooklyn and Queens. The information is on the legal record. In 1973, the United States Department of Justice, after interviewing his employees and launching a sting operation, went to court with a discrimination complaint based on 1960’s anti-discrimination civil right legislation designed to counteract racism. They had witnesses, employed by Trump, who swore that Trump had given instructions to direct Blacks away from some of his buildings towards buildings that already had a large proportion of Blacks. Trump’s defence: everyone was doing it. In any case, he claimed, he was never found guilty.

What he never adds is that most landlords learned to comply with the legislation. Donald Trump, as was his practice, went to court, using the pit bull terrier Roy Cohn, to sue the government and their agents whom he labeled “storm troopers” and “Gestapo” for reverse discrimination and defamation and asked for a penalty of $410 million. The judge summarily threw his case out of court and called it a waste of paper. Donald Trump then agreed to settle out of court, paying a very large fine and agreeing to a protocol that required Trump to advertise vacancies in minority papers and weekly supply the Urban League with a list of vacancies from whom applications would come and be given preference in buildings where fewer than 10 percent of the tenants were Black or Hispanic.

There are numerous other stories told by Michael D’Antonio author of, The Truth About Trump and an article in Fortune Magazine called, “Is Donald Trump Racist? Here’s What the Record Shows.” Donald Trump does not share Ronald Reagan’s condescending racism that would refer to Black males as “strapping young bucks” and Blacks generally as “welfare queens,” even though far more whites in absolute numbers were on welfare. Donald’s racism is of the more visceral and resentful variety. He openly claimed on radio, contrary to all the factual evidence, that, “a well-educated Black has a tremendous advantage.” But the real venom emerged in Trump’s leadership of the lynch mob when five Black and Latino teens were arrested in the infamous “Central Park jogger” attack. Trump paid $85,000 for full-page newspapers ads advocating the return of the death penalty. After years in prison based on coerced confessions, DNA evidence established that they were innocent. They were compensated for their imprisonment. Trump denounced the payments since, “These young men do not exactly have the past of angels.”

The resentment and visceral distaste for Blacks evidently emerged in his own casinos where he insisted that, “Black guys counting my money! I hate it.” He told John O’Donnell when he was president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City that Blacks were lazy. Referring to one Black employee, he said, “it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks.” He insisted on Jewish Chasids counting his money. This philo-Semitism was merely an inverted form of racism.
But, in the end, it is Donald Trump’s perceived racism that counts. Brandon Finnigan, a Republican stalwart with an African-American wife, has concentrated on objectively analyzing the voters in Pennsylvania and their swings with a view to winning Pennsylvania, a key swing state, for the Republican Party. Instead, with Trump as the Republican candidate, Pennsylvania is being lost. “College-educated voters, wealthy voters and suburban voters are drifting away from the Republican Party; non-college whites and residents of rural and exurban areas are moving toward it.” The key is the suburb now characterized by diversity with an explosion of Black residents. The support for Trump among Blacks is under 1%. Pennsylvania, once a promising gain for the Republicans, is now an assured loss.

In Brandon’s own words, “Diversity has hit the suburbs themselves: Once overwhelmingly white, the inner suburbs of Philadelphia, in Delaware and Montgomery and Bucks, have seen an explosion in nonwhite residents, just like they have in Virginia, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, heck, nearly everywhere. Trump’s campaign strategy mirrors a parody of conservatism: angry, afraid, racially motivated, terrified of inevitable change. This is clearly turning off moderates and even conservative suburbanites, and not just in Pennsylvania. Unchecked, it will reverse the impressive gains Republicans had enjoyed recently in many purple and blue states like Wisconsin and Maryland.”

Trump’s racism extends to aboriginal or native Indians who were establishing casinos on their reservations. He claimed that they were tied to organized crime. The problems would explode. They never did. But this “Least racist person on earth,” according to his own personal assessment, was also clearly anti-Mexican. Trump repeatedly and publicly attacked the judge who presides over Trump University class-action lawsuits. He called the American-born Gonzalo Curiel a “Mexican.” He insisted that as a Mexican, he could not be impartial in trying his case.

But can Trump be accused of being an anti-Mexican racist when he insists that Mexicans are smarter than Americans? “Our leaders are stupid. “Our politicians are stupid. And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning, and they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them, they don’t want to take care of them. Why should they, when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? And that’s what’s happening, whether you like it or not.” “They’re forcing people into our country … And they are drug dealers and they are criminals of all kinds. We are taking Mexico’s problems.”

Is he even unequivocally anti-Immigration? He argues for better control over immigration, but is unclear whether this is a guise for his anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican immigrant rhetoric. One test of racism is whether he is anti-Semitic. Such a charge seems hardly credible since his daughter converted to Judaism and her husband, Jared Kushner, plays a leading role in the Trump Corporation and serves as Trump’s consigliere or mechutan (Yiddish) in both his business affairs and campaign, though Kushner broke his Sabbath to attend an emergency meeting after Trump’s 2005 misogynist tapes were released. Further, if he only trusts Orthodox Jews to count his casino money, that would suggest he is not anti-Semitic.

And he is not. However, Trump is certainly willing to play footsies with those who are. (I will explain why when I address the issue of the inherent fault lines in the Republican Party.) He uses the tweets of anti-Semites and of Assange who, with his accusations of tribalism directed at Jews, is himself probably an anti-Semite. Trump certainly joins Assange in the conviction that there is an elitist global wide conspiracy by a “global power structure” with Hillary Clinton centrally involved, a trope quintessentially anti-Semitic by most conspiracy theorists.
Next: Trump’s misogyny may be deeper than his racism

With the help of Alex Zisman