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

Ken Adelman: Reagan at Reykjavik

Ken Adelman (2014) Reagan at Reykjavik:
Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday, late afternoon at Massey College, I went to hear Ken Adelman discuss his book on the 11-12 October 1986 Reykjavik summit. (My late brother Al was born on 12 October so it is an easy date to remember as Al turned fifty that day.) At the two-day summit in Reykjavik, President Ronald Reagan of the U.S. and Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the two most powerful men in the world, failed to conclude a disarmament deal. They both initially thought it was a great failure. But Reykjavik set the stage for the deal they finally signed, the most important arms reduction program in decades if not in history.

Ken did not just give a talk about the contents of the book, but offered a very lively multi-media presentation with photos and videos, anecdotes and an articulation of both his feelings and his thoughts. It was one of the best and most interesting talks that I have ever heard. Further, it was a crucial turning point in history and the preface to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Ken followed his wife into the Commerce Department in 1969, but eight years later during the Ford administration, he had risen to become the assistant to Donald Rumsfeld as the Secretary of Defense. Ken became the Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency for almost five years from 1983 to 1987 when he resigned just when the most widespread reduction of intermediate nuclear tipped missiles was concluded and 80% of intermediate ballistic missiles were sent onto the ash heap of history. Though he was central to the negotiations, he gives almost all the credit to Ronald Reagan, not for his intellect, not for any self-conscious critical reflection, but for a very clear vision and determination to end the arms race and a belief that America would win and the Soviet Union would lose, something Ken nor virtually any other expert believed could happen. For as a director of the arms control agency, the agency’s goal was simply to try to freeze the arms race, not end it.

What you have to know is that Ken is a neo-con (he calls himself a con-con), a cold war warrior who always, even at the Reykjavik summit, promoted peace through strength. When we chatted before the talk, he told me that he too majored in philosophy (and religion) at a very small college in the cornfields of Iowa, but he went on to write a PhD in Kinshasa in Zaire as a dependent husband while his wife, Carol, who worked for the U.S. Commerce Department, was in Kinshasa as a diplomat. We compared notes and talked more about Africa than his work on political theory.

Near the end of his talk, he claimed that at Reykjavik, Ronald Reagan brought anti-nuclear arms in from the fringes and made it legitimate. After the talk, I went up to Ken and told him that I had been head of the nuclear disarmament movement at the University of Toronto as a student in the sixties and that we did not consider ourselves outliers needing legitimacy from Reagan. His response was immediate: so you were part of the enemy, but it was said with a wry smile from a scholar and statesman who competed with Ron Reagan in being affable and personable.

Of course, I had to recall I had been his enemy when he believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and when he initially supported the war in Iraq, though only a few years later that “cakewalk” turned into a disaster as the Bush government dismantled the Iraqi army, decimated the civil service in Iraq and destroyed the possibility of creating a strong and unified post-Saddam Iraq. Even then, it was a surprise that this neo-con cold warrior voted for Obama in the 2008 election because of his dismay at McCain’s irrational response to the economic crisis and his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. He reverted to supporting Mitt Romney in 2012 and let me know that he thought that Donald Trump was despicable and surmised that Hillary would be a stronger President than Obama in foreign affairs. I did not have to ask him who he would vote for in this election.

He did not begin his talk with Reagan and Gorbachev, but with Roberson Davies. Though I knew about his Shakespeare expertise and his use of Shakespeare to teach politics, I had no idea he even knew who Roberson Davies was. Evidently, when buying his $150 worth of books to take to Kinshasa that he would need to write his thesis, the salesperson in the bookstore foisted on him Robertson Davie’s The Fifth Business: The Manticore – World of Wonders, the first in the Deptford Trilogy. Ken thought he was being given a present for buying so many books, but it ended up on his bill. Three months after his arrival in Kinshasa, with no other distractions from his academic life, this then non-novel reading nerd, picked up the Robertson Davies volume and could not put it down. He and his wife Carol devoured the whole Robertson Davies corpus. So he was especially delighted to give a talk at Massey College where Davies had been the first master.

Ken then went on to recall his socializing with Allan Gotlieb during the eighties when Allan was the Canadian ambassador from 1981-1989 and his wife, Sondra Gotlieb ran the most important Washington social salon from the Canadian embassy. Allan and Sondra were in the audience and Ken expressed his personal thanks to them, not for all the social occasions to which he had been invited at the Canadian embassy, but for a very intimate dinner to which he and his wife had been invited when Robertson Davies was Allan Gotlieb’s guest.

So this was the introduction to a talk that was very personal as well as being Ken’s contribution to diplomatic history. And he began with what could have been the beginning of a Robertson Davies novel. On the screen there was a picture of Hofty House, this two story relatively small mansion located on a windswept plane on the outskirts of Reykjavik and reputedly haunted. This impression was reinforced as the rain slashed against the windows, though in the picture when Reagan meets Gorbachev, there is no rain.

Ken never carried the haunted theme forward in his talk, so I was not sure why he introduced it. But he did convey the very small headquarters in which the politicians and their advisers worked with Reagan located in the upper room to the left and Gorbachev located in the upper room to the right and the small meeting room below Reagan’s rooms which had only room for a table and seven chars, one each for the two leaders at each end, one for George Schultz, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet Foreign Minister. Beside each of them sat a translator. And then in the picture he showed, there was a seventh person crouching at the knees of Ronald Reagan, a much younger Ken and with a bushier moustache.

Ken explained that, whereas the previous disarmament summit in Geneva had been planned for six months, this one was a last minute affair with only ten days for preparation. When the U.S. delegation had to meet in private, they went to the American embassy to meet in the bubble or safe room, where they sat next to each other on narrow chairs in two rows with the knees of the ten of them rubbing against a counterpart in another chair. Ken also introduced the irony that the KGB and the CIA shared two bathrooms in the basement where the two groups were located on each side of the house.

So Reykjavik was a very weird place to hold a summit. There were very few hotels there, but over 3,000 journalists had been assigned to cover the summit, but all they were left to do was follow the sightseeing of Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa. The summit got off to a very propitious start as far as the Americans were concerned. Reagan was told that Gorbachev was arriving. Reagan did not bother putting on a coat, but ran outside to greet Gorbachev personally and, in the picture Ken showed, it looks like Ronald Reagan, twenty years older than Gorbachev, is helping Gorbachev up the steps.

Ken used his depiction of the talks to illustrate his general principles of diplomacy (with my rephrasing based on my memory):
1. Dream big;
2. Clearly articulate your goal;
3. Know how you are going to get there;
4. Be persistent when you are down.

I had heard Ken talk at another meeting about diplomacy and how it had changed. Reykjavik was a turning point in that as well. Ambassadors and trained diplomats used to carry the responsibilities for diplomacy. At Reykjavik, the ambassador was displaced even from his home, did not participate in the summit and seemed to illustrate the instantiation of a new era of diplomacy which no longer required an ambassador who was an expert in figuring out the politics of another country. What was needed was a media star capable of articulating and communicating that policy to the audience back home. A diplomat now was engaged in public explanation of goals, the reasons for the policy, media relations using social media, and defending the policy no matter how controversial.

The bywords of discretion, understatement, being quiet (as well as afraid of making a mistake), were no longer the hallmarks of high level diplomacy. Ambassadors did not know the policy and would be embarrassed if they made a mistake. The new diplomacy meant living with mistakes, not evading the risk of making them. So when Gorbachev and Reagan went head-to-head in 10 and ½ hours of unscripted discussion over two days without notes, this was a harbinger of the new diplomacy.

Gorbachev had arrived at the summit with a briefcase full of proposals. The U.S. delegation had presumed that the meeting was only a glad handing event to boost Gorbachev’s status in the Soviet Union. The discussions had their ups and downs, twists and turns, depressions and elations. And so much in the end fell on the issue of Reagan’s star wars vision, the ability to shoot down any enemy’s missiles. This was then simply a laboratory idea and a number of us, myself included, were convinced it would never work. We were wrong. But even at the time, the American delegation could not figure out why this was such a big issue for Gorbachev, especially since Reagan offered to share the technology.

Gorbachev had conceded ten different times. Reagan conceded nothing. Gorbachev insisted the star wars research be abandoned. Reagan refused since how could a country’s desire and will to defend itself be surrendered. At the time, the summit collapsed in failure over this issue. Why was Gorbachev so desperate to get an agreement but so unwilling to give up on this issue? The Soviet Union was broke. George Bush, then head of the CIA, and Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defence, had had a head to head battle over whether the USSR was spending 11-13% of GDP on the military (Bush) or 13-15% on the military (Rumsfeld). As it turned out, the amount was 30% of GDP as the Americans learned later. Gorbachev could not afford economic improvement while pursuing armaments. Further, he was convinced that the Americans with their ingenuity and wealth could outspend them even if the USA shared its star war technology with them.

I was one of the ones who blamed Reagan at the time for the failure of the talks, but had to swallow those words when the two sides signed an agreement a year later. But then I took solace in the fact that Ken had to swallow his misbegotten support for the Iraq War. Further, in 1986, just before the Reykjavik, both Ken Adelman and Ronald Reagan had failed to get Pakistan to halt its nuclear program. In December 1982, Reagan had warned President Ziv of Pakistan against pursuing nuclear arms. In 1984, America drew a red line in the sand that Ziv was warned not to cross. But in 1986, it was clear that Ziv had called the American bluff and had enriched uranium over the 5% limit (sound familiar from the Iran negotiations?), had engaged in technological transfers and was probably in a position to produce one or two nuclear weapons. Pakistan was a recipient of large amounts of American aid so the U.S. had considerable leverage. But Pakistan was also the staging area for arming and training the resistance forces in Afghanistan fighting the Russians.

Ken had advised Reagan to counter-bluff Ziv, but recognized that given American dependence on Pakistan for the fight in Afghanistan, the U.S. was resting its policy on quicksand. The achievements of the Reykjavik summit pushed Pakistan into the background as Ken Adelman witnessed and was party to the most extensive disarmament agreement in history.

He clearly was not perfect in his own admission. And even though he supported the Iraq War and failed to reign in Ziv, his contribution to peace and diplomacy was enormous.