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

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