“Everyone has to die. Even Tony Abbott … and Rupert Murdoch.” You gotta laugh, and everyone did, but The 7 Stages of Grieving is not a funny, nor even a party political play. Instead, it presents the idea of grief and loss from a Murri perspective, which itself is not a single ritual, but differs from mob to mob. Chenoa Deemal, who in this production/adaptation plays the role that launched Deborah Mailman on her brilliant career 20 years ago, is from the Thitharr Warra clan in the Cape York Peninsula, and the language, art works and coloured sands used here are from her mob.
Murri people are traditionally story tellers, and although this dramatic monologue is not a continuous narrative, it presents the idea of grief and mourning not so much in seven different chronological stages as from seven different aspects.The protagonist tells seven different tales, encompassing family funerals, black displacement, the effects of European wars, and other stories ranging from tragedy to jubilant celebration.And always, even under the grief, there runs the stream of Aboriginal humour that is part of the redemptive make-up of Australia’s First Peoples.
The text is flawless, the actor close to perfection, but what brings this play into the 21st century after 20 years, and redeems it from being just a period piece, is the direction and the staging. The team of Jessica Ross (designer), Justin Harrison (sound and projection) and Daniel Anderson (lighting), and especially director Jason Klarwein, is an integral part of the production, so that this becomes a team effort in the best Aboriginal sense of the word, rather than just a vehicle for a star.
The huge expanse of the stage at the Bille Brown Theatre is empty, except for a mound of red earth with a small battered cardboard suitcase on top. From the dark at the back of the stage, and in silence, appears Chenoa Deemal, the Aboriginal Everywoman, clad not symbolically in possum skin or bark cloth, but in modern cotton shirt and trousers, very much a symbol of two cultures co-existing.She kneels down and wordless draws a huge circle with white pebbles, inside which she slowly draws another circle. These are her props, this is her scene, and she stands up as a slightly awkward teenager and tells the story of her gran’s Christian funeral, where there were so many people from the extended clan that the tiny church overflowed, and hundreds of people had to sit outside under the trees, smoking and chatting and probably drinking, as if the whole purpose of the funeral had been lost. But it hadn’t, because this was the gathering of the clan as sign of solidarity and survival and immortality even in the face of death.
Well, that’s one way of looking at it — not everyone’s way, and not even the way of every Murri, Koori, Anangu or Nunga people. Everyone does their collective sorry business differently, but at the heart of it is the individual, who in this instance continues her people’s custom of removing the dead person’s photograph from display and putting it away in the small cardboard case, not to be looked at again for many years. And then the Woman slips seamlessly into another story, and then another, issues of past and present dealing with injustice, family unity and oppression, loss, the stolen generation, reconciliation, fighting for survival and deaths in custody. But they’re not all grim, and there are triumphant moments too, which some of us remember vividly –Kevin Rudd’s immortal Sorry speech, the Sorry marches in every capital city, and all the others which are tinged with hope and even joy.
The scenes are suggested by visual backdrops on the back wall, with pictures of Aboriginals in chains, of the violence of war, tales of sound and fury signifying so much, especially the back projection which ends the play — a huge phrase splashed in white paint, WRECK ON SILLY NATION, which gradually melts away under a healing shower of water and becomes the splodgy word RECONCILIATION, with so many resonances.
It’s not for white critics to comment on the truth or otherwise of these tales; all we can do is accept their historicity in the terms of their original creators, Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman. These are black stories from a black perspective, but such is their power that whitefellas can immediately relate and react positively to them, and maybe feel ashamed yet again. But from any perspective this is a vital, throbbing piece of theatre in anybody’s cultural terms, and Chenoa Deemal’s performance is deadly. Go and see it, to laugh, to cry and with any luck to begin to understand a little more.