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March 5, 2021

Coranderrk, an untold Australian history

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The Ilbijeri Theatre Company present one of the many important neglected stories of Australian history – Coranderrk – the story of the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the men and women of the Coaranderrk Aboriginal Reserve who went head to head with the Aboriginal Protection Board.

Their goal was simple and revolutionary: to be allowed to continue the brilliant, self-sustaining farming community they had established on the scrap of country left to them. And guess what? They used white man’s system, and they won.

For director Eva Grace Mullally, a Widi woman from Yamatji nation in the midwest region of Western Australia, taking the show on was about ‘communicating the strength and intelligence of the people of Coranderrk’.

This was a story that, like most of Australia, even Eva herself had never heard.

An important story that slipped away, like much of Indigenous history as told in white history books.

‘It was the first time we know of that an Aboriginal community used the western construct to get what they needed. Writing petitions and deputations got them an inquiry.’

This happened at a time in Australia, 1881 to be precise, when Indigenous Australia had no rights.

So what was different about Coranderrk? What made it such a threat to the white establishment?

‘It was an interesting station,’ says Eva. ‘It was self-determined, and the leaders there had strong allies who were well aware of the politics of the time.’

Coranderrk was established by surviving members of Kulin clans, who set up a thriving farming community.

‘They were under manager John Green, the inspector of six reserves in Victoria. He started up Coranderrk to make it a self-sustaining community. He believed that if people worked and self-sustained they would keep their land. He worked with them as equals. The women would bake bread and sell it. They were making money and completely sustaining themselves as a community.’

And so, the Aboriginal Protection Board wanted the land back.

And why?

‘Because a blackfella with too much pride is a dangerous thing,’ says Eva.

Coranderrk has been created from verbatim statements and transcripts from the original case. This is not heresy. This happened.

One statement from another station-owner said, ‘I don’t want Coranderrk Aboriginals at my station because they disrupt mine’.

Ironically, says Eva, ‘The only thing we needed protection from then was the Aboriginal Protection Board themselves’.

‘Every person has a story,’ says Eva. ‘Every community has a story. There are so many stories out there that need to be told. The sad but wonderful thing about this one is that it was written down; it was indisputable. It happened and we have proof. It was written down in 1881 and it happened. You can’t add dramatic flair to it, it is what it is. Audiences love the show, and they feel that they have experienced part of the real history of Australia and they want to learn more. There are so many great conversations happening around this play. As a theatre-maker all you can ask for is that people come out and that they felt something.

‘The writers have done a fantastic job,’ says Eva. ‘This is the fourth or fifth evolution of Coranderrk; it started out as pure verbatim. Ilbijerri has added narration and stories around it and brought the telling of the story to the present. But it is absolutely performed verbatim, and they say we are about to perform re-enanctment into the inquiry into the management of the reserve word for word from their mouth.’

Eva and her crew worked up this incarnation of Coranderrk in just two weeks.

‘I am very proud of it and proud of the team,’ says Eva. ‘It’s very simple staging; we keep it simple and raw. It’s literally five chairs and a blanket.’

And some damn fine acting.

Coranderrk is presented by Ilbijerri Theatre Company at NORPA’s Lismore City Hall on Friday 30 June and Saturday 1 July at 7.30pm.  Tickets are $25–55. Bookings via norpa.org.au or call 1300 066 772.

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