Jack Davis: Indigenous leader & playwright

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Jack Davis, poet, playwright, actor and Aboriginal activist, died on 17 March at the age of 83. He leaves an extraordinary legacy.

Born in 1917, Jack  lived for a period at the Moore River Native Settlement and the Brookton Aboriginal Reserve. As a young man, Jack laboured as a stockman and an itinerant worker. His early life taught him the harsh realities of life in racist Australia and inspired him to write and to organise.

Jack’s most famous poem, a tribute to John Pat, is inscribed at the John Pat Memorial at Fremantle Prison. “Write of life the pious said, Forget the past the past is dead, But all I see in front of me, Is a concrete floor a cell door and John Pat.” Jack made an enormous contribution to the struggle to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody. He was patron of the West Australian Deaths in Custody Watch Committee.

Jack became politically active in Perth during the ’60s. He was director of the Aboriginal Centre and played a key role fighting poverty and winning access to housing and other services. He was the first chair of the Aboriginal Land Trust. He also played a leadership role in early Aboriginal publishing.

It was 1988, the year of the massive anti-bicentennial protests, when I experienced the work of Jack Davis first hand as part of a huge crowd at the Fitzroy Town Hall who had come to see Jack and the Marli Biyol Company perform his trilogy, The First Born. Three powerful plays — No Sugar, The Dreamers and Barungin — told the story of the Wallitch family from the Depression through to the present. I was struck by how the family was held together by strong women.

Community debate about Indigenous theatre has focused on the question who is it for? This was never an issue for Jack. His plays attract a diverse audience. He presents non-Indigenous audiences with a powerful Indigenous voice. At the same time, his work, which uses the Nyoongah language, has always found strong support in the Aboriginal community.

Writing in the journal Race and Class, Cairns-based Aboriginal educator, John Scott, described Jack Davis as part of a generation who were “products of assimilation revolting against assimilation.” Clearly his experience of oppression was a powerful and creative motor for rebellion.

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