Talking to Andrea James about Yanagai! Yanagai!

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Andrea James describes herself as a proud descendent of the Yorta Yorta and Kunai nations. She is a theatre worker and the current Artistic Director with Melbourne WorkersTheatre.

Andrea is also an extraordinary playwright. In 1994, inspired by the decision of the YortaYorta people to lodge a land claim with the Native Tribunal Tribunal, she decided to write a play. Yanagai! Yanagai! was the result. The play was first performed in 2003 and had a second season in 2006.

Alison Thorne caught up with Andrea to discuss the play, her experiences writing it andher views on Native Title.

Drafted by the community. Andrea James became a theatre worker by accident. “It was never a conscious decision. I wanted to be an actor but was stuck in a country town being a legal secretary and not enjoying it at all. I enjoyed drama in high school. But it stopped at year 9. There was a little TAFE outlet across the road from work. I went in one lunchtime and started exploring.”

Andrea graduated from LaTrobe University in 1991 with a Bachelor of Arts in drama. She then went on to study performing arts at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). After graduating, Andrea began working at the Aboriginal Ballarat University College. “The community soon found out that I had drama skills. The Ballarat Aboriginal Cooperative had a youth group that wanted to put on a play. Before I knew it, I was working with these students and not really having a clue what I was doing. But it worked! It was more or less the community drafting me, because there was a need. Once I’d done this, I thought there’s something in this drama business.”

Sources of inspiration. Andrea describes her Indigenous heritage as a “vital” part of her theatre journey. “It is such a driving force — I probably wouldn’t do it otherwise.”

She also came from an activist family, which was an additional source of inspiration.“My great grandfather was Shadrack James and his father was Thomas Shadrach James. Thomas, an Indian man from Mauritius, came to Australia and went to the Maloga Mission on Yorta Yorta land. He lived there and married a Yorta Yorta woman. Because he was a Black man himself, he was fully adopted by the community. In the 1930s, hisson, Shadrack, was involved in activism. He was invited to Melbourne by the Communist Party to speak at a conference. He spoke about the conditions on Cummeragunja — by this time, Maloga had been closed down. I found a number of old articles reporting on his appeals for public support.

“Members of my family were also very involved in the union movement. They worked at the canneries in Shepparton. My great grandfather was a shop steward there. Later they moved to Melbourne and were involved with the Painters and Dockers Union. This information came to me through The Living Museum of the West.”

Andrea was not told this history by her family. She had to uncover it. Like most Australians, she was also taught a colonial view of history. “I felt ripped off as an Aboriginal Australian, because I was not taught my history.”

Creative seed. Andrea’s play Yanagai! Yanagai! started to germinate when the Yorta Yorta people lodged their land claim. Traditional Yorta Yorta territory straddles Victoriaand New South Wales and is centred on the Murray River, which the Yorta Yorta called Dhungula.

The Yorta Yorta struggle for justice is a long one. As early as 1860, they asserted their rights by demanding compensation for interference by paddle steamers to their natural fishing areas. This was refused. They fared no better nearly a century and half later. A Native Title claim brought disappointment when Justice Olney ruled that Yorta Yorta Native Title does not exist, because it had been “washed away by the tide of history.” The Yorta Yorta appealed to the High Court and, in May 2002, lost. Andrea followed the land claim closely. “I started to talk to the elders who were involved, Uncle Wayne Atkinson in particular. I was in my third year at VCA. I thought there’s a story here that has to be told. At this time, John Howard was making claims that backyards were threatened! He was putting out awful misinformation.” Aboriginal people had to jump through near impossible hoops in the quest to prove Native Title to the satisfaction of the invaders. Andrea sat in on some of the hearings. “The mediation process was a farce. We were in a Town Hall. The Yorta Yorta people sat at the front listening to people who opposed our claim. There were more than 800 opponents. I was amazed that no one in the Yorta Yorta community yelled out — theywere so dignified.”

Connections. The passion in the play comes from Andrea being a participant and not just an observer. “I grew up on Yorta Yorta land in Benalla and my father grew up in Mooropna. We were connected to the river and would often camp and fish there. We also maintained our connection through stories. My grandmother, in particular, talked about our relationships to each other and to the land.”

But Andrea does not romanticise her childhood. Aboriginal people suffer extreme oppression in racist white Australia. “My family was pretty dysfunctional, like any other family trying to survive in rural Victoria. My father didn’t talk much about his Aboriginality — it was just something I watched Dad do. He didn’t identify much with his Aboriginality. He wasn’t really allowed to because people of his generation were given little space to identify. My Dad was also an alcoholic — he spent more time in the pub than anywhere else. But there was a real pride when he told us about his grandfather.”

Andrea describes her connection as “tenuous, but still there.” This was the backdrop to developing Yanagai! Yanagai!

Green light from the elders. Andrea didn’t know quite what she was getting herself in for when she started. She has described the task of writing and staging Yanagai! Yanagai! as “the greatest and yet the most rewarding challenge of my life.” Clearly it was both.

“It was a massive project. I knew I needed to go to the elders’ council and tell them what I was doing and get their permission. It is our traditional way. I was pretty nervous. I drove up to Barmah, went to the council meeting and explained what I wanted to do. They said, ‘Yes, of course’ in that special, reserved way that elders speak. A lot of the elders were involved along the way and they took it seriously. If I was straying off track and representing something wrongly, they’d raise it with me in a quiet conversation. It was subtle and well done.”

Andrea describes this experience as great, but also hard. “I felt I had a massive responsibility. Also, writing and creative art is not well valued in this country. I sometimes felt, what am I doing here? I’m wasting my time!”

Getting the community on board. Once Andrea had her approval, she began working intensively with the community. “There was lots of talking and lots of cups of tea. I also wanted it to be a project where other Yorta Yorta artists would get involved. There were many people I knew with talent, but not everyone who worked on the project had theatre experience. It was important that we had a common heritage to draw on to be able to tell the story. Everyone brought something of their clan — their moiety — into the play.”

Yorta Yorta language is a very powerful element of the play. “Yanagai” translates as “Go away!” At one point, the Yorta Yorta language was close to being wiped out. Andreawas able to build on some solid work to reclaim it. “There’d been a lot of work done byUncle Wayne Atkinson, especially on pronunciation. And then Monash University did afurther study. They compiled a book with all of the language and how it is linguistically structured. This book was a great resource to draw on.

“But when it came time to speak the language, we were all a little nervous. We did notwant to mangle it. The performers were very careful. We got a young Yorta Yorta man, Mark Thompson, who had studied it at Worowra College. He’d also learned the language from his grandmother. Mark got us to say it again and again. One of the most satisfying aspects of the whole project was during rehearsals when we would greet each other in Yorta Yorta. It was powerful and exciting.”

Yesterday and today. The play weaves together many different stories, and the characters are strong. “They are mostly composites, although in a couple of instances specific people were the major influence in terms of key characteristics. The character of Curr is heavily based on the first white squatter in the area, Sir Edward Curr. I have used the words from some his writings. Then there are mythical figures that I have plucked out of stories from the dreaming.” Among the creation stories of how the river was formed is one that tells of a Yorta Yorta woman who was cast out of the dreaming by the ancestor spirit, Biami. With her two dingos and her digging stick, she walked all the way to the ocean and her tears created the river. In the play, Lisa Maza plays this woman, and Lou Bennett and Bryan Andy are the dingos.

The play moves effortlessly back and forth through time and uses a range of theatrical styles. Yet it hangs together really well. Andrea says, “I don’t know how or why it happened. But I knew that I couldn’t write this play in just one style. I wanted to represent all of the aspects of Yorta Yorta culture. It’s scientific and it is mystical. All of these things are included. One style wouldn’t cut it, so I just mixed it up. Setting it on the land and on the river is what anchors it culturally. I also wanted to create a play that was palatable, accessible, and yet strong.”

Audience responses. Andrea has described the play as “a confrontation.” I asked her what she had wanted audiences to get out of it. “I had two aims, because I knew that an Indigenous audience would get different things out of it to a non-Indigenous audience.

“For non-Indigenous people, I wanted them to sit with us and understand. I also had some more ambitious hopes. I wanted people to actively support Native Title and to grapple with what the Yorta Yorta decision meant for Native Title and what it has meant for us.

“Judge Olney said that the tide of history has washed over our claim. I wanted people to see our connection to our land. Whatever Judge Olney says, we are going to sing up our country for you, this is our river, this is our people, come and sit with us for a while. See our connection to the land — Judge Olney couldn’t see it, but maybe you can.

“There were mixed responses from the critics. The first season was not as successfulas the second one. In the first season, we hadn’t quite got the play theatrically where I wanted it to be. The critics tended to look at the theatre, and the reviewers did not really engage with the politics of the piece. That amazed me.”

Andrea explained why she thought that the second season was more successful. “We were in a better theatre space. It was more intimate, which was essential because of the personal stories. We were all more confident in our craft as well. During the second season, we were also a little bit further away from the land claim, so we were more willing and able to go into the emotional side of it. During the first season, it was still hurting too much.”

After the first season, Andrea and the team made a commitment to the elders to take the story back home to Yorta Yorta country. Fulfilling this pledge was part of the second season. “Staging the play in Yorta Yorta country was a reminder that the Black and White issue is extreme there. The whole issue of Native Title has not been solved. There is a lot of unstated tension.”

Some of the best experiences for Andrea and the cast were the responses from other Yorta Yorta people. “It was rewarding when Yorta Yorta people came to see the playand they said ‘You’ve got it right.’ Just hearing the recognition and the laughter in the audience when people identified with something, and seeing people engaged emotionally with the work — it was very satisfying when that happened.”

After staging the play on Yorta Yorta land, the crew toured Britain. “The audiences engaged much more in the question and answer sessions in Britain than they did anywhere in Australia. I think people just don’t know how to talk about theatre in this country.

“We performed predominantly in Wales, where the people have been done over by British colonialism and have their own struggles around issues such as language. The play gave people an opportunity to reflect on this and on the things they’ve achieved, such as bilingual signage. A lot of people in Britain know a great deal about Indigenous struggle. But others found it hard to believe what is happening in Australia.”

Melbourne Workers Theatre. The first season of Yanagai! Yanagai! was a joint production staged by Melbourne Workers Theatre (MWT) and Playbox. The second season was staged by MWT.

Andrea reflected on this experience. “MWT was always the best home for this piece.They are a company which is about giving marginalised people a voice and space.”

Andrea did not feel the same about Playbox. “I always had this stinky feeling that staging the play was about their quota. That was irksome. It was a good story and I wanted it told. In contrast, Melbourne Workers Theatre doesn’t have a quota system. At MWT, we say, ‘That’s a good story and it needs to be told.’” Andrea can understand why the quotas are there. “It has been important for ensuring Indigenous representation, but a system like that does make you feel like a token.”

As artistic director for Melbourne Workers Theatre, Andrea says, “We are sometimes criticised as preaching to the converted. Those who come are those who already support what we stand for anyway. But the converted need a place to go. We don’t see our views represented on television or in the newspapers. People with well-formed political views enjoy our work, and that is fine with me.”

Legal barriers. The play is a powerful comment on the limits of Native Title. “I think Native Title is important, even though our experience is one of being completely battered by the system. It’s very hard for communities to achieve Native Title. The legislation has been watered down and there are all these conditions around it. Plus there is the emphasis on the traditional — which can be fine — but there may be other ways that ourcommunities want to use land to empower the community in society today. We have to look at it on many levels, and it is problematic. I don’t know if ultimately this system is serving us. But I do know that there is no real point in having Native Title legislation if the government is sliding us back into assimilation.”

In September 2006, a West Australian court ruled that the Noongar people hold Native Title over Perth and surrounds. Andrea remembers getting this news. “We were in Walestouring Yanagai! Yanagai! at the time. I was reading a newspaper and I saw an article saying that this mob had got their land! It was fantastic for us. The newspaper article also talked about the Yorta Yorta decision. There was our name in the press in Wales! A lot ofthe audience had read it, too.”

The Perth decision was significant. “What it did was reaffirm that the whole notion advanced by Judge Olney of Native Title being washed away by the tide of history is a crock of shit. It doesn’t help our claim, but at least another court has made a decision that runs counter to Judge Olney’s. To have the Perth Precedent is fantastic.”

Into the future.

Yanagai! Yanagai! has had two successful seasons, Currency Press has published the play and it is on the VCE Theatre Studies curriculum. The play has had a real impact and looks set to continue to do so. Andrea says, “We’d love to perform more in Australia. There’s also a project in New York where the play will be staged in 2007. It will be a cross-cultural production staged by Aboriginal Australian and Native American actors. This performance will be directed by an American man. Their interpretation will be fascinating. I’d also love to be able to stage it for the Noonga mob in Perth. We’ll be open to opportunities. And because it has now been published, it has taken on a life of its own.”

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