Indigenous Languages

May 23, 2012

Indigenous languages in the theatre

Student guest blogger Mercedes Roetman writes...

Student guest blogger Mercedes Roetman writes…

In the last few years I have been to see a number of plays where the main language has been an Indigenous Language. The first play I would like to talk about is a play called Ngapartji Ngapartji – meaning ‘I give you something, you give me something’. The play was held at the Belvoir St Theatre in Surry Hills, Sydney. I went to the play not knowing anything about it. One of the first things that happened in the play was that we were all taught head, shoulders, knees and toes in Pitjantjatjara!! The main actor Trevor Jamieson had everyone in the audience up on their feet singing ‘kata, aipii, mui, tjina’. I saw the play in 2008 and I still remember the Pitjantjatjara names today.

The play was one of the most moving and eye opening plays I have ever seen, Trevor Jamieson is a very charismatic, engaging and extremely entertaining story teller.  He tells the story of his people and the horrific effects of the atomic testing at Maralinga.  The story is about three generations of his family who live in Ernabella in South Australia, and how they became refugees in their own country and the effects of the atomic testing that had on their lives.

Throughout the play he changes from Pitjantjatjara to English and he also has on stage his aunties who are the choir.  All the songs are sung in Pitjantjatjara, they are songs that were originally sung in English, for example Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime (Wantiriyalani in Pitjantjatjara), and each song forms part of the story; Burt Bacharach’s This Guy’s In Love With You is used for Trevor’s parents’ courtship. It is only later in the play that you realise the significance of the initial kata, alipiri, muti, tjina song when after the atomic bombing, the scientists did testing on bones to discover the level of strontium 90.  It was after this testing that the scientific community and the military begin to see the devastating effects the bombing had on the Indigenous people of that area.  Indigenous people were warned about the testing, the only problem was that the signs that were put up were all in English, which they did not understand.  There is also a website in conjunction with the play that teaches about Pitjantjatjara language, history and culture.

Trevor Jamieson wanted to take the play home to Ernabella.  He made a documentary called ‘Nothing Rhymes With Ngapartji’ about what he went through to take this home, where everyone in the audience were all Indigenous. He had to correct his Pitjantjatjara, so that they would understand him. He also had to deal with the issue of traditional law, because in the play he talks and shows footage of his recently deceased father. The end result is that it is well received in the community, because they believe it is an important issue people should know what happened.

Trevor Jamieson did another play in 2010 that was also in both Pitjantjatjara and English, called Nyuntu Ngali (You We two) at the Sydney Theatre Company.  This play was very different to Ngapartji Ngapartji in that it was set in the 22nd Century and everyone is Pitjantjatjara!  It is the story of two young people who meet, fall in love and get married, but they are wrong way marriage and have to run away to have their baby.  The play is very dynamic and there is a lot of moving around, music and talks about climate change and culture.  As with the other play the way that the translations are done means that you know exactly what is going on there is never a moment when you are not sure because you do not speak Pitjantjatjara.


In contrast to these two plays, last year I went to see a play called Bloodlands also at the Sydney Theatre Company.  This play was directed by Stephen Page, from the Bangarra Dance Company with cultural consultants Kathy Balngayngu Marika and Djakapurra Munyarryun both from north-east Arnhemland.  This play was almost completely done in Yolŋu, every now and then there was a smattering of English but not very much at all.  The play is about the cultural wasteland of the Indigenous people living between the consumerism of white man and their traditional ancient ways.  I understood the play even without understanding the language they were speaking.  However, in hindsight and rather arrogantly, I did expect them to break into English for most of the play, but after thinking about it, it was not necessary because the story and the acting was more than enough to understand what it was about.

It really is wonderful to see plays with Indigenous actors and in Indigenous languages. Initially it can be a little confronting because at least if you go see a foreign film there are subtitles and usually you understand some words, whereas with Indigenous languages because they are not so commonly heard or learnt, for example, here in Sydney it could make you think twice about going.  There are incredible companies that support Indigenous theatre for example the Balnaves Foundation, Windmill, BighART and the theatres such as Belvoir and the Sydney Theatre Company.  Another interesting point I would like to make is that all three plays mentioned above, in the audience were lots of high school students so it is good to see schools encouraging and including this in their studies.

One final thing which I saw and thought was great, was I went to see a Shakespearean play at the end of last year ‘As You Like It’ at the Belvoir. Trevor Jamieson (am a big fan of his!) was in the play, his first role was as an old man advising his young master. Early on in the play they go bush and he (Trevor) goes away to die, as he is laying down and covering himself, he is speaking in Pitjantjatjara, which I thought was very cool and nowhere else in the world would you see that!

Mercedes Roetman is in her 4th year of a Bachelor of Indigenous Studies at the University of New England. This post first appeared on the Australian Aboriginal Languages Student Blog, an assessment project for the course, “Aboriginal Languages of Australia”.


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3 thoughts on “Indigenous languages in the theatre

  1. Dione Joseph

    @wamat: No, I don’t think it is ‘wrong’ for anybody to have their own views, and I certainly don’t think we can be ‘cultural-neutral’ but yes, we CAN be reflexive. This is a piece of writing that analyses theatre performance and one element of the performance is the language – therefore if this were being submitted for an assignment at fourth year then I would expect factual accuracy and a high degree of reflexivity. But then these are only my comments, observations and critiques; and they stem from having observed a range of performances where language is incorporated on stage not just here in Australia but in New Zealand, Canada and the USA. In particular just last year Yirra Yaakin performed Shakespearean sonnets in Noongar at the Globe which is a fabulous effort. Like yourself, I am excited to see Indigenous languages on the stage, but it doesn’t have to be a ‘less than expected domain’ – or at least, it should not remain so.

    My comments are critical to be sure, but as a writer, irrespective of age and qualification, if writing in a public domain, there is a responsibility to your subject and to your audience.

    I’m hoping that my comments can be seen as constructive because that is entirely the motivation upon which they have been written.

  2. wamut

    @Dione: Is there a problem per se with European viewers having Euro-centric reactions when watching theatre? I don’t quite see how a viewer can become cultural-neutral. I also don’t see a problem with recognising how unusual it would be to hear Pitjantjatjara incorporated into a performance of As You Like It. I agree with the author that this is something that you would be really hard pressed to see anywhere else in the world. And as someone who understands very well how marginalised Aboriginal languages are in Australia, I also think it’s rather cool to see Pitjantjatjara used in less-expected domains like theatre.

    I’m sorry if this article has shortcomings when read through the lens of theatre-review and dramaturgy. I would’ve thought that any shortcoming could be forgiven considering the author is an undergrad student studying Aboriginal languages, not drama.

  3. Dione Joseph

    As a writer and an artist I am very concerned with the occasional lapses that occur when writing about subjects from a singular perspective. This article, and I commend the writer for her enthusiasm, is a positive affirmation of the growing representation of language on our stages. However, there is a need to be cautious about attributing the correct author/authorship of works (note the role of Big hART in creating Ngapartji Ngapartji)spellings (Arnhemland) and being reflexive enough not to make sweeping generalizations, especially in a public forum such as Crikey.

    It is especially the latter that gives me the most concern. While there are examples littered throughout the article the final statement: ‘Trevor goes away to die, as he is laying down and covering himself, he is speaking in Pitjantjatjara, which I thought was very cool and nowhere else in the world would you see that!’ is symptomatic of an observer speaking solely from a euro-centric position. The writer displays ignorance of the wealth of Indigenous languages being performed on the stage across the globe and sadly, snuggles into the ‘isn’t it a wonderful world’ mentality. Is this just because language, an Australian Aboriginal language, is being performed on the stage in Australia?

    This is more than a just a ‘cool’ phenomenon it requires a realization that a work of theatre is a product of its time and the interpretation of its makers to what the function of theatre is in our society.

    There is so much more to be said but that is a separate article in itself.

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