By Jack Charles and John Romeril
Directed by Rachael Maza
A Canadian Stage Presentation at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs
March 29-April 8, 2017
Offstage, after the performance, he is a spry, bright-eyed loveable little guy, with a thick white beard and head of hair that frames his tanned face. In his slight frame, he hardly looks like anyone’s idea of a weathered actor, musician, heroin addict, cat burglar, or prisoner. But, as his 75-minute monologue makes clear, he has been all of these things in a seven-decade and counting life of “Acting, drugs, burgs, and jail time.” He is Jack Charles, a Koori elder, activist, and performer supreme, who was born in a district that was once a communal utopia for the Yorta Yorta people before it became a virtual concentration camp.
The Australian aborigine, rather like our Canadian First Nations, has had to suffer centuries of indignity, humiliation, and racism. Born in Melbourne in 1943, Jack Charles was plucked from his mother’s breast at six months of age, and sent to a boys’ home in Box Hill, where, the only aborigine, he suffered physical and sexual abuse. Consequently, he grew up absolutely ignorant of his aborigine origins, “whitewashed” by colonial propaganda into believing that the Queen was his Mom. His narrative opens with old film of his shooting up heroin—an addiction that he claims made him no harm to anybody but himself. “If this is harmful, bring on the hurt,” he says in the film clip projected on a small stretch of canvas in Emily Barrie’s spare but practical set, skilfully lit by Danny Pettingill, without striking any vulgar accents. Jack Charles in the flesh says nothing for the longest while, as he sits working clay on his potter’s wheel. Charles doesn’t simply produce a bowl or mug or vase. His working with clay reminds him and us of who we are. His preliminary silence allows a three-piece band (headed by Nigel Maclean on keys, guitar, and violin, complemented by Phil Collings on Percussion and Malcolm Beveridge on Bass) to wail as prologue to a disturbing tale.
And what a tale it is! Always pointed, never sensationally over-dramatic, it builds incrementally in power, though audiences will have to be patient to attune their ears to his accent and quick speaking rhythm, a difficulty heightened at times by Charles’s tendency (at least on opening night) to allow the ends of his sentences to dip in volume and enunciation. It is a harrowing tale that doesn’t need any artificial heightening, and it gets none in this very stark, simple production, directed by Rachael Maza, who shrewdly knows that its most vivid, moving element is the subject himself. Jack Charles has evidently packed enough drama and pain into his life to make several plays, but he never pretends to be a saint. One of the “stolen generation,” he ironically turned to stealing from a society that stole his childhood, adolescence, and much of adulthood. He spent twenty years in jail, forty years in addiction, so he was incarcerated two-fold. Yet, he finds “Your mind can travel while you’re incarcerated.” And his performance does travel through miles and decades of aborigine history to reveal an eventual “miracle”—that of his getting his boyhood back.
Deploying black and white archival photos and documents (including the Crown’s criminal charges against him and sensational newspaper reports on his exploits), the show gains greatly in dramatic irony by the songs sung by Charles to the small band’s accompaniment. And Charles’s voice can sound upbeat or bluesy or sweet and sour as he sings a military chant or a Leadbelly folk song or a Connie Francis pop hit or, best and most movingly of all, a blues number born from aboriginal pain, that is really a call to his ancestors and his own mother (whom he hardly knew even after he met her as an adult). This blues number is a second climax, and it comes after a slightly earlier climax where in a fantasy (“a wet dream,” as he satirically terms it), he launches into a courtroom apologia of his embattled, afflicted life. These are the two most affecting sequences, one looking back at the past and its enduring legacy of exploitation and self-violation, and the other looking to a future when Charles will eventually get his day in Australian court to clear his name and identity and move out of infamy to the fame he richly deserves after his pain of heartbreak, hatred blind, brutal wrong and deeds malign.
Does his nation really know and honour this brave artist, a man who rose out of the depths of degradation to a life of fame and infamy? A man who co-founded Australia’s first-ever indigenous theatre group in 1971, performing with the cream of Australia’s actors and directors in works by the cream of Australian playwrights. Jack Charles has been the subject of an award-winning documentary (Bastardy), and his show has toured many an international city. I derived more pleasure, instruction, and inspiration from his show than from all the other musicals or plays currently running in Toronto. And I salute Canadian Stage for presenting this show as part of its Spotlight on Australia that, while probably irritating to Canadian ultra-nationalists, highlights some of the shared experiences in two countries’ historically tainted and bedevilled colonial journeys.