Bran Nue Dae and the Importance of Aboriginal Theatre

Jimmy Chi’s 1990 musical Bran Nue Dae is widely credited with and lauded for being the first truly aboriginal musical. It was a cultural breakthrough in Australia that achieved great success by bringing the aboriginal experience into the spotlight in a way that was palatable to mainstream audiences. Soon after its release, the play sparked several conversations in the academic community about what exactly constitutes an Australian work of theatre. Theatre critic Peter Wyllie Johnston believed he had the answer when he wrote his article entitled “’Australian-ness’ in musical theatre: a Bran Nue Dae for Australia?” (Johnston 157). In his article, Peter Wyllie Johnston does a wonderful job of discussing the importance of aboriginal theatre, but he falls short in discussing Australia’s national intersectional identity.

As Johnston begins his article, he takes a difficult step towards defining Australian theatre and effectively acknowledges the complexity of the subject. He opens with discussing the concept of Australian-ness, which scholar John McCallum defines as “the ability to represent Australians to themselves” (Johnston 157). McCallum’s definition is sound, but incomplete. Though he defines Australian-ness, he fails to define exactly who is an Australian and who is not. Does his definition include every citizen on the island nation, or only aboriginal people? Australia’s national intersectional identity is not considered. Johnston immediately picks up the slack left by McCallum’s definition by qualifying it, writing that “although many representations of ‘Australian-ness’ have appeared on our stages, the impulse to represent an inclusive and truthful view of Australian life in musicals…only took a major step forward when Aboriginal Australians were able to express themselves in their own musicals” (Johnston 157). Through Johnston’s qualification, the reader gets a clearer idea of what he considers to be true Australian theatre; theatre that includes an aboriginal voice. It is crucial for Australian theatre to include aboriginal voices, lest white Australians aim to oppress aborigines as they were oppressed by the British. Including aboriginal viewpoints, customs, and traditions is certainly of the utmost importance, but even Johnston’s definition of Australian theatre leaves something to be desired as he does not clarify whether or not he considers a production that is wholly produced by white Australians to be a fully Australian production.

In the course of his article, Johnston solidifies his own definition of what an Australian musical is and noticeably steers away from the stories of white Australians. After fleshing out McCallum’s definition a little more, Johnston writes that an Australian musical is “one that reflects an indigenous Australian story and an indigenous Australian spirit” (Johnston 160). Johnston’s definition is valid, and the importance of including aboriginal voices in the production can not be stressed enough, but given that Australia has an intersectional identity as far as oppressed groups go, Johnston’s definition falls short as it leaves little room for those shipped over from Britain to a penal colony against their will. He does well to emphasize the aboriginal voice, but he fails to explain how it is that the descendants of British prisoners who now make up a great majority of the island can not contribute to the Australian in at least some way. A truly Australian story would combine the stories, views, and traditions from both aboriginal people and people brought to the island against their will. Works existing at the nexus of the white Australian and aboriginal experiences are discussed a few pages later as Johnston discusses the impact Bran Nue Dae had on white Australians. He writes that a large part of Bran Nue Dae’s success stemmed from the universality of its appeal, saying, “the politics of Bran Nue Dae and its optimism were undoubtedly an important part of its immediate acceptance as an important new work. The late Dr. Phillip Parsons…went so far as to say: ‘This is it. The Australian musical we have all been waiting for’” (Johnston 171). In this passage, Johnston hits a point of crucial importance: Bran Nue Dae was successful and appealing, even to white Australian audiences. While it may not have been about white Australians, or included the voice of those imprisoned on the island against their will, there was still something about the play that spoke to everyone.

Johnston’s inclusion of the effect the show had on audiences everywhere in Australia redeems his earlier argument about what an Australian musical is. Even though he excluded formerly imprisoned Australians originally, at this point in the article he makes it clear that an successful aboriginal work necessitates a certain universal Australian spirit, and therefore Johnston comes much closer to arguing in favor of Australia’s intersectional national identity. As Johnston concludes his article, he brings his argument back around to emphasize aboriginal stories in Australian theatre. He lauds Bran Nue Dae as a breakthrough work, writing, “after nearly a century of nationhood, the voices and stories of Aboriginal Australians finally became part of our musical theatre. The images of ‘Australian-ness’ in these musicals were unprecedented” (Johnston 174). His analysis of the importance of Bran Nue Dae as a mainstream work in Australian theatre is spot-on, but he is sorely lacking in conversation about importance of the oppressed and imprisoned people in Australia, despite their non-aboriginal roots. Certainly British voices have no place in truly Australian theatre, but those sent to Australia against their will to serve a sentence surely have some claim to expression after being oppressed and displaced.

Peter Wyllie Johnston’s analysis of the importance of Brand Nue Dae touches on several excellent points, and he is right in emphasizing the importance of aboriginal theatre. However, his article falls short recommending how to compromise and combine the identities of both oppressed aboriginal people and white Australians who were originally oppressed. It is important to note that those sent to Australia from England were tools of oppression, but they were not agents of oppression. White Australian prisoners were not the people who invaded the island, and if they had had it their way, they likely would have chosen to stay in England. That being the case, it is important that both oppressed parties have a voice in Australian theatre. Surely there is a balance between the two, given Bran Nue Dae’s appeal, and in time as conversations about colonialism and the crimes against humanity that followed become more open, that balance will be found, but for the time being neither Johnston, nor anyone else for that matter, has the answer just yet.