Sydney’s tiny Ensemble Theatre’s decision to program an Indigenous play for the first time in its illustrious history has come off splendidly with the world premier of the charming ‘A Letter for Molly’.
It’s not firebrand stuff that you might expect from the likes of Nakkiah Lui; but then this Lower North Shore theatre needs to hang on to an audience that doesn’t want to be shocked out of its seats, preferring to be intelligently entertained. Significantly, the audience in the play’s second week was light on, but quite a bit younger than the Kirribilli regulars.
Brittanie Shipway is a trained actor and singer with Gumbaynggirr ancestry whose first act of playwrighting this is. She also stars as the youngest of the four Aboriginal women who take us through the generations of their urban lives from wishing and pretending that “We are Australian” and not Aboriginal, to wishing that they hadn’t lost their Gumbaynggirr language and connection to Country – even if the only way they can certainly place it is by citing the Big Banana!
En route, we’re reminded of the 1967 Referendum, Kevin Rudd’s Apology – “It’s too late for Sorry” grumbles Lisa Maza’s great grandma Mimi – and the realities of life where the cost-of-bread index moves inexorably up as prices jump first by 20 cents and later by $1.30. Work seems to be at the most basic level of cleaning lavatories, but the play concentrates on domestic relationships in which three generations of the women conceive babies in their teens, have no male support, but slog on to survive the “eternal slavery” of motherhood and show their love for their daughters by passing on the wisdom of their own experience – often caustically.
Only Shipway’s Renee attempts to avoid the trap of unwanted pregnancy. She wants to be an artist and cannot face the “existential crisis” of having a baby interrupt this important project. Her support is the only man in the show, Joel Granger’s delightful Nick – safely out of the picture for Renee’s pregnancy as her gay flatmate. However, her important decision remains unmade throughout most of the play from the first (and second) pregnancy test, via an unhelpful Catholic doctor, the abortion ward of a clinic, moral qualms as an ultrasound reveals the life inside her, and will-she or won’t-she tell her flighty mother Linda (Nazaree Dickerson). The eventual fate of the unborn Molly is quite emotional.
Shipway the writer has a great sense of First Nations womanhood – though the racial factor remains largely in the background as purely human issues around the exigencies of motherhood take the foreground. Family myths are endlessly debated – was it an iron or a pan that Mimi threw at Darlene (Paula Nazarski); was it toothpaste or paint on Renee’s little red dress that spoilt a family photo according to Linda – the only time that all four generations actually come, spitefully together? Death, of course, resolves many an issue.
Directing this debut is Ursula Yovich, an icon of First Nations theatre. She’s another Aboriginal actor who’se moved confidently on into writing and now directing. The generations of women march on smoothly under her hand despite the challenge of constant time shifts, all four actors required to play themselves at different ages. And the simple setting is enhanced by fellow-Gumbaynggirr designer Alison Williams colour patches with a distinctly Indigenous sensibility, projected on to a plain backcloth.