Josie/Ningali Lawford-Wolf, the great Wangkatjungka/Walmatjarri actor who emerged (along with a few others of her ilk) during the 1997 Sydney Olympic Festival of the Dreaming with her one-woman eponymously-titled show has died while on tour at the Edinburgh Festival with the Sydney Theatre Company production of ‘The Secret River’. She died on Sunday.
Ningali was an incredibly talented performer as well as a wonderfully caring and thoughtful person. We’ve lost one of Australian theatre’s greatest treasures, a statement from the STC said.
For many non-Indigenous theatre-goers, ‘Ningali‘ was their introduction to remote Aboriginal languages (and Broome Kriol) and the vital importance of them to the retention of culture by tribal people. In Ningali’s case, this was despite her heading away from Christmas Creek Station outside Fitzroy Crossing where she was born to go to school in Perth and then getting a scholarship for further study in America – ironically finding herself sent to Alaska!
Perhaps this experience allowed her to turn to another great woman of the theatre “ Robyn Archer “ for advice on the construction of ‘Ningali‘. But the ideas and the heart of it were all her own.
Her later career was mainly as an actress “ though she was credited with guidance for Andrew Bovell, the writer and Neil Armfield, director of ‘Secret River’. Her distraught mother in ‘Rabbit Proof Fence‘ as her kids were ‘taken away’ to the notorious Moore River Settlement; and her warm-hearted neighbour to Michael Caton in ‘Last Cab to Darwin‘ will not quickly be forgotten. She also appeared in the stage and film versions of ‘Bran Nue Dae’ and the television miniseries based on Ivan Sen’s marvellous ‘Mystery Road‘ in 2018.
Last year she was in the STC production of Howard Lawrence Sumner’s ‘The Long-Forgotten Dream’.
Lawford-Wolf was only 52 and is survived by her children Jaden, Rosie, Alexander, William and Florence, and her grandchildren Zavia and Mia.
In ‘The Guardian’s review of ‘Secret River’, Michael Billington referred to Armfield entrusting the story’s narration to the powerful figure of Ningali Lawford Wolf, and her illness prior to her death caused performances to be cancelled in Edinburgh. But the show must go on at the National Theatre in London, where it’s due to open on 22nd August and run to 7th September. Her family has insisted. Cruelly, the National Theatre’s website features Ningali’s face beside the play’s title.
She was a friend.