Celebration and sad reflection

Mike Bodnar: Mbantua Festival, Alice Springs

Bungalow Song, Mbantua Festival, courtesy the festival

Bungalow Song, Mbantua Festival, courtesy the festival

Just a few minutes’ drive north of Alice Springs the Telegraph Station Historic Site stands as a quiet reminder of a dark chapter in Australia’s recent past. In 1932 when telegraph operations ceased there, the stone buildings were converted into a residential school for Indigenous children. Forcibly removed from their families, these children were subjected to the state’s concerted effort to destroy the Aboriginal culture into which they had been born.

The experience of these children is the focus of Bungalow Song, one of two original performances that premiered at the Mbantua Festival in Alice Springs. Mbantua is the Arrernte word for the Alice Springs area and the festival showcases local Indigenous culture, music and arts through a range of workshops, forums and live performances.

Bungalow Song

Bungalow Song is a poignant tale told through a combination of drama, music and oral history. It uses as its set the very same buildings that for 10 years acted as a school and dormitory for local Indigenous children. The show opens as a series of black and white images of the desert and its people are projected onto the tin roof of the station barracks. Amid the rocks and trees far to the left of the stage a family gathers around a campfire when suddenly we hear the roar of a truck. The family scatters into the dark, but when a child stumbles in her escape she is seized by one of the men from the truck. Moments later her mother runs screaming out of the darkness. As she falls to the ground in tears a new image appears on the tin roof at the centre of the stage. This is the Aboriginals Ordnance of 1911, one of several official documents that justified such a scene according to the Australian Government of the day.

The performance unfolds in a series of pre-recorded readings of survivor testimony. Several local people also appear on stage to share their connections with the site. We hear how these children were taken from their families, “like rounding up the lambs from the rest of the sheep” and how they were punished for speaking in their own languages.

A cast of nearly 30 school-aged performers from Alice Springs acts out scenes recalled in the survivor testimony. These young performers, most of whom had never before been on stage, provide an intimate portrait of a child’s experience at this school. We see them at their best when they are playing with each other: skipping and chasing footballs effortlessly. But when the bell rings and they must line up to sing “God Save the King,” their awkward attempts to sing and stand in unison are a reminder of how lives at that school were part of a performance the children were forced to master.

With words taken directly from the testimony and in simple tunes reminiscent of schoolyard songs, David Bridie’s music enhances this sorrowful experience. A particularly haunting scene features a teenage girl seated at a mirror brushing her hair. She sings out wonderfully innocent questions a child has about her future: Who will she marry? What will she look like? But as we listen to her song, the superintendent of the school, his shirt partly open, appears on the doorstep of his cabin, a bed behind him. We know how that innocence will soon be destroyed.

Bush Mechanics Live

The irreverent side of contemporary desert culture was on display in a one-night-only affair called Bush Mechanics Live. Billed as a noisy showcase of Territorian humour, speed, metal and fire, the show attracted a large crowd to the dirt track at Alice Springs’ Arunga Park Speedway.

The live performance was based on the brilliant 2001 television series by Warlpiri Media Association that aired on ABCTV. It followed a group of Warlpiri men on their adventures to various bush communities for football games and music gigs. When their car broke down, as inevitably it did, the legendary Bush Mechanic Jupurrurla would magically appear out of the desert and help improvise some solution for a punctured tyre or a cracked radiator.

It was not clear how a clever little TV show would translate to a live performance. Francis Jupurrurla Kelly, its co-creator and the actor who plays the magical Bush Mechanic, teamed up once more with the TV series director David Batty for the Friday night performance. For the show’s many fans this was an opportunity to see again some of the humour and the ingenuity that life in remote locations evokes. And for local rev-heads there was the promise of lots of noise, danger and a burnout or two. The sight that greeted the crowd at the Speedway was impressive. Two enormous earthen ramps had been built at the centre of the track. They were flanked by two large mud patches along with some wood and brush obstacles that simulated bush driving conditions. In between the two ramps a stage had been built for the local metal band Nokturnl.

The show opened with a repair scene featuring Jupurrurla and Mary G, the cross-dressing comedian who was the show’s MC. They were so far away it was difficult to see exactly what bits of clothing Mary G was passing to Jupurrurla in a sketch rife with sexual innuendo, but the comedian stirred up a lot of laughs from the crowd.

Most of the night’s action focused on contests between two teams of five men who jammed themselves into beaten up old cars for a series of special races around the track. The first of those contests was the Spinifex Tyre Challenge in which the Bush Mechanics had to fill a flat tyre with spinifex grass and then race the hobbled car around the track. Unfortunately there was little to entertain the crowd as we waited for the teams to finish the repairs. And when the cars were finally ready they raced round the track at speeds hardly more than a trot. Just as slow were the various towing events where the teams pulled disabled cars around the track, using ropes made from jeans and bits of salvaged wire.

Several surprises helped to maintain some interest in the show. A 12-piece synchronised Postie-bike routine picked up the crowd for a few moments as did an appearance from Alice Springs Burnout King, but there was just not enough activity in the long spaces between really slow car races to sustain attention. And the absence of any extra cameras and a large screen meant that much of the interaction between performers was lost on most of the crowd seated far away. The noise, the speed, even the fire failed to materialise and though there were glimpses of irreverent Bush Mechanics humour, the three-hour live show failed to deliver a consistently entertaining spectacle.

Mbantua Festival, Bungalow Song, director, co-writer Nigel Jamieson, co-writer Sue Smith, creative producer Rachel Perkins, senior advisor Harold Furber, 9-11 Oct; Bush Mechanics, writer, director David Batty, associate director Gavin Robins, Alice Springs, 11 Oct

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 14

© Mike Bodnar; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2013