These days, says comic Angelina Hurley, there’s no excuse not to understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. And what better way to get to know them than through humour?
There have been years of educational offerings about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, from national movements for Reconciliation campaigns and cultural awareness training, to the compulsory embedding of Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in the educational curriculum. However, many non-Indigenous people still seem to lack knowledge and understanding.
I was educated before the era of convenient technology. Back in my day there was no internet, no mobile phones, no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The deadliest invention was the now fandangled fax machine, and that handy high school library resource, the set of leather-bound A- to-Z encyclopedias. Today’s technology makes a mass of resources available, and none are more easily accessible than television and online streaming services.
You may have never met an Aboriginal person, and don’t truly understand the extent of our diversity, but these days there is no excuse to be ignorant. There are many ways to get to know us and find out who we are. It just takes a quick Google search, flicking a channel to a First Nations network such as NITV, or uploading a movie.
You may be surprised to find out that, for example, “real” Aboriginal peoples don’t just live in the north, or that many nations make up First Nations peoples in Australia. Our languages and culture haven’t been lost – we still practice them. We don’t all look the same and we’re not angry all the time. In fact, the opposite is the norm with mob.
You may have never met an Aboriginal person, and don’t truly understand the extent of our diversity, but these days there is no excuse to be ignorant.
Regardless of the situation, laughter always reigns. Humour plays an important part in our lives. Aboriginal peoples have been laughing at life and its circumstances for millennia. If you delve into the world of Indigenous arts and works created by First Nations peoples within the performing arts, film and television, you may just discover something new.
When she was researching Aboriginal humour for a PhD, Professor Lillian Holt recalled a conversation with a non-Indigenous filmmaker in which they discussed the making of a documentary about Aboriginal humour. She said the filmmaker’s response was: ‘As a whitefella, I’ve never equated Aboriginal people with humour. It seems to me so incongruous.’1
Really? What’s incongruous to me is the notion that an emotion so prominent in my life would be deemed non-existent amongst my people. So using the art of Indigenous storytelling, let me educate by providing a few examples of our humour and some other things you may not know….
Death is a serious topic for everyone, and for Indigenous peoples it includes specific culturally significant protocols for mob to adhere to. In saying that, however, sometimes the events that surround it are rife with our unique sense of humour. I have seen three Indigenous theatre productions this year that have brilliantly addressed the personal experiences of Sorry Business within First Nations communities, represented with a perfect match of honesty and comedy.
The first was Barbara and the Camp Dogs2. After hearing that their mother is seriously ill, the attempts by Barbara (Ursula Yovich) and her sister Rene (Elaine Crombie) to travel back to their Darwin to see her definitely take us on a journey. Part drama, part musical and live concert, the show exuded such a roller coaster of emotion that I just sat in awe of the unyielding performances of Ursula Yovich and Elaine Crombie. It was a belly laugh of lessons about love and loss, seen through the complex relationship of the sisters.
The second was City of Gold by Meyne Wyatt3. This work’s unrelenting truth telling to Australia about First Nations peoples was for me, as an Aboriginal audience member, hilariously refreshing. I thought “Yes!” and “About time!” as I witnessed the discomfort of some of the non-Indigenous theatre goers, and the joy and surprise from the mob.
Conflicting emotions of denial, blame, sorrow and loss were all redirected towards forgiveness and acceptance, through the warm embrace of humour.
This time the journey was about a son going back to Country to attend the funeral of a beloved father. It presents a serious and humorous reconnection between siblings Mateo (Mathew Cooper), Carina (Shari Sebbens), and Breythe (Meyne Wyatt), reunited because of Sorry Business after being apart for some time. On cue with NAIDOC week and its theme of Voice, Treaty, Truth, Wyatt delivered both laughter and a slap in the face of harsh realities.
From Darkness4 by Steven Oliver was the third play. A family coming to terms with the death of a son from suicide is confronting and sad story. However, in trademark Oliver style, the play gave real voice to who we are as Indigenous peoples. The characters’ interactions and reactions rang true. Conflicting emotions of denial, blame, sorrow and loss were all redirected towards forgiveness and acceptance, through the warm embrace of humour.
If theatre isn’t your thing, it’s easy to access the expression of Aboriginal humour through our contribution to film and television. If you want to learn about Indigenous communication systems, watch Ten Canoes5 by Rolf de Heer. David Gulpilil narrates a consciously moderated style of traditional storytelling. It’s a style that is well known to us as black fullas, because cultural permission, trust and access to information is not automatically given: it has to be earned. This film humorously teaches life lessons to us all, but there are protocols to be followed and lessons to be learnt on the way. You have to be patient. As Gulpilil says, “It’s a good story but you gotta listen, ha?”
The satirical 1986 cult film BabaKieueria6 delivers a funny role-reversal of Australia’s colonial history. Aboriginal settlers invade a land inhabited by white people. On their arrival, the white inhabitants are asked “What do you call this place?”, and their BabaKieueria is described by the Aboriginal settlers as a “Nice native name, colourful”. When an Aboriginal journalist reflects on the first contact with the white natives she recalls, “When the first black settlers arrived in BabaKieueria, they found a native population sheltering around by primitive open fires. Attempting to cook their food with crude implements and even seem to take pleasure in burning their meat. I have always been fascinated by white people”. BabaKieueria turns the tables on any pre-existing colonial education.
“In the long run I reckon we’d be better off with a more restrictive immigration policy”
The first Black Comedy on television was the pilot sketch show Basically Black7. It evolved from the establishment of Black Theatre in Sydney and included some of our most famous actors and writers, including Bob Maza, Gary Foley, Jack Davis, and Lillian Crombie. The show took an in-your-face approach to the racism of the time. Classics skits included an Aboriginal Caped Crusader appearing to fight racism wherever it occurred, only to be told that “Blacks aren’t allowed in the local pub”, and two Aboriginal scouts observing the landing of the First Fleet, as one reflects, “In the long run I reckon we’d be better off with a more restrictive immigration policy”.
The humour in the movie Charlie’s Country8 which also starred David Gulpilil, addresses the stereotype of Aboriginal people going walkabout. When Charlie goes missing, his brother searches for him. On his discovery, he lets Charlie know: “Fuck, you’re hard to find”.
Then there’s the comedic reality of survival in the bush with the genius of the Bush Mechanics9 who show us how to make a trailer by chopping off the roof of your car and towing it behind you, and how to repair a flat tyre by stuffing it with spinifex. They also address differences in cultural diets when one brother responds to being made fun of for not wanting to eat bush tucker. His defence is: “I don’t want any. My food is McDonald’s. Yeah we eat that shit too. This is olden day food.”
The comedy in the film Stone Bros.10, identifies the complex onus of Indigenous family relationships and communal ownership. Eddie (Luke Carroll) is trying to reclaim the car he lent out to his cousin Charlie (Leon Burchill). As he starts packing the car to head to Western Australia, his cousin protests, “What about the car? Eddie reminds him, “It’s my car, Charlie”. Charlie: “Yeah, but I ride in it with ya”.
Bran Nue Dae11, a musical theatre production written by Jimmy Chi, is also a film. It hilariously expresses our pride in identity when a classroom of school kids belt out the classic lyrics “There is nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine” and were totally “satisfied to rebuild your convict ships and sail them on the tide”.
Finally, let’s not forget the classic comeback by Gary Foley to Bill Hunter in the 1977 film Backroads12 , where his response to the history of stolen Aboriginal land plays out on a drive through the outback. Bill Hunter’s character Jack stops to ask directions from Gary’s character:
Jack – Can I take this road to the pub?
Gary – You might as well, you white bastard. You took everything else.
1 Brady, S. The Sydney Morning Herald. 2007. The joke’s on us. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/news/books/the-jokes-on-us/2007/01/01/1167500060017.html. [Accessed 08 April 15].
2 Queensland Theatre. 2019. Barbara and the Camp Dogs. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.queenslandtheatre.com.au/Shows/19-Barbara-and-the-Camp-Dogs. [Accessed 4 November 2019].
3 NITV. 2019. New play ‘City of Gold’ is Meyne Wyatt’s voice of truth. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2019/08/05/new-play-city-gold-meyne-wyatts-voice-truth
4 The Conversation 2019. From Darkness review: family loss and sorry business that invoked laughter and tears. (ONLINE) Available at: https://theconversation.com/from-darkness-review-family-loss-and-sorry-business-that-invokes-laughter-and-tears-123353
5 Australian Screen. (2006). Ten Canoes. [Online Video]. Available from: https://youtu.be/2QVOslNuFHw. [Accessed: 29 April 2015].
6 BabaKieueria. (1986). [film] Directed by D. Featherstone. Melbourne, Vic, Australia. Available from: https://youtu.be/NqcFg4z6EYY.
7 Basically Black. 2015. The Koori History Website. [ONLINE] Available at: https://youtu.be/uTunYAlu6Rk.
8 Charlie’s Country. (2013). [DVD] Directed by R. de Heer. Australia: Rolf de Heer. (ONLINE) Available at: https://youtu.be/qpcfNQ6tiiE
9 Bush Mechanics. (2001). Ep 1 – Motorcar Nutju. [film] Directed by D. Batty. Warlpiri, NT, Australia: Warlpiri Media Association. [ONLINE] Available at: https://youtu.be/cDeHI3fOlzo.
10 Stone Bros.. (2009). [film] Directed by R. Franklin. Australia: R.Hutchins, C.South. (ONLINE) Available at: https://youtu.be/SGStRDeHD40.
11 Bran Nue Dae. (2009). [film] Directed by R. Perkins. Melbourne, Australia: R.Kershaw, G.Issac. (ONLINE) Available at: https://youtu.be/ZTiXSmQET2E
12 Backroads. (1977). [film] Directed by P. Noyce. Australia: Phillip Noyce. Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075716/