Sunshine Super Girl – a celebration of Evonne Goolagong – opened in Griffith last week. Bryan Andy took his Nan to see the show
Last Wednesday night out Wiradjuri way, Sunshine Super Girl premiered at the humble yet surprisingly functional West End Stadium. The indoor sporting venue’s polished floor – marked with glossy yellow and green lines for netball and basketball – gave way to the time-honoured traditions of Aboriginal storytelling.
My Wiradjuri Nan Faye Walker joined me as my date for the opening night soiree. As we entered the stadium, Nan greeted almost everyone with a genuine hello. Inside, she chatted to some of the local mob, introducing herself as a Wiradjuri woman before introducing me. With one young Wiradjuri woman Nan talked about her hometown, Narrandera. They discussed their connection to the Murrumbidgee River – Murrumbidgee means “big water” in their language – and sealed their connection by yarning about the people and family groups they knew in common.
Griffith has been spared by the pandemic but even so, there were measures to ensure safety in the stadium. As tentative as we all were – given we were gathering in such numbers – a special energy surged through the crowd. A red carpet ran up to the sports stadium entrance, and the opening night mob was dolled-up to the nines.
We sipped champagne and orange juice in the foyer area, poring over an exhibition of black and white photographs and newspaper articles celebrating the life and passion of one of our country’s greatest sporting legends, Evonne Goolagong. Only two photographs in the exhibition were in colour, which made me reflect on the advancements in technology, and the twinings of history, story, myth and legend. Why do some stories persist?
Inside the stadium’s makeshift theatre, two banks of raked seats border the stage – which is actually a tennis court, complete with a taut net. A high referee chair towers over one end of the set, while a tumble of old wooden fruit-picking boxes border the other. Lining the tennis court is a series of side benches. A retro Adidas tennis bag sits on the bench nearest to my Nan and I. Aboriginal performers Luke Carroll, Jax Compton, Katina Olsen and Kyle Shilling enter centre court, limbering up for the show in white shirts, shorts and skirts as the audience makes its way to their seats.
As Sunshine Super Girl opens, we hear the familiar tok-tok-tok sound of a tennis ball being thwacked back and forth as Wiradjuri woman Evonne Goolagong (Katie Beckett) enters the arena in a river-brown dress. She carries a white suitcase that she puts down before she climbs the tall referee chair on the far side of the court, settling in to soak up a view that we soon realise is an ancient riverbank on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. She breathes in, elated – and peace seems to surround her.
Goolagong mimes the motions of a hand-fishing line: winding it up, swinging it purposefully, building momentum, before releasing it into the air and over the tennis net. We imagine the hook arcing elegantly across the stage before we hear a gloriously satisfying plop as the line’s sinker breaks the water.
For the next 90 minutes we experience an elegant yarn that celebrates the life and legend of Wiradjuri tennis superstar Evonne Goolagong. Sunshine Super Girl explores connection to country and community, while taking an unflinching look at poverty, adversity and racism in Australia. The story is told with plenty of heart, humour, charm and skill. A young Evonne asks, almost rhetorically, “why me?” and the play swells to explore her question.
Beckett is cast perfectly as Evonne Goolagong. She handles the demanding monologues with engaging flair. I admired her ability to switch between directly addressing the audience and dialogue and action that demands the presence of the fourth wall. There were a few faltering lines on opening night, but she maintained her character and delivered the lines as intended. She has a natural charisma, and as an actor is convincing, capable and fresh.
Luke Carroll is used sparingly in the show – perhaps a little too sparingly for my liking. I’ve seen him hold court in grand shows like Belvoir’s Capricornia (2006, directed by Wesley Enoch) and Sydney Theatre Company’s The Cherry Pickers (2001, directed by Wayne Blair). Under Andrea James’ direction, he’s zealous and creepy as Goolagong’s coach, and is able to “act white” without falling into caricature, leaving room to play with constructs of race relations, respective representations and the dominant paradigm. His multiple roles might be serious in this play, but Carroll is given room for fun and giggles – there are some hilarious moves in the women’s double match, and a rollicking camp cameo with a “Evonne Goolagong Billabong” dress.
Katina Olsen is an important addition as an actor, dancer and the show’s movement director. She has grace and belief in equal measure, and like Kyle Shilling, leans into performance with admirable gusto. Both Nan and I developed a soft spot for Jax Compton’s performance, whose physical presence is beautiful and often hilarious. Her expressions toggle from stern seriousness to a riot of comic confidence, and she lights up the stage.
Kyle Shilling approaches his many roles with conviction and enthusiasm. As Goolagong’s husband Roger Cawley, the chemistry between Shilling and Beckett is a joy to watch. He’s a fantastic dancer, with a stand-out determination embedded in his movements. His movement is a notable contrast to the elegant, earthed presence of the women.
Choreographer Vicki Van Hout offers an exciting new physical language that honours the tropes of tennis, without being bound by the familiar moves we all know and might well see on a tennis court. Traditional and contemporary Aboriginal dance, ballet and ballroom dance styles feature in Sunshine’s choreography; and the direction and blocking throughout extend on these, creating theatre that melds seamlessly with contemporary dance.
My Nan – who is hard-of-hearing and probably didn’t picked up on all of the show’s dialogue – had no trouble following what was being said in dance and movement. The kids in the audience lapped up the movement too, responding with laughter to a women’s doubles match and a shearing shed scene. Meanwhile, I found cultural currency in a Black Power salute that was echoed in the fisted hand movement – representing a tennis ball – in a dance sequence that celebrates W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis.
Andrea James’ script and direction are commanding and poetic. She’s a gifted storyteller: one of our very best. The structure is taut, well timed and strictly balanced, and the touch-too-earnest moments that marked her previous work have gone. Structural technicalities aside, James’ writing is assured and makes captivating theatre that beats with a grounded, organic heart.
There are a few poignant and quirky tangents. The odd-ball geeks among us (I’m one, no shame) will find a frisson in a scene that obsesses over the science of the human body and tennis; just as there is joy and pride in a scene that gives a grounded insight into Aboriginal science, weaving and women’s business. These two “breakaway scenes” feature superb movement sequences that work well as dramaturgical crescendos.
This play explores Australian racism with profundity and insight. It doesn’t shy away from the dark undercurrents that exist in our country, whether the constructs of whiteness care to admit it or not. Links are made to South Africa’s Apartheid regime, subtly highlighting parallels between South Africa’s and Australia’s historical systems of racial segregation.
Big issues like the Stolen Generations and Australian racism are blended in with tact. The wholesome fun of a family trip to the local cinema is nibbed short when you realise the Aboriginal family is “roped off” down the front of the theatre.
I was captivated for the entire hour and a half-long performance. I hope that Sunshine Super Girl will grow wings like its subject and tour. After Griffith, it was originally slated to head to Melbourne as part of this year’s Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2020 program, but the Covid-19 lockdown saw that season put on hold. Word on the Blak Grapevine out Wiradjuri way is: apparently an Eora season is on the cards. Apparently.
So you mob, keep your ears open for news of Sunshine Super Girl on Sydney’s Blak Grapevine.
Sunshine Super Girl, written and directed by Andrea James. Movement director and additional choreography Katina Olsen, composition and sound design Gail Priest, lighting design Karen Norris, video media design Mic Gruchy, set and costume design Romaine Harper with set and costume realiser Melanie Liertz. Dramaturgy by Louise Gough. Original choreographic concept Vicki ZVan Hout. Performed by Katie Beckett, Luke Carroll, Jax Compton, Katina Olsen and Kyle Shilling. Griffith Regional Theatre and Performing Lines at West End Stadium Griffith, as part of the Yarruwala Wiradjuri Cultural Festival from August. Closed.