Elaine Crombie stands on a black box stage, surrounded by midden shells on mounds of black earth, her hands clasped in tension. The rage is there in this singular woman’s emotionally affecting performance – and so is the grief.
Crombie, a Yankunytjatjara, Warrigmal and South Sea Islander woman with German ancestry, speaks English and Kamilaroi in this one-woman play, The 7 Stages of Grieving. She finds the sharp rhythm in the poetry of invasion: “My children, stolen away to a safe place, were wrenched from familiar arms and forced to feed upon another tongue.”
As the latest actor to embody the role of this unnamed everywoman, written by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman and first performed by Mailman in 1995, Crombie blends the skills of her dramatic, comedic and singing career with the scars of her own life, both as a daughter of the stolen generations and as the mother of sons whose skin colour renders them police targets.
The play’s non-linear series of vignettes of grief across seven stages of Indigenous history – dreaming, invasion, genocide, protection, assimilation, self-determination and reconciliation – holds up startlingly well in 2021, being deeply and depressingly politically relevant. The forced removal of Indigenous children known as the stolen generations, for instance, for which the then prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised in 2008, has today morphed into the Indigenous overrepresentation in Australian child protection systems.
As a non-Indigenous Australian I feel confronted and shamed, as I should, when Crombie builds her rage over the death of a young Murri man, Daniel Yock – “Boonie” to his friends, she cries – who was killed in police custody in 1993. Yock’s death date and those of many others appear on a big screen behind Crombie: there have been almost 480 deaths of Indigenous prisoners in Australia since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody issued its final report in 1991.
Crombie has a gift for wry delivery that leavens the pain. She wrings out laughs that are not always apparent in the script as she confuses the audience and herself while trying to explain moieties – how Indigenous people must marry within their own “skin” – then as quickly makes us ache as she tosses two shells into a suitcase, representing children torn from family and culture. She plays the ukulele and inveigles the audience to sing along with her to the Helen Reddy hit Delta Dawn after telling the story of how it was played at an elder’s funeral.
The director, Shari Sebbens, has drawn out not only Crombie’s capacity to channel the grief of experience but also her standup skills and musicality. Opening night nerves led the actor to call for a prompt of her next line on three occasions but each time she recovered quickly, buoyed by audience support, and went on to imprint her irrepressible self on the text. Her recall will no doubt improve as the play’s run continues and her grasp of its rhythms strengthens.
Elizabeth Gadsby has designed the midden stage set in collaboration with the artist Megan Cope, a Quandamooka woman, inspired by Cope’s RE FORMATION series. There is rainbow glitter across the walls and floors, like one big, inclusive universe: it’s all so fabulous that in one embellishment, funeral mounds and wreaths and a land “for sale” sign are temporarily forgotten as Crombie dons a glittery cape and twirls while she lip syncs a dance number.
Enoch and Mailman have always emphasised that their play should not be a stagnant thing, and in productions staged from 2008 on, the authors added a final scene, in which the everywoman discusses her joy at seeing the march for reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000.
Crombie breaks character to introduce that addendum, then plays it for the audience, while having a little fun drawing attention to the sudden, now awkward tonal change. “I’m walking across the bridge and if you look from a distance it’s like a colourful snake,” she says as the everywoman, then pauses, shifting her eyes sideways to the audience for laughs about the line, “like a rainbow serpent”.
Given the setbacks of the past 21 years – including conservative Australian leaders dismissing an Indigenous voice to parliament, and continued Black deaths at the hands of authorities – Sebbens and Crombie know they cannot end the work with the bridge crossing any more.
The screen on stage flashes in large letters: “Sorry means you don’t do it again.” In a new epilogue, Crombie, Sebbens and the assistant director, Ian Michael, call for seven actions of healing: to sign a petition to raise the legal age at which children can be charged with a crime from 10 to at least 14, and another to ban spithoods; to follow @IndigenousX and @Seedmob on social media channels; to donate to Black Rainbow and Sisters Inside; and to “turn up by listening when we speak, turn up by walking beside us when we march”.
It’s a bold move, swerving from the scripted drama to outright activism, but Crombie’s charm wins over the audience, who collectively point their phones at the enormous QR code that appears on the screen to direct us to an internet portal where we can enact “small steps to create big change”.
The 7 Stages of Grieving is at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1 theatre until 19 June; and at the Space theatre, Adelaide festival centre, from 28 July to 7 August