Ilbijerri's new production The Dirty Mile takes Fitzroy's indigenous history to the streets, writes Dan Rule.
WE ARE standing in Carlton Gardens, opposite the corner of Gertrude and Nicholson streets. It is a Sunday afternoon and the sun is out. To our right, the forecourt of the Melbourne Museum is littered with tourists; cameras slung around necks, bags on shoulders, they amble about with no obvious purpose. A giant plasma screen projects Games updates and medal tallies across park. A minute or two passes.
Four figures appear from behind a small row of eucalyptus saplings, 40 or 50 metres off. As they edge closer, we realise they are wrapped in blankets and shawls - two women, two men.
They seem nervous, diffident.
They pause in front of us. There is an awkward silence. One of the men eventually steps forwards."
We are the Woiwurrung," he announces. "Welcome to our country. We acknowledge our elders and pay our respects to the spirits of the land."
"Womin-jeka. Merrim beek beek," his companions echo.
We are taking our first steps of The Dirty Mile, the new production from Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-operative. Described as a "dramatised walking trail", the production is akin to street theatre.
Weaving its way along the length of Gertrude Street (or Dirty Gerty) the show - which includes dramatised street scenes, music, historical monologues, site tours and speeches by local elder Aunty Denise Lovett - works to map Fitzroy's rich indigenous history since European settlement.
As director Kylie Belling explains, "With the concept of the walk, we wanted to get back to the basic premise of bringing that history to life. Fitzroy's a very unique place for Aboriginal people, and people seem really keen to find out about that sort of thing, like the history of the area in which they live."
We don't need to be reminded of it as Aboriginal people, but the more the mainstream are taught these kinds of things, the more it will all make sense."
The history Belling refers to is articulated via scenes and speeches at significant Koori sites and landmarks. We are shown the Morton Bay figtree in Carlton Gardens that served as a meeting place for Aboriginal families living in Melbourne in the 1930s; we witness one of Pastor Doug Nicholls' sermons at his Aboriginal Church in the 1940s; we are taken to the MAYSAR (Melbourne Aboriginal Youth Sport And Recreation) gym where world champion boxers Lionel Rose and Baby Cassius Austin once trained.
But The Dirty Mile isn't all smiles. Although largely addressed through comedy, the production draws attention to a continuous theme of dispossession running throughout indigenous Fitzroy experiences.
Indeed, during some of the show's earliest scenes, characters relate stories of constant displacement - of being moved from mission to mission in rural Victoria - before ending up in Fitzroy, where the trend inevitably continues. Koori munitions workers and returned World War II soldiers are harassed for "loitering" on Webb Street, while, at the Atherton Public Housing Estate, Aunty Denise Richards relates stories of scores of Koori residents being evicted from their homes when the government built the highrise towers in the early 1970s.
Belling, who co-wrote the production with Gary Foley and John Harding - as an adaptation of an original treatment by Lisa Bellear - understands the walking trail as a rare chance to tell such urban Aboriginal stories, ignored in mainstream Australian histories and culture."
The media have attempted to make one homogenous indigenous story," she says. "And you know, we've been taught to think of Aboriginal people in Fitzroy or Smith Street as 'the problem' or 'the issue'. We're not taught about why black fellas will always have a real connection to here no matter what. If it wasn't into the mission or the reserves, then it was into the city and Fitzroy, because where else could you go?" "That's what became really clear when we started doing this project. I mean, I always knew it anyway - the constant attempts at dispersal and the emotional connection black fellas have to the place, despite all the changes."
Belling, who is of Yorta Yorta/Bangarang/Wiradjurri descent, grew up in Keilor in Melbourne's outer north-west.
After graduating from the VCA School of Drama in 1985, she took on numerous acting roles in film and television throughout her 20s - including parts in cult series, Prisoner, The Flying Doctors, and films The Fringe Dwellers and Until the End of the World - before becoming dissatisfied with what she describes as "tokenistic" roles."
What would happen was you were given that really token role, and then you were meant to be the cultural expert," she says."
I've been in situations where directors have rolled out these artefacts in front of me and said, 'What would you people carry?' How the hell would I know?" she laughs. "I'm suddenly meant to be a historical guide or something.
I grew up in Keilor!" "So I sort of moved into theatre from that," she continues. "It was like, white fellas aren't writing roles for this little black duck."
It was only after returning from an indigenous playwrights conference in 1990 that Belling realised she wasn't alone in wanting artistic self-determination, and, along with Harding and Des Murray, founded Ilbijerri - which means "coming together for social purposes" - the same year.
Now Australia's longestrunning indigenous theatre co-operative, Ilbijerri has long been committed to telling Aboriginal stories for Aboriginal people. But this has proved more difficult than it sounds."
I mean, we do this first and foremost for us," says Belling. "And Ilbijerri had a real responsibility to do that I reckon, but how do you get black bums on seats?
"It's very difficult, so we always have to try new and interesting ways to get organisations and individuals to come, because their propensity isn't to come to the theatre. It's never catered for them before, and they've got so many other things to deal with in their lives."
So maybe you go to where they are, near to what matters to them, and do it there."
And with the direct involvement of their Fitzroy community partners Parkies Inc. as walk marshals, and with the permission of elders, The Dirty Mile attempts to do just that."
I didn't even know until four days ago whether this would work or not at all," laughs Belling. "But the actors just came on board and were, like this is so important, we love it, and the marshals thought it was great to be part of something that's, hopefully, doing something important."
The Dirty Mile takes in Gertrude Street this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Details: www.ilbijerri.org.au or phone 0405 808 813.