Where did all the children go?

Stolen, one of several Australian plays about the abduction of Aboriginal children, has caused audience members to have heart attacks. Why is it so powerful?

On 29 May this year, a quarter of a million people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in a march aimed at uniting Australia's white and Aboriginal peoples. It was a piece of political theatre that summed up the fervour of a decade-long debate among an increasingly outraged electorate.

On 29 May this year, a quarter of a million people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in a march aimed at uniting Australia's white and Aboriginal peoples. It was a piece of political theatre that summed up the fervour of a decade-long debate among an increasingly outraged electorate.

Between 1910 and the mid-Seventies few people objected to the policy of abducting thousands of babies and young children from their Aboriginal families to live in white-run homes. But debate in the Nineties was dominated by the painful awakening of a national political conscience as serious questions emerged about the cultural eugenics that now constitute the most conflicted area of the Australian psyche.

The issues swarming around the "Stolen Generations" have proved fertile for centuries of dramatic exploration. Traumas of exile and alienation have produced works as varied as Sophocles' Philoctetes, Shakespeare's King Lear, and Athol Fugard's The Island; assumed racial superiority has led to works such as Othello, Brian Friel's Translations, and Pieter-Dirk Uys Dekaffirnated; and the sudden loss of a child has played a major part in Aeschylus's Oresteia, Arthur Miller's All My Sons (revived at the National Theatre this week) and Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.

Part of this is because drama works where a purely rational response would be inadequate. It can reflect the emotional complexity of issues that shame and compromise societies built on reason. Heads Up: Australian Arts 10, the festival now in London, picks up on Australia's shame through the stories of stolen children who learnt that self-hatred and historical-negation were the only ways of improving themselves in the eyes of white society. In this sea of statistics and rhetoric, theatre is providing a public platform for personal experiences which are challenging politicians, and devastating audiences.

Wesley Enoch, director of the most controversial play, Stolen, talks about "15-year-old-boys crying in the front row, 60- year-old women coming back to see the show five times, thousands of names signed in our 'Sorry' book". He also tells of "people who have heart attacks during the show. Last count it was three."

In an attempt to explain this extreme form of catharsis, he continues: "Storytelling can take you to places that people avoid." But discomfort is one thing. This, however, reveals a frighteningly thin membrane between theatre and unpalatable experiences. What kind of faultlines is it exposing in the Australian conscience? What is it about this representation that is powerful enough to cause potential death?

Part of the answer may lie in the wide-ranging accusations implicit in the plot of Stolen. The setting is the turbulent atmosphere of a children's home, typical of the places where Aboriginal children were trained for domestic service and other menial jobs. Unless they were adopted by white families, integration into white society was only ever at the lowest level. Each of the five children represents an atrocity allegedly typical of those committed against these generations.

It is a chilling catalogue. Ruby is abused by a man in the playground, and goes mad. Sandy is treated literally like a dog by an Englishwoman and while explaining the origins of his name, tells the story of how Aboriginal women would shove sand inside themselves to stop white men raping them. Anne has a good upbringing with white "parents", but is not allowed to know that her real mother is still alive until the latter is dying. Shirley pines to be a grandmother, remembering with horror the day her own child was stolen from her arms. Jimmy goes through the trauma of being reunited with his real family, and being unable to relate to them. He becomes a drunkard, a thug and a thief, before finally committing suicide.

Playwright Jane Harrison was commissioned in 1993 by Ibijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-operative to wake people up to the horrors of the Stolen Generations. She had a traditionally white upbringing, but is descended from the Muruwari people of New South Wales. Although none of her direct relatives belonged to the Stolen Generations, she has a strong sense of the cultural apartheid and consequent shame that defined Aboriginals in regular contact with white society. "When my mother was 11," relates Harrison, "she came home from school and asked my grandmother, 'Mum, am I an Aboriginal?' And when she replied 'Yes', my mother said, 'Well, then I wish I was dead'."

Harrison decided she would help reverse this kind of shame through the format of children telling stories. She explains that it was also a way of reflecting Aboriginal art, saying: "Indigenous Australians didn't have a written language, so story-telling was a way of teaching and passing down knowledge of the law." She agrees that story-telling in this political context can have disconcerting powers, but she is also aware that it is a vital way of re-shaping memory, and that this can work positively for Aboriginals trying to reconnect with their past. She cites Sandy, who is more in touch with the mythical side and the language of his upbringing, which gives him dignity and strength, even when he is suffering his worst humiliations.

It will be interesting to see how the play is received in Britain. Our most striking theatrical parallel was Richard Norton-Taylor's The Colour of Justice, based on the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Like Stolen it held up a blinding mirror to our supposedly liberal society, and asked us about our inbuilt racism. Inevitably it owed its impact to the wave of political emotion surrounding Lawrence's death - and it is as difficult to predict how successfully it could be exported to Australia, as it is to know how Stolen will fare here.

In her own country, Harrison had the full benefit of the political zeitgeist. During her play's lifespan a report even more significant than the Macpherson enquiry was prepared by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. "Bringing Them Home" turned the Aboriginal stories directly into political currency, and in 1997, Sir William Deane, Governor-General to Australia, commented directly on the pain the stories brought to the surface, saying: "I weep for our country."

Of course, it is arguable that not all the Aboriginal children abducted from their families had entirely negative experiences. Deborah Cheetham was taken from her family when she was three weeks old, and relates her experiences of becoming a lesbian and attempting reunion with her family in White Baptist Abba Fan. She argues that "because I didn't know any different, I didn't really look back. My white parents treated me well, and I'm sure I wouldn't have had the opportunities or the financial security I'd had if I'd stayed where I was."

Cheetham's story is interesting because even though her experiences with white people were largely positive, she too has suffered significantly, partly as a result of not being able to relate to her real family when she eventually was reunited with them. "I grew up in a time when there were few positive images of being Aboriginal. Deep down, you realise that you're not acceptable. When you're displaced you're displaced for life. By the time I was 30, I had had a nervous breakdown."

Prime Minister John Howard has added to the interest of Australian theatre audiences by refusing to apologise to the Stolen Generations. Enoch relates how "Howard has said he doesn't think the present generation should be made responsible for the past actions of the Australian government."

Enoch's refutation explains why we, as much as Australian audiences, should be interested in the issues Harrison's play raises. "Howard once talked about not subscribing to the 'black armband' version of history. I argue that he would rather the 'white blindfold' version instead."

'Stolen' is at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW5 (020-7328 1000) to 15 July; 'White Baptist Abba Fan' & 'Box the Pony' are part of BITE:00 at The Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891) to 8 July

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