Aboriginal classic play smuggled out of jail reaches European stage after 30 years

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The Independent Culture

More than 30 years after it was scribbled down on toilet paper and smuggled out of prison, the first piece of modern Aboriginal Australian theatre will at last enjoy its European première tonight.

The long wait for Kevin Gilbert's play, The Cherry Pickers, is due to the playwright's insistence that it only be performed by an indigenous cast. Sydney Theatre Company's production opens at the Library Theatre in Manchester tonight at the start of a tour that will incorporate the Brighton and Salisbury festivals.

Gilbert, who played a leading role in the Aboriginal liberation movement, never saw a full production of The Cherry Pickers, which he wrote while serving a life sentence (commuted to 13 years) for murdering his wife in 1957.

Gilbert became a prominent poet, playwright, thinker and photographer, and his play was finally premièred in Australia in 1994, the year after he died.

The play combines Aboriginal myths, songs and stories of persecution and follows a group of men and women facing disruption to the annual fruit harvest that has traditionally provided their only relief from crippling poverty and prejudice.

Seared into his work, which includes an award-winning oral history, Living Black, are his early experiences of struggle as well as his time spent in some of Australia's worst prisons.The Cherry Pickers is a classic, says its director, Wesley Enoch. "It's full of the dilemmas facing indigenous Australia, and lets neither white nor black off the hook." Gilbert himself described the work only as "tucker for the people".

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