The 1960s - Racism and Intolerance

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Its subject racial prejudice in Australia, Here Under Heaven was Mona Brand’s first play written in 1947, its inspiration her seeing a Chinese woman refugee from Singapore (after its fall to the Japanese) and wondering what her situation might be. It was staged at NT in 1961.

Set in 1942 on a Queensland sheep station, the plot involves a matriarch Amelia Hamilton who has thrown Aborigines off her land. One son, killed in the war, has fathered a half-caste daughter. When the wife of another son missing in action arrives from Singapore Amelia is horrified to see that Lola is Chinese but is finally forced to accept the new family member and her unborn child.

Amelia (on phone): Oh, the show. Well, I’m afraid we may not be able to go to the show now – we can’t leave Lola, and of course she needs a good long rest… (to Iris) They know she’s arrived but thank goodness they don’t know everything. Iris, how are we to keep it from them? We can’t refuse to go everywhere.

Iris: You can’t keep it from people, so why try? Why all this fuss anyway?

Amelia: Of course I said we can’t go to the show, but that’s only putting it off. People are sure to hear… (breaks off guiltily as Lola comes on stage) Oh, oh, good morning.

Like many of Brand’s plays, Here Under Heaven was performed overseas ~ in Moscow, Budapest, Prague and Berlin. It was also broadcast on Italian radio as Famiglia Hamilton. NT publicity noted parallel events in 1961: a Kenyan refused a drink in a Queensland hotel; two Nauruan women ordered out of a Melbourne guesthouse; and the attempted deportation of two pearlers from Darwin to Malaya.

The last play staged in the WWF hall was A Raisin in the Sun set in Chicago where a Negro chauffeur dreams of power and his family struggles to attain the dignity of a decent style of living. The author Lorraine Hansberry was a black US writer.

The cast included Harry Magnus, Rocky Raath and JEL member Karl Johnson. Publicised as relevant to race riots then happening in Mississippi where black students were trying to gain admission to a white university, NT in 1961 had written to the Dean of Georgia University in support of the enrolment of African-American teenagers Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes. Holmes, an orthopaedic physician, and Hunter, a journalist, later contacted NT expressing their appreciation of its support.

Purlie Victorious was written by Ossie Davis as a vehicle for himself, its setting a Deep South cotton plantation where Purlie Victorious Judson, a self-appointed coloured preacher, schemes to buy a barn to convert to a church. The play satirises segregation as ridiculous, making good people, black and white, do ridiculous things. Bob Bell as the lead blacked up, as did the other Caucasian actors.

The World of Sholem Aleichem dramatised three stories about the absurdities and cruelties of life for Jews in Czarist times (the Israeli consul came to opening night but the Soviet ambassador, a regular invitee, declined). Well reviewed, it was directed by Joe MacColum who had been with London’s Unity Theatre and who took up a post at NIDA. Acting honours went to Alex Marchevsky and David Copping.

There was huge excitement at the theatre in 1960 when Paul Robeson and his wife saw All My Sons after which he spoke and sang. Another visiting singer Harry Belafonte was invited to the same show.

During the 1960s NT consistently opposed apartheid, supporting The Friends of Africa, urging Verwoerd to end the policy, Menzies to push for the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth of Nations, and NSW Premier Heffron to drop charges against local protesters.

NT was also a consistent supporter of Australian indigenous people.

When the white man came

Our people owned the land

The white man came

With a Bible in his hand.

Now here is something

We try to understand

How we got the Bible

And he got the land.

The New was invited to the opening of Tranby Co-operative College in 1965, and held fundraisers for the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, the Aborigine Progressive Association, the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights, and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. Members called for equal citizenship rights and, during the Gurindji dispute, sent money to the strikers and urged the ACTU to black ban the Vestey Group. Vesteys also featured in a Street Theatre item, David Young’s The Born Loser. Faith and Hans Bandler were regularly in the NT audience and at social events.

The children’s musical Mumba Jumba and the Bunyip (its cast including Kingsley Strahan) intertwined Aboriginal legends in its pacifist plea for the protection of the bush.

In the 1970s the New raised money for Muraweena pre-school and the Free Kevin Gilbert campaign.


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