An Aboriginal man who protested against the Nazis is the subject of a unique collaboration between an Indigenous playwright and a Jewish one
William Faulkner said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is perhaps particularly true for Aboriginal Australians, still grappling with the complete loss of their land and way of life at the hands of white invaders. It must have been even more so for William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta man raised on a Christian mission; he was a black man in a country that didn’t recognise him as a human being, let alone a citizen.
Cooper is known now as the man who, in 1938, marched on the German Consulate in Melbourne to protest against the treatment of Jews on Kristallnacht. It was an extraordinary act of affiliation from one persecuted people to another, and all these years later has brought together two descendants – Cooper’s great great niece, Andrea James and the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Elise Hearst – collaborating on the play Bright World.
“I got an email out of the blue,” explains James. “Elise was developing a play about Cooper and asked if I knew anything about him. Well, he’s my great great uncle, so I guess the answer’s yes.” Soon the two playwrights were developing the play together, mapping a shared history from totally diverse backgrounds.
“While we began with the story of Cooper, it soon became about Elise and me having a conversation with each other.” With the two playwrights sparring on stage throughout, challenging and provoking each other, it seems there will be little room for stodgy period tropes. “It was important to us that it wasn’t just about something that happened in the past; it has this resonance among living people.”
James is aware that comparisons between the suffering of Indigenous Australians and the Jews in 20th Century Europe are fraught, but is adamant that the stage is the perfect place to explore these momentous ideas.
“Theatre’s such a palpable space to build empathy. And we’ve taken a very personal approach to the material, we’ve compared and contrasted our own experience. We’ve got things to learn from each other.”
Which isn’t to say the play will be worthy and dull. “We have a scene called ‘Battle of the Oppressed’, an out and out stoush where we argue whose people have been more put upon. I mention the Palestinians, how empathy with fellow indigenous peoples is in my DNA. We’ve both allowed ourselves to have the most awkward conversations with each other on stage.” Somehow, it seems the ideal place.