The story of circus pioneer PT Barnum has been told recently on screen in The Greatest Showman and on stage in the local production of Barnum. But while both had plenty of razzle-dazzle, neither touched on Barnum’s connection with Australia, nor the Aboriginal performers that paid with their lives for his promise of ‘entertainment’ to a curious audience during the 1800s.
Rhoda Roberts, head of First Nations programming at the Sydney Opera House, hopes to reveal the reality that gets conveniently left out of Barnum stories in the world premiere of Natives Go Wild, a cabaret fuelled by the fun and frivolity of burlesque and vaudeville, but delivered with a sharp turn of political and social commentary.
“It's a different night at the circus that has a little dark edge to it,” Roberts says. “But it's celebratory; it certainly will have some debauchery in it.”
Bringing together a cast of First Nations artists from Australia and across the Pacific, Natives Go Wild will not only showcase their talents, but bring to life a part of circus history largely unknown.
Barnum kidnapped Aboriginal peoples from Australia, across the Pacific and the world, taking them on the road to be the star attractions of his show The Ethnological Congress of Strange Tribes.
The show was a hit and a moneymaker for Barnum, with audiences of the time intrigued by attractions such as Tambo, a senior leader from Palm Island who was ‘recruited’ by one of Barnum’s henchmen, Robert A Cunningham, alongside 16 other members of his community. Tambo was part of an act billed as ‘Aboriginal Cannibal Boomerang Throwers’, and although he succumbed to pneumonia less than a year after leaving Australia (like many others taken from their homelands), Barnum had him embalmed and continued to wheel him out as a spectacle.
Through song, dance and humour, Natives Go Wild tells these tales of early circus, paying homage to generations of Aboriginal performers who have been mostly forgotten. The cast features Niuean acrobat and aerial contortionist Josephine Mailisi, Kiwi legend Mika Haka, Tongan-Australian performer and song-woman Seini F Taumoepeau, Mer Island dancer Waangenga Blanco, Rotuman musician and performer Samuela Taukave aka Skillz, and Mununjali circus artist Beau James.
The performers are all representing their culture in unique ways, and reminding younger generations of those that came before. Beau James, for example, was involved in circus throughout the 1980s, and recently came out as transgender. Before coming out, James was possibly the only Aboriginal “strong woman”. Roberts says James has done extraordinary things for modern day circus and Aboriginal people over the course of his career.
The show will also touch on the story of Lismore-born Aboriginal tightrope artist Con Colleano, known as the “Wizard of the Wire” or “Toreador of the Wire”. Colleano was one of the most celebrated and highest paid tightrope walkers, and the first to successfully perfect the forward somersault.
“Under the Protection Act at that time, and also the Aboriginal Protection Board, you couldn't work independently. You had to work for the mission manager or be a domestic or whatever,” Roberts explains. “So, what we saw was this transition of identity. For people like Colleano, who was the highest paid performer of his time in the circus, under the guise of being Spanish, he had the opportunity to get work and he travelled the world and became really famous. So, we'll honour him and we'll have a piece about his work.”
Roberts says we have moved into an era in which we can have celebratory First Nations stories sitting comfortably alongside more serious works exploring little-known histories.
“It's a bit like the fashion industry, where young models think they're doing everything for the first time,” Roberts says. “But, of course, there was lots of involvement from Aboriginal people in circus over the years, really since the commencement. And often people don't know the stories, so we thought this is a great opportunity to have fun and enjoy a night at the theatre.”
Natives Go Wild is at the Sydney Opera House October 19 to 27.