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This new play is fearlessly tackling Australia's big racism problem

City of Gold Griffin Theatre 2019 supplied
Photograph: Stephen Henry

In Griffin Theatre Company’s new play, City of Gold, a young Aboriginal actor called Breythe Black stars in a controversial Australia Day ad, harshly criticised by the Indigenous community. It’s a tricky situation and the last straw for Breythe, who is growing disillusioned with the stereotypical roles he keeps getting offered. At the same time, his father dies and Breythe returns home to Kalgoorlie to prepare for the funeral and some much needed recalibration.

City of Gold is the first play written by Meyne Wyatt, an Aboriginal actor from Kalgoorlie whose father passed away in 2015. Wyatt says he was inspired to write the play in part because he kept being offered stereotypical roles. And although he’s best known on stage and on screen in films and TV series like Neighbours and Redfern Now, you might also recognise him from a controversial lamb ad which coincided with Australia Day in 2017.

“I’ve been a bit fearless with the play,” Wyatt says. “There are some things in there that I need to get off my chest… I was depressed for a while there, and I fell out of love with the industry. I wasn’t going for roles or auditioning for things that challenged or interested me. At some point down the track, I always thought I’d write, but I was thinking in another ten or 20 years.”

When Griffin Theatre’s artistic director Lee Lewis first announced that she’d programmed Wyatt’s debut work back in August last year, she said: “I’ve been in two development workshops so far with actors reading it, and watching Aboriginal men reading the play going ‘oh, I’m glad I haven’t written it, but I’m glad somebody has’. He’s putting himself very much in the firing line.”

So why exactly should Wyatt be bracing himself? He’s written a work that’s hugely critical of the industry in which he works, but extends its gaze even further to some uncomfortable truths about racism in Australia. While he was writing, the Adam Goodes booing saga unfolded, and 14-year-old Indigenous boy Elijah Doughty was killed. While the arts community often thinks of itself as being above these sorts of incidents, Wyatt isn’t afraid to point out connections some people might like to ignore.

City of Gold at Queensland Theatre. Photograph: Stephen Henry

But the play, which is a co-production with Queensland Theatre and has just wrapped a debut season in Brisbane, has been receiving stellar reviews.

“I think when we get down to Sydney it will be a different experience, because a lot more industry people will be there,” Wyatt says. “I think in Brisbane, people have liked it. There are certain aspects of the play where I tell people to go fuck themselves, and they’ve liked it.”

Wyatt says that Breythe is the sort of role that wouldn’t have come around if he hadn’t written it for himself. He’s been cast on stage as characters that aren’t specifically written for Indigenous actors (he’s done Bell Shakespeare productions, King Lear at Sydney Theatre Company and played the title role in Belvoir’s production of Peter Pan) but rejects any suggestion that theatre might be moving ahead at a faster pace than TV or film when it comes to representation.

“It just needs to get better all around,” he says. “People want it to sound like it’s getting better, but it’s not really. I see a lot of people are coming through, but it’s not enough. 

“When you watch a show, it’s always a stretch to see more than one person of colour on stage. And there’s always the question: how is that person’s dad white? People can’t suspend their disbelief on that, but they can go watch a fucking Marvel film where there’s a bloke that turns into a big green monster, a man who can fly in a suit, and a god. I think it’s just horseshit really.”

The play is, in a sense, Wyatt’s reaction to his own anger at the injustices he sees in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s a non-stop expression of rage. In fact, critics in Brisbane have been surprised at how much humour is threaded through this frequently dark tale.

“I think there’s humour in the show because that’s the way I speak and the way people around me speak,” Wyatt says. “We deal with our traumatic experiences – especially blackfellas – through humour. It’s the way to survive, really.”

Wyatt certainly isn’t alone in his use of humour as an Aboriginal artist. It’s a tradition that stretches back a long way and has been widely known since the short-lived National Black Theatre created the political revue Basically Black, which was turned into the first TV program made by Indigenous Australians in 1973. The tradition continues today in the work of writers like Nakkiah Lui, comedians like Steph Tisdell, and ABC’s sketch series Black Comedy.

Wyatt sees his work clearly in the context of a long line of Indigenous artists and theatre-makers, and says that Indigenous storytelling is evolving quickly.

Shari Sebbens in City of Gold. Photograph: Stephen Henry.

“In the ’90s, it was Stolen Generation works, and as time goes by each generation has its story to tell. I think at the moment there’s a very cynical but critical voice that’s coming around with Nakkiah [Lui], Leah [Purcell] and myself. It’s putting back a mirror to society, showing that we’re still here, saying, ‘this is the way we think, and this is the way we speak, and we aren’t what those stereotypes make us out to be.’”

The other factor that unites a lot of the writers working now is how they link together Australia’s history of colonisation – and the 65,000 years of history that come before it – with this present moment. They’re works that examine how history has led to our present, but also seriously question how far we’ve progressed.

“The fact that Pauline Hanson, Mark Latham; they still have a voice. Donald Trump is president of the United States and Scott Morrison is prime minister. It poses the question: has anything changed? And the clear answer is no.”

City of Gold is at Griffin's SBW Stables Theatre from July 26 to August 31.

Check out the best live shows in Sydney this month and our tips for scoring cheap theatre tickets.

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