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A shot of the actor playing Evonne Goolagong  from behind, facing competitors across the net
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

Sunshine Super Girl transforms Sydney’s Town Hall to celebrate a sporting icon

The show traces the path to Wimbledon and a staggering Grand Slam run for living legend Evonne Goolagong Cawley

By Emily Nicol
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NOTE: Katie Beckett has been replaced by Tuuli Narkle in the role of Evonne Goolagong 

A dynamic new theatrical production transforms the Sydney Town Hall into a tennis court to celebrate the life and career of tennis legend and national living treasure Evonne Goolagong Cawley some 50 years after her first Wimbledon win.

Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai writer/director Andrea James’ witty and inspired show Sunshine Super Girl stars Katie Beckett in the lead role. It will take audiences behind the iconic images of Goolagong on court, smiling next to her giant silver winner shields, to the unseen moments that paved the way to her becoming the world number one women’s player.

Goolagong’s story is lined with serendipitous moments. From a hometown with a predominantly white population that rallied behind the tennis champ when she was just starting out, to the sacrifices that her family made. “What would have happened if she didn't put her hand down the back of her dad’s car when she was three and find a tennis ball?” James wonders. “And what would have happened if her family didn’t move to Barellan where there was a tennis court literally at the back of their house? There’s all of these beautiful moments where you get to see all of these stars align.”

In light of the recent resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement, and systemic change in tackling racism within sporting codes, the production offers a timely look at the Wiradjuri sporting hero who wasn’t always comfortable discussing race and politics, but whose story is ultimately tied to both.

“I think it was a travesty that we had so few, great, vital and successful Aboriginal faces on the screen at that time, because there were plenty of people to celebrate,” says James. “You just hardly ever saw Aboriginal women on television at all, but you couldn’t ignore Evonne Goolagong, because she had made it onto the world stage in an elite and privileged sport. Looking back it had a massive impact for me as a young Aboriginal kid growing up in country Victoria.”

The story documents Goolagong's rise through the ranks of the tennis world, touching on her romance with husband Roger Cawley as well as the more challenging moments in her career. She moved in a world that had virtually no other players of a First Nations background, and with that came hardships and criticism not only from a paternalistic media, but from within her own community as well. “All of those things were swimming around her at that time, and the one thing that was carrying her through was just immense talent, joy and this incredible character that burst onto the circuit,” James says.

Renowned for her grace on court, the 14-time Grand Slam winner was the first mother in 66 years to win a Wimbledon singles title. Goolagong still holds an impressive track record, and her story required a physical dynamism from Beckett and co. “It was a challenging one to cast, but we just knew that it had to be physically robust and that the cast had to be physically robust,” James adds. “And so we have a combination of dancers and actors and quite complex choreography. Our lead actor, Katie Beckett prepped for the role and took tennis lessons.”

The director knew that telling this story also required going to the land where Goolagong was from. So she walked the streets and went to the river where Evonne and her seven siblings and parents went to fish and swim. Meeting with the tennis champ and her husband Roger and getting their blessing was also critical to the formation of the work. “All of those things, culturally and spiritually were really important,” James says. “It was the foundation of the work, and it just had to be. It was something that she always came back to. If she wasn’t there, she was always thinking about that place, or that place was always in her. So that was a vital part of the story. In fact, I don’t think I could have told it without those elements.”

The show debuted last year at the Griffith Theatre in Goolagong’s hometown, on Wiradjuri country where the heartbeat and spirit of the land was present, as well as the people that helped to shape the champion’s story.  “I just couldn't think of a better, more appropriate way to begin the project,” James says.

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