The 7 Stages of Grieving

Theatre, Drama
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The 7 Stages of Grieving
Photograph: Justin Harrison
Chenoa Deemal

Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman's landmark play about trauma and reconciliation returns to the stage, more than 20 years after its premiere

There is a remarkable generosity at the heart of this ferocious yet tender story of institutional and historical suffering. Written in 1994 by Wesley Enoch (Sydney Festival artistic director) and Deborah Mailman (a mainstay of our screens and stages who is currently appearing in Cleverman), the one-woman show stars an Aboriginal everywoman who, through a set of monologues, shares stories of Indigenous life inspired by historical and emotional theory – the seven phases of Aboriginal history (Dreaming, Invasion, Genocide, Protection, Assimilation, Self-Determination, and Reconciliation), and the Kübler-Ross stages of grief (here’s a cheeky explainer courtesy of Homer Simpson). The work has justifiably built up significant critical acclaim, landing in theatres and school syllabi across the country. 

The woman (Chenoa Deemal in this production) takes us through, among others, a memory of a funeral, a stand-up set about racial profiling, a short comic sketch about Invasion Day, and a moving demonstration, with props, of the devastation caused to families and tribes and culture as a result of invasion, genocide, stolen children, and other white intervention.

Jason Klarwein’s new production of the play runs for a lean 55 minutes, and not a second of that is wasted. The text has been updated since its earlier runs to acknowledge Sorry Day, and when the script calls for First Nations story and song, Deemal speaks her language (she is from the Thitharr Warra clan that is part of the Gugu Yimithirr tribe who reside in and around Hopevale, north of Cooktown and the Cape York Peninsula).

Deemal has a warm-hearted approach to the script; she smiles at us to break necessary tension, she appeals directly to us throughout the play, involving us in it – making her mostly white audience complicit in the systems that oppress her. Her command of the story seems effortless; she shifts from place and time without pause, summoning rage and sorrow and quips like they are second nature. It’s a gripping, smooth performance that may bring you to tears.

She’s lit by Daniel Anderson with the bright colours of the North Queensland tropics; Justin Harrison’s sound and projections surround her and back her words with sense memory and well-placed visual emphasis. We linger on the word ‘reconciliation’ projected behind Deemal and dripping as she speaks, washing away with the sound of rain. Even now, more than 20 years since the play premiered, we’re not there yet. Not really.

More Aboriginal people die by suicide than any other group in the country; it’s been called a humanitarian crisis. A ‘disturbing number’ of Aboriginal children are behind bars, and they are often horribly mistreated. The 7 Stages of Grieving talks about this and names it as the cycle and spiral of oppression. It’s a hard thing to change, but not impossible. It asks us to pay attention and to contribute to that change.   

With humour, warmth, and essential anger, the play is an exercise in encouraging empathy and action. “We can’t go back now,” Deemal’s Everywoman says when she talks about Sorry Day, but there’s a hint of a question in her voice. That question is a challenge, and it lingers in the air. Deemal and Klarwein let us sit with it. There’s a solid moment of silence at the end of the play before the applause starts, a contemplative, shaken silence that says: message received. We mustn’t go anywhere but forward.

By: Cassie Tongue

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