Australian Play `Dead Heart' Confronts Race Relations

AUSTRALIA is undergoing such a transformation in how it views and treats its indigenous people that the attention being given Aborigines on the political and legal fronts is also cropping up on the cultural front.

Plays about Aborigines are becoming the flavor of the month here. The latest, ``Dead Heart,'' by white playwright Nicholas Parsons, is the third I've seen this year. The others, also written by whites, were a bit superficial. While flawed, this play makes the best attempt of all of them at coming to terms with the complex, painful relationships between blacks and whites in Australia.

``Dead Heart'' aims high. It takes on one of the central themes in contemporary Australian life: how a community can effectively operate when tugging at it are two diametrically opposed ways of looking at life, property, and law - white and Aboriginal.

The production itself is on a grand scale. It includes a ``stage'' big enough for three cars to drive around on tons of trucked-in red dirt. Audience members were astonished to see Toyotas with shot-out windows doing wheelies that sprayed dirt on the first three rows.

Belvoir Theater, one of Sydney's best small theaters, staged the play in a dilapidated building in an old railway yard. The stage, when the false back wall of rusty corrugated iron falls down at one point, is as long as a football field.

The plot of ``Dead Heart'' is set in motion when an Aboriginal man hangs himself in jail, shattering the tenuous links between the two races in a small town.

What then begins to unfold is the conflict between traditional Aboriginal law and imposed ``whitefella'' law. Under Aboriginal law, someone's got to provide ``pay back'' for the death of the man in jail, and his relatives show up en masse to exact vengeance. To avoid many retaliatory deaths, an Aboriginal policeman offers himself as pay back. Over the vociferous protests of his white chief, he gets speared in the leg and taken to the hospital.

That would seem to put an end to the trouble. But another Aboriginal man has sex with a married white woman at a sacred site. That's no crime under white law. But Aborigines consider it a crime punishable by death. The man turns up mysteriously dead, with no marks. While the official verdict is that he died of a heart attack, Ray, the police chief, knows it's murder.

Ray is a tough but well-meaning cop who has a fair understanding of tribal culture. But he, too, gets torn between the two cultures, both of which want him off the case for various reasons. So he goes off, like Clint Eastwood, to track down the killer himself.

The killer turns out to be the son of the man who hanged himself. The boy's grandfather, an elder, doesn't want to lose him, as he did his son, to whitefella ways and has prevented him from learning English.

When Ray captures the boy, a pesky reporter asks him in an interview whether it's right to imprison the youth for breaking a law he's never heard of and that was written in a language he doesn't know. Ray is dumbfounded at the questions: He knows nothing but the macho law of small towns.

The play focuses mainly on the white characters: a teacher, his artist wife, an anthropologist, and a doctor. There are too many characters, and they are not drawn with much substance.

The whites spend their time trying to understand the Aborigines' combination of timeless traditional ways and destructive modern ways. The Aborigines warm themselves around the campfires, silent figures watching the whites get frustrated. ``We'll be here long after you're gone,'' they seem to say. And, at the end of the play, they are.

The three-hour play is packed with issues. Aboriginal deaths in custody; alcoholism; petrol sniffing; paternalism; the reporter's disregard for Aboriginal law, which requires permission (and big bucks) to photograph sacred sites; and the casual attitude Aborigines have for personal property - one guy shoots up his Toyota and expects that the local priest will just get him another.

The play may try to do too much, but it doesn't shout at you. Parsons uses humor to point out faults in both camps, and his quiet purpose is to lift the walls of ignorance.

It is also finely acted by some of Australia's best-known white and Aboriginal actors, of whom there are too many to list individually.

The play is like an Aboriginal dot painting; it offers lots of little pieces that together have a meaningful impact.

* `Dead Heart' closes April 10.

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