Aborigines on tour celebrate their culture

'Upstart Aussies' travel to US to tell their story and spotlight historic injustices

While much of the world is going (via satellite TV) to Australia each night to witness the spectacular athleticism of the 2000 summer Olympics, a group of 16 "Upstart Aussies" is making the rounds here in the United States with a quite different agenda.

The "Upstart Aussies" tour, which travels to 17 US venues (including Lincoln Center in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington) over the next six weeks, kicked off in Boston Sept. 15, deliberately coinciding with the opening day of the Olympic Games in Sydney.

The idea of singer-songwriter Lynn Thomas and producer Dorothy Hirsch, "Upstart Aussies" is a celebration of the cultural heritage of Australia's Aborigines.

Unfortunately, the show's lack of polish and sophistication undermine its ability to showcase the wealth and diversity of Aboriginal culture, though it does call attention to the issues that long have plagued Australia's indigenous people.

'Stolen generation'

Not unlike the plight of the native Americans in the US, Australia's Aborigines were nearly wiped out by the arrival of European civilization.

In the latter case, it was first by disease in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, when the British banished tens of thousands of convicts from overcrowded prisons to the continent; later it was by warfare with early settlers; and then again in the 20th century, when government-sponsored assimilation programs forced families onto reservations and sanctioned the taking of Aboriginal children for placement with white families or in orphanages.

"[The show] is a perfect way to get the broader world to look at this issue," asserted Ms. Thomas via phone during a rehearsal break in Boston. Thomas was adopted at 13 months by an American family and believes she was herself a "stolen child."

From 1910 to 1970 (and even beyond, unofficially), this effort to assimilate Aborigines into the white world and slowly eliminate their "uncivilized" culture, resulted in several generations of children, called "the stolen generation," who grew up unaware of their heritage. Some are in their young-adult years even today.

Aborigines now represent less than 2 percent of Australia's 19 million people, and they continue to bear the brunt of pervasive racism. They were not allowed to vote until 1962 and were not counted in the census until 1967.

Today the government offers programs allowing Aborigines to reclaim some of their land. And $1.5 billion is spent each year toward social programs, from medical care to job training. However, the Aborigines feel it is still not enough, believing any healing must start with a formal government apology. Prime Minister John Howard has refused to issue one for fear of opening the door to a flood of lawsuits.

Passion and idealism

While Aboriginal groups in Australia hold street protests to bring awareness to their cause, Thomas and her multiethnic troupe focus on the wealth of the culture itself, with an eye toward finding ways for Aboriginals and white Australians to come together. "The show is about moving toward reconciliation," she says.

With such passion and idealism, it is a shame the performance itself is so weak and uneven. It misses the opportunity to educate through personal reflection.

Though the scripted sections are informative and avoid excessive didacticism, they also lack the kind of intimacy that might allow for a powerful statement.

Rae Bennett's poem "We Aborigines" comes closest, with its stark eloquence. In songs such as "Stolen Children," Cox's poignant lyrics are effective. Similarly, when the troupe sings a choral version of "Keep on Walking Forward," it provides a rousing, anthemlike finale.

In between, however, there are too many banal folk/rock numbers. Hirsch's stagings range from contrived to downright amateurish.

Folk tales tie show together

Traditional culture is not represented at its most lively or accomplished, though Pauline McLeod's engagingly told folk tales help tie the program together.

Instead of professional dance and music, the show features a quartet of children, Burrnya Warriors, whose slow-moving stomps and gestures are not particularly interesting to watch. Mary Jane Page's spectacular backdrops of lizards and dancing figures - in the colorful, pointillistic style of Aboriginal art - are the most impressive aspect of the show.

"Upstart Aussies" is so well-intentioned, and the performers so sincere, that one hopes the current version will get a substantial overhaul.

"We focus on not just presenting Aboriginal culture as something anthropological or exotic, but as a real living, breathing, growing culture...," Thomas says. "I want people to learn and understand exactly what happened in Australia....

"The show doesn't offer a prescription for changes but shows the promise of reconciliation. It has to happen on an individual basis," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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