The morning after her 10-hour drive from Renmark to Port Lincoln in South Australia she sounds as buoyant as the boats bobbing on the water she can see from her window. She was up at sunrise, writing, and she’ll drive back to Adelaide tomorrow.
In between the writing and the drive, she’ll perform in Which Way Home, the play she wrote to let her dad know how much she loves him.
Katie’s dad and eight-year-old son Mark are travelling with her and there’s a cosy synergy in being on the road and performing a play about being on the road. The play’s touring nationally from May to August – so, with Mark’s home schooling sorted, the trio is in for the long haul.
When Which Way Home premiered two years ago it offered an eloquent riposte to the Bill Leak cartoon that portrayed Aboriginal men as lazy, irresponsible fathers.
Back then – and since – it has played to rapturous audiences. It has also given Beckett and her co-stars the chance to perform non-stereotypical Aboriginal roles.
The two-hander is the story of Tash, a young Aboriginal woman, who is taking her ageing dad on a road trip to his birthplace. On the journey from Yuggerah country Ipswich to Muriwarri country Goodooga their loving relationship is just spiky enough to keep it believable. The pair’s banter is funny and moving – delicately stitching some of the deeper issues facing Australia’s Indigenous people into the play’s heart.
Which Way Home draws on writer Katie Beckett’s memories of growing up with her single Aboriginal father. Her mother was killed in a car accident when she just 5 years old, leaving her dad to raise three children.
“He didn’t even know how to pay the bills after my mum died, because Mum did everything,” Katie says. “He had to learn to do my hair, and it would just end up this ball of fluff. I’ve got photos of me with my pants pulled up under my armpits, and my shirt tucked in, with these stupid big leather shoes. No wonder people teased me!”
This fluff ball is one of several humorous moments in the play that’s been amped up since multi-talented performer Kamahi King (visual artist, Yothu Yindi singer, and drag queen Constantina Bush) joined the cast as Dad for this national tour.
Katie says the play’s humour and warm-heartedness is the vital connective tissue that allows people to encounter Aboriginal family life and issues on a human level.
“I think everybody wants to be loved, everyone wants to feel that they belong somewhere, and that’s a way I thought I could bring people into our culture, and see what our family lives are like.
“If there’s something that we connect with, and something that we all understand, then we’re willing to listen and go on that journey, aren’t we?”
Telling a different story
The characterization of Indigenous Australians in theatre, film and television has troubled Aboriginal actors for decades, but Katie and others are now taking matters into their own hands to tell a different story.
“I got sick of the roles that I was getting where I was an Aboriginal woman, constantly getting bashed, raped, voiceless and victimized. In this play, Tash is the one bossing her dad around. She’s quite funny, intelligent.
“What is slowly changing is that there are more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people writing our own stories, and we’ve got our own producers, and we’re taking control of what we want to say and what we want the audience to see.
“I think it’s fine for non-Indigenous people to write Aboriginal characters into their play, but for an Aboriginal story, I think it has to come from Aboriginal people. I think there’s also a change in people wanting to see it.”
Katie starred in Redfern Now and in many film and theatre productions including Coranderrk and Kill the Messenger at Belvoir St Theatre. She is a founding member of the Cope St Collective and the recipient of The Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright’s Award (2015) for her script idea for Severed Cord, which the high rates of Indigenous children taken into care.
There’s a precursor to this work in Which Way Home, when Tash recollects how scrupulous her dad was about her being clean when she was younger because if she was dirty she might be taken away from him.
It’s a small reference that hints at a larger and more traumatic interracial and familial history.
As a child, Katie’s grandfather was stolen from his Aboriginal homeland in Ipswich and taken to live on a mission.
Her grandmother would rub charcoal on Katie’s father and his siblings and hide them in a hole in the ground behind a large cook-pot when the police were in town because she was scared her children would be snatched from her.
Katie’s white nan fought her dad for custody of Katie and her siblings after their mother’s death.
Katie also once forgot to pack her son’s school lunch in his bag and “freaked out” when she realised her omission. On the verge of tears, she ran home so she could quickly return with it. That afternoon at school she was also hugely relieved when her son was there to hug her.
Indigenous children are 10 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-Indigenous children, which means Katie knows women who have turned up to the school gate only to find their child is not there to greet them.
Writing about the trauma of the new Stolen Generation in Severed Cord has involved a balancing act between being respectful of the community and staying true to her own voice and vision.
“When you’re an Aboriginal actor or writer, it’s not just you, it’s a whole community that looks at you.
“I’ve done a lot of research, and I’ve talked to the Grandmothers Against Removal, and I’ve talked to quite a few people who’ve had their kids taken to see what they’re feeling. I’ve also talked to lawyers.
“The first couple of drafts I wrote were just so angry and aggressive, and no one’s going to listen to that.
“This play is so sensitive that it has taken me a while to write it without being biased for one, without being angry for another one, and also making sure that the community don’t get upset. It has taken me a while to balance out and still have the resilience, the light-heartedness, as well as the truth in it.”
Country connects you
The Beckett forbears hail from Goodooga, near Lightning Ridge, but Katie’s life in Longueville after her father remarried was more like Tash’s with her dad – “the two black faces in a very white suburb”.
Katie says that while she didn’t grow up on country she was always connected to people and family. Despite now having little to do with Mark’s dad, Katie always ensures her son connects with his father’s family who are Gumbangirr on the mid-north coast.
“We’ve had so much ripped away from us in history, you know our language and our homelands and everything, that when you do go back to country there’s this sense of relaxedness, there’s this sense of knowing and belonging, you know your culture and your story, your ancestors and all that genetic memory, it is all there.
“So going back home does rejuvenate you and fill you up with pride and belonging.
“As an Aboriginal person you do get treated differently. Some people look at you like you’re this mystical creature that’s going to heal the world. Others look at you like a fetish and expect you to walk around naked in the bush. Other people look at you like you’re you’re a disgusting human being. Luckily we do have some allies and mob who will just look at us as people and want to talk to us.
“As an Aboriginal person you learn to put on all different faces and masks to navigate your way through society, to feel safe in society. So when you’re home you can just relax.”
Australia has a long way to go on the road to reconciliation, Katie says, but there are small signs attitudes might be shifting.
The Gumbangirr language, for example, can now be learnt from preschool through to adulthood. School children are also learning the real story of what happened in Australia before and after Captain Cook.
Katie says saying sorry is important but it’s acknowledging the truths of what’s happened to Aboriginal people that will move the nation forward. Not acknowledging the past creates a division in the present, she believes, which will continue into the future.
“Everything comes from the past but if you don’t acknowledge the past, then how can we create a future; it’s all based on lies. Once the truth is out, I think it will settle and we can start growing as a people.”