The timing of the South Sydney Herald’s print run permits a review only of the play readings on the first day of the three-day festival, Coconut Woman by Maryanne Sam and Forty Nine Days a Week by Ken Canning. The pairing of Sam and Canning was an astute decision as the afterglow of Sam’s warm, witty and uplifting play of discovery of both family and identity served as a balance to the almost unredeemed darkness of Canning’s harrowing prison drama.
Twenty-two-year-old Mick is serving 10 years for armed robbery in an intractable prison unit. Kept in isolation for the most part or outdoors in a cage, and treated with utmost brutality and disrespect by the white prison guards, he reflects on the path that led him, and is leading him, to a tragic outcome. Nevertheless, despite the harshness of Mick’s life and the injustice of the prison system he is still able to show sympathy towards a new and vulnerable detainee.
When the coconut woman of the title, Nancy Bruce, working down south to promote Indigenous culture, is invited to boost the profile of what she mistakenly believes to be a lighthouse, she travels to the Torres Strait Islands in search of local knowledge. As it turns out Boigu Islanders resent their Festival of the Coming of the Light being snatched from them and moved to a larger island more convenient for tourists. Nancy becomes embroiled in the conflict and makes a life-changing discovery. The highlight of this life-affirming and often very satirical play are the lovely songs, lyrics and music written by Sam and performed by cast members which intersperse the action.
Opening with a smoking ceremony, the festival included eight plays showcasing the work of Henrietta Baird, Ken Canning, Andrea Fernandez, Maryanne Sam, Glenn Shea, Megan Wilding, Hone Kouka and Cliff Cardinal. The festival also offered a public forum in which the playwrights reflected on their work and the benefits of international cultural exchange between First Peoples, and hosted Blak Attack, a debate over topical issues in the industry between teams with the winners chosen by the audience.