Using history and theatre to build a just future

4 minute read

A woman's face in profile is illuminated in a dark room.

“This is my evidence.” Melodie Reynolds plays Caroline Morgan, a witness at the 1881 Parliamentary Inquiry into the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve.

A 19th century parliamentary inquiry was one of the few times that Aboriginal people talked publicly about their own lives in colonial Australia. A play is keeping their voices alive and providing new ways to increase community understanding about Indigenous history, justice and reconciliation.

The outcome

A theatre production portraying one of the earliest campaigns for Aboriginal land rights and self-determination has played to around 8000 people in Australia at venues including the Sydney Opera House.

Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country is an account of the 1881 Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into conditions at Coranderrk Station, an Aboriginal community on the north-eastern fringe of Melbourne, Australia. The play uses the words spoken by Aboriginal and European men and women who gave evidence during the inquiry.

The play was developed through the University of Melbourne-led Minutes of Evidence project in collaboration with La Mama Theatre and ILBIJERRI Theatre Company. It was piloted on Coranderrk land, where descendants of the Aboriginal people who took part in the Inquiry still live.

Alongside sold-out seasons in Melbourne, the play has toured regional Victoria and been performed in numerous metropolitan and rural schools. The education version of the play is available to schools across the Australian state of Victoria.

The Minutes of Evidence Coranderrk Curriculum and Teacher Resource Package was also developed by project partners and researchers. It contains protocols for schools to engage with Indigenous communities, interviews with Indigenous Australians, and classroom resources for humanities subjects in the Victorian curriculum, including a DVD of testimonies from the inquiry.

Watch: We will show you country

"White Australia does need to know its history, our history, it’s their history too," says Jack Charles, who plays the part of William Barak, the last of the Melburnian leaders in Coranderrk: We Will Show The Country.

ABC TV's Australia Wide feature on Coranderrk

The need

The Australian Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987–1991) and the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (1995–1997) both recommended action to increase community understanding of Australia’s colonial history and to promote Indigenous reconciliation.

The recommendations included the need for schools to educate students and the public about Aboriginal history, society and culture. Schools are encouraged to develop resources that reflect local viewpoints and to collaborate with local Aboriginal people to prepare and deliver these resources.

Developing the solution

The 1881 Victorian Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry was one of several commissions in 19th century Victoria to address Aboriginal peoples’ calls for justice, land rights and self-determination. However, it was the only official inquiry to invite so many Aboriginal witnesses to give evidence about their own lives.

The play is part of the wider Minutes of Evidence project, led by Associate Professor Julie Evans, now Principal Fellow, Melbourne Law School and SSPS, along with:

  • Associate Professor Jennifer Balint and Dr Nesam McMillan, Criminology, University of Melbourne
  • Professor Mark McMillan, now Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor of Indigenous Education and Engagement at RMIT University
  • Emeritus Professor Pat Grimshaw, History, University of Melbourne
  • Dr Joanne Cruickshank, History, Deakin University.

The research team included Early Career Indigenous Researchers and other academic researchers, as well as theatre performers and education experts.

The team used documents and oral history from the Inquiry to examine how structural – or in-built – injustices from Australia’s colonial past continue to hold back reconciliation today, and to raise awareness of more collaborative ways forward.

In 2010, team members Dr Giordano Nanni and Yorta Yorta playwright Andrea James adapted the ‘minutes of evidence’ from the Inquiry into a script. They developed the play, Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, in partnership with Melbourne-based theatres La Mama Theatre and ILBIJERRI Theatre Company.

The play tells the story of the Aboriginal people of the Coranderrk reserve in central Victoria. Despite having created an award-winning farm, they were targeted for removal by the then Aboriginal Protection Board and neighbouring European farmers who wanted their valuable land. Their lobbying of government, along with non-Aboriginal supporters, led to the Inquiry in 1881.

With the Victorian Department of Education and Training and other partners, the research team developed educational resources linked to the play. These were trialled at three secondary schools in Victoria: Worawa Aboriginal College, Healesville High School and Melbourne Girls' College. The resulting curriculum and teacher resource package has been available to teachers since 2017.

Throughout the project, the research team worked in collaboration with the Wurundjeri Council, Wurundjeri elders, descendants of Coranderrk, and Indigenous community members in Healesville, a town close to the original site of Coranderrk. This approach serves as a model of Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaboration and public engagement.

The entire project has been carefully documented at Minutes of Evidence.

Partners

Department of Education and Training Victoria

VicHealth

La Mama Theatre

ILBIJERRI Theatre Company

Koorie Heritage Trust

Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated (VAEAI)

Arts Victoria

State Library of Victoria

Regional Arts Victoria

Deakin University

University of Sussex

Royal Holloway, University of London

Funding

ARC Linkage Project

Minutes Of Evidence Project: Promoting New And Collaborative Ways Of Understanding Australia'S Past And Engaging With Structural Justice (LP110200054)

Department of Education and Early Childhood Development

VicHealth

Publications

Evans, J (2016), The Ethos of the Historian: The Minutes of Evidence Project, and Lives Lived with Law on the Ground. Law Text Culture 20, 135-162. ISBN: 1332-9060

McMillan N et al (2018) The Minutes of Evidence project: "Doing Structural Justice". State Crime Journal 7(2): 389. doi: 10.13169/statecrime.7.2.0389

Balint J et al (2020) Keeping Hold of Justice: Encounters Between Law and Colonialism. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: University of Michigan Press. ISBN: 978-0472131686

Image: Steven Rhall

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