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Jada Alberts is a multi-talented artist whose work spans acting, writing, directing and visual art – and most recently a musical homage to Aretha Franklin. By Tara June Winch.

Actor and director Jada Alberts

Jada Alberts.
Jada Alberts.
Credit: Cybele Malinowski

We’ve gathered at the gulf of time and space, between us an ocean and all its upturned hours. Here it is spring: outside the window everything dormant is suddenly alive. Jada Alberts appears on screen, measured and gentle, a blank expanse for privacy behind them. It’s late autumn there.

To begin to tell you about Alberts, I have to tell you about the time of Alberts. It’s as if the eras were all leading in this one direction, and yet it seems they are just at the beginning again. The fruits of this new beginning can be seen for two nights this month at the Sydney Opera House. Alberts directs and narrates Aretha, a homage to the queen of soul with musical direction by Joe Accaria and a line-up of powerhouse vocalists: Emma Donovan, Montaigne, Thandi Phoenix, Thndo and Ursula Yovich.

After Accaria assembled the team and singers, an email came through to Alberts with the simple question: “Do you like Aretha Franklin?” “If you ask any of my friends and family, they would laugh out loud,” they tell me. “I’m obsessed with Aretha Franklin.” Alberts, buoyant, says of Franklin: “It’s fun doing something you’ve never done before, and because I love Aretha so much, you don’t get sick of her. I could listen to the music forever.” Would they do a musical again? “I’d do it again but maybe with Prince.”

Their mother, father and grandmother listened to Franklin – she was often playing in their house. “It’s one of those artists that you don’t really remember when they first became important to you but [has] always been there. I think because my dad was around a lot more, as Mum was the main breadwinner, and because he was a musician, he was in charge of the music. There was lots of Van Morrison and B. B. King, Patsy Cline was a big one, Aretha, Etta James, Nina Simone … There was always instruments in our house growing up.”

Alberts’s father got them into piano lessons at five years old. Their ear was good, they dropped the lessons but kept playing. They have always lived with a piano, “because it is a language that’s been with me for a long time”.

Was Alberts hoping to become a musician? “I wanted to do medicine. I started a pre-med course at Adelaide University, but I got sick and wasn’t able to sit my exams,” they tell me. “I had time off after a small surgery and Mum called me and said, ‘There’s this course at the TAFE, it has some music in it but it’s an acting course, it’s for blackfellas – check it out and do that in the interim.’ I did the six-month course and I didn’t look back. I fell in love with storytelling, really, and auditioned for the three-year main acting course. I’d done theatre in high school but been a dork about it, but then when I started actually performing in the TAFE course, I fell in love with it.”

Alberts went on to become an Artist with a capital A – a director, writer, actor, musician, painter. I wonder if, through the different mediums, it was always about telling a story. “I think my fascination with storytelling is the social dynamics and people with each other – and what we can learn from storytelling and how we use it as a tool of communication. It’s fascinating, the human obsession with stories. Whether it’s directing or writing or performing, it’s interesting being able to mine the depths of one individual, and a group. Sort of translate to an audience a story, a feeling, a new way of thinking, an emotion, empathy.”

I ask if Alberts has told the story they want to tell. “I don’t think I’ve told my story yet, and I don’t know exactly what it is. There are characters that are parts of me, and I’m fascinated by it, the ones that are untold at the moment – they’re kind of just sitting there waiting and banging on your door – you better hurry up and tell me or I’m going to go somewhere else. There’s more to come.”

Are they ambitious? Alberts stumbles over the topic of ambition and clarifies: “I had kids seven years ago, they’re really young still – I have a seven-year-old, a six-year-old and a four-year-old. Mostly my focus at the moment is making sure I have time to enjoy them. I’ve been selective of the projects I do choose, but there has been a strong desire in the last year of, okay, where is the time for you to do your things? Because if you don’t make room for them, they won’t happen. I’d like to get into directing and writing film, that’s the long-term goal, but I haven’t quite got the steps to know what’s next. I’ll probably take some time off to write and see where that gets me first.”

What kind of changes would they like to see in their industry? “More Black producers, I think, that is what I’d like to see. More Black creatives means more self-determination in that space, means more control. Because so many of us are telling our stories, and that’s great. But wouldn’t it be so great if we had 10 Leah Purcells? That would be the main thing. The interest is there – people want our stories, that is not in question – but we still don’t have full control over how that’s done. If you have a Black producer, we can still be in control of the story.”

Alberts talks about how they discovered the transformative language around gender. I ask if it feels freeing, if their soul sings. “It really does, my journey with my gender has been something that I’ve experienced since I was really young but didn’t have the words or the understanding until I was in my mid-30s,” they say. “Like, I remember hearing the word ‘non-binary’ the first time and thinking, ‘Is that something about a computer?’ It wasn’t until I met someone that was non-binary that I started researching and all these things started clicking into place.

“I just found myself reading and crying, reading and crying, and all these memories come back to me: the vivid dreams, the flashbacks. Having the words helped me make sense of my life.” When Alberts talks about that feeling – and that action – I too am crying and listening, crying and listening. I know the feeling – when suddenly, blind in the dark, hands fumbling across the wall, sweeping the expanse of a closed space, we finally find the doorframe – and are led outside into the light.

“Pretty quickly there was a couple of people I was able to talk to about it, and started using different pronouns for me,” they recall. “For so long I’d had this shame around my body. I had experienced this shame and carried this shame with me until I was 36 and I didn’t understand why it was there. I had a lot of partners and family members kind of ask me why I did things: why do you dress like this? Are you trying to protect yourself? Why are you wearing four T-shirts, Jada?

“I had this massive list of hundreds of moments where I felt shame about my instincts as a human being. At the point I had the language for it, I was able to put down shame really quickly and easily. I suddenly found a love for my body I didn’t have before. My body didn’t make sense to me before – except, strangely, when I was pregnant. It was a really freeing, incredible thing for me to find quite late in life, but I’m so glad I did because I don’t carry that shame to that degree. It was this big heavy bag that I had, and it’s mostly gone now.”

I ask if they self-sabotage. “I have complex PTSD,” they tell me. If Alberts is reticent about revealing this, perhaps it shows in the slowing down of our talking. “So, self-sabotage is an interesting concept for me because my capacity for things is … I can’t rush. If I do rush, I can quickly go off kilter – my nervous system isn’t the same as other people … I tend to take more on than I can handle and then sort of wobble around but generally find my way. If anything slowed me down, it’s the illness. For people with complex PTSD, identity feels like a slippery thing. If I’m too busy, I’ll have to write down parts of who I am and stick them up. In my early career, like a lot of blackfellas, I had to learn to say no and when to say no.”

Alberts was diagnosed just before they began shooting Thomas M. Wright’s film The Stranger (2022) – in which they play a detective – mid-Covid. “The complex PTSD is related to childhood and my early teenage years – there’s so much that makes more sense since the diagnosis,” they say. “Understanding how my brain works differently, what I need to do when I do feel that things are getting out of control. Knowing how to take care of myself, and then be better for the people around me and my kids. I have to be on myself to make sure I do the things that are good for my brain.”

I want to know if Alberts’s character as a person and those they imagine when writing and acting complement or conflict with each other. “[The Stranger] was such a dark and intense world to be in, and I went method, which I haven’t done before,” they say. Was it scary, that you were tottering on the edge, that you could tumble into her? “It was. Thankfully that character was an incredibly determined human being, so the ‘tumble into her’ was really good for me. She showed me a side of myself that I didn’t realise I was capable of – this version of myself that was determined and really active and didn’t give up. Those things I sometimes really struggle with. I have patches where I’m not able to do much and have to move really slowly. So playing a character who was so determined really gave me something huge.”

Because of Alberts’s diagnosis, which occurred just before shooting, they were able to push through with regular therapy sessions. “I also had this understanding that I hadn’t had, about how to take care of myself and how to navigate difficulties, whether work- or family-related,” they say. “I had a big crash last year, because there was a big gap between shooting the film and two years before anyone saw it. It got into Cannes, and suddenly it was like I had to pick up all this stuff again. Then I had a really difficult year at the end of 2021, but then Kate [Box], the other mother of our kids, got this job in lutruwita/truwana – she was on a new Amazon show called Deadloch. So I just had to look after the kids; I became obsessed with surfing, mushroom-hunting. And that Country is so healing.”

So they wore booties and gloves in 13-degree water?

“Yeah, my family in Darwin thought I was crazy. My favourite [holiday] break is where Emily Wurramara, the singer, lives. I can’t remember, I have to Google it.” Alberts spins me into the kitchen, where I glimpse a little disorder, a little life. They settle their laptop to find the place. “It’s the only place where I’ve been surfing where I could smell the trees. I could smell the eucalypt from the water.” Alberts has found the name. “Dodges Ferry! Park Beach!”

There’s a silent moment and that’s when I spot it – the light from that new angle of their home, caught on those eyes that have seen it all. The background fades out again. All I notice is the late autumn light in their green eyes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Freeing the soul".

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