The Influence

When multidisciplinary dancer Jacob Boehme read Sally Morgan’s iconic memoir My Place at 14, it showed him the freedom of seeking the truth. By Kate Holden.

Jacob Boehme

The cover of Sally Morgan’s memoir, My Place, and Jacob Boehme (below).
The cover of Sally Morgan’s memoir, My Place, and Jacob Boehme (below).
Credit: Fremantle Arts Centre Press (above), Jacquie Manning (below)

Jacob Boehme is an award-winning, multidisciplinary artist who began in dance and is now a writer, puppeteer, visual theatre-maker, choreographer, producer and festival director. He wrote and performed the critically acclaimed dance work Blood on the Dance Floor and is artistic director of the Wild Dog project in South Australia. Boehme is a proud man of the Narangga people from the Yorke Peninsula and Kaurna people from Adelaide. As director of First Nations programs at Sydney’s Carriageworks, he is presenting a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Black Theatre, Party | Protest | Remember, on November 12. 

He chose to speak about Sally Morgan’s iconic My Place (1987), which was one of the first memoirs about the Stolen Generations. It sold half a million copies across the world, appeared on school reading lists and had a galvanising effect on Indigenous and, contentiously, non-Indigenous readers, who finally engaged with First Nations personal histories. 

Was it easy to choose this influence? 

I had the most visceral, physiological response to reading “… has had a significant influence on your life or work”. I saw myself. I was on my grandmother’s green velvet couch on a Sunday afternoon, and I remember crying, crying my eyes out. I was about 14 years old when I read My Place. I was an avid reader as a child and teenager. I was in Myer, the book section, I found it and Mum bought it for me because I wanted to read it. Mum and Dad divorced when I was five years old, and we didn’t see my dad for about eight, nine years. Then he came back into my life at 14. It’s a series of things: Dad comes back into my life, that book comes out, I see it in a bookshop: bang. I’d taken the entire weekend and spent it reading it, because I was just enthralled. It affected me so much. Because it was our family story too, presented in this beautiful book, this beautiful world that I’d just engaged in. And that’s had a huge influence on me, my life. That search for the truth. Unveiling the truth. Getting rid of all the hidden secrets. How the truth can set you free. All of that. That’s been a huge driver ethically, morally, artistically. 

It was the first time I’d understood that our unique situation, of being a mixed Aboriginal family living in the western suburbs, was not exactly unique. [Morgan’s] grandmother’s story of growing up – having to identify as Indian, having to pass – I had heard from my father, from my grandmother. We were brought up at home with stories, language and some history. We spoke broken Narangga at home. That gave me my first interaction with traditional practice. 

The difference with our family story is that we were not stolen. My grandmother came from the exemption era. It was vile. If you were given an exemption certificate, it meant you could walk the streets, but you had to carry a certificate to say you were allowed to. Once you were exempt you were never to admit you were Aboriginal; your children and kin thereafter were never to identify as Aboriginal. You couldn’t associate with Aboriginal people, you couldn’t go visit family, you had to disassociate yourself from your family and your kin. 

If you were caught breaking any of those rules you had your certificate removed and you were thrown back on the mission, but not necessarily where your family was from. This was happening way into the ’70s – in some states, the ’80s. My grandmother had an exemption certificate from when she was 17. So she brought my father and my aunties up to identify as Indian, Filipino, Malaysian. I only found out all of that when my dad died. I knew something was up, and, when my father died in 2013, I wrote to the state records of South Australia, wondering if they had records of him, my grandparents. All these files came back. I was emailing cousins, “Here, have a look at this, this explains everything.”

On one hand, all the bureaucracy and paperwork. On the other, your family wasn’t allowed to even know its own situation. And here you are, a proud Narangga/Kaurna man, heading Indigenous organisations, working explicitly in and on Culture. It’s not that everything is okay now, but that’s an amazing shift. Your truth has come out but in a different form to Morgan’s? 

Possibly the closest ode to Sally Morgan that I’ve done professionally is Blood on the Dance Floor. It was a show I created with a wonderful team, based on my experience of being a fair-skinned Aboriginal gay man, living with HIV. A very personal story. But it was also about seeking the truth, and in oneself. The premise is a man looking for love. It’s also a love poem to my dad, and everything he lived with because of how he was raised in colonial Australia: to hide. That’s the thing. The thing about the Sally Morgan book and the rest of my family was: hide. Get down. Get by. White Australia can be harsh. Just get on by. But, seeking the truth, being authentic, that’s what I’ve always pushed: “No, no, no, I’m not hiding.” It wasn’t conscious but Blood on the Dance Floor is the closest thing I’ve come to honouring that relationship with the book. It too was about a personal story, family, Blak identities, also about what’s hidden. To look at me, you can’t tell I’m HIV-positive either.

For Morgan, truth is not found without obstacles. Do you relate to her assertiveness and persistence? 

Assertiveness is something I’ve inherited. And a fixation on seeking the truth, seeking honesty, authentic relationships, seeking to understand and be honest about the repercussions of what we do to each other. When you do seek the truth, it can be quite a lonely position. We walk into these spaces, open for First Nations people. The doors are open. And everyone with all good intentions thinks they want to centre First Nations; they want First Nations embedded. All over the arts community. But they’re not really ready to do that. Not if you want some truth-telling. The whole country isn’t ready. But I’ve taken this position, to be truthful. You can’t be truthful if in order to get something for your people you have to comply and be the good Black in the room. 

I don’t need to explain myself to anyone. I know exactly who I come from and where I come from. With Sally and that book, for me it was more the revelation, the freedom, the spiritual freedom that comes with seeking the truth or being truthful. That’s what I got from it. I remember being on my grandmother’s couch and crying at the last pages of My Place. It was something about her holding the grandmother’s beanie, and the bird was singing, and she could feel her grandmother’s spirit. The thing that stuck with me was the freedom of the truth, standing in the truth, fighting for the truth.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2022 as "Jacob Boehme".

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