Theatre

Meyne Wyatt’s powerful first play, City of Gold, joins a growing canon of theatre that asks Australia to confront its treatment of Indigenous people. By Steve Dow.

City of Gold

Meyne Wyatt, Jeremy Ambrum and Mathew Cooper (from left) in City of Gold.
Credit: Brett Boardman

Red earth makes its mark on everything in Kalgoorlie, the Western Australian goldfields city. On stage, its dust is spread across the outside of the Black family home, around the much-used dartboard and threaded through the milk crates turned over as seats. Soap star and lamb commercial actor Breythe Black has returned home for his father’s funeral, visiting from the city wearing a pair of bright white Nike Air Force 1s. His older brother, Mateo, warns red dirt is going to stick to those sneakers “like flies to shit”.

Breythe (Meyne Wyatt) tells his resentful sibling he left town to become an actor partly to have a platform from which he can create change, so Indigenous kids can see hope rather than kill themselves. Mateo (Mathew Cooper), with a Southern Cross tattoo on his arm, responds that “no one gives a fuck about you”, and argues that supportive hashtags and tweets fail to prevent mining’s “raping and pillaging on sacred sites”. Mateo says there are Wongi people who no longer know who they are, and he wants Breythe to commit to initiation: “To the land. To Lore. To your people … Can’t walk away like you did with Dad…”

Wyatt’s debut work as a playwright, City of Gold, is a scorching piece of theatre, by turns an angry, funny, deeply moving and excoriating examination of Australia’s racism. It’s about rage turned inwards and against loved ones, while grappling with the temptation to turn on oppressors. On the page alone, its characters’ lives ring with lived truth. Profound words for non-Indigenous Australia come from all three Black siblings: Breythe’s sister, Carina, played by Shari Sebbens, tells a press conference after an Indigenous rally is met with police violence: “You’re not angry with us. You’re blinded by guilt. You reject the truth. You haven’t come to terms with the past. You haven’t healed.”

Such lines are strongly delivered to the theatre audience, our comfort particularly challenged at the beginning of the second act during Wyatt’s bravura treatise on white privilege, black subjugation and punishment meted out to those who stand up for themselves, such as footballer Adam Goodes. As Wyatt pours his soul onto the stage, it becomes very clear this is the play Australia had to have, much like two recent documentaries on Goodes, The Final Quarter and The Australian Dream, have provoked a crucial national examination of ourselves, our shared history and our failure of empathy.

A co-production between the Queensland and Griffin theatre companies, City of Gold begins with sharp parody, to draw us in. During the filming of a lamb commercial, Breythe is arguing against having to carry a spear and canoe – “that Ten Canoes vibe” – as Aboriginal character Jack. The opening serves as a takedown of the continued marginalisation of Indigenous bodies on screen as well as a self-satire of Wyatt’s appearance in a controversial Australia Day lamb commercial in 2017, which depicted a European invasion. In the stage version of the advertisement, it is proposed “Kevin Rudd” will jump a food queue, but after an Aboriginal elder points a lamb bone at the former prime minister, K-Rudd will realise he’s “no Johnny-Coward-Howard” and turn around to declare, “Sorry.”

Before filming can be completed, Breythe is visited on set by a willie wagtail, a harbinger of doom. It won’t be the bird’s first appearance. It transpires Breythe’s father (Maitland Schnaars), referred to throughout the play as Dad, has died through medical negligence at age 64. Dad will come to Breythe in his dreams, nightmares and memories. Breythe recalls his father telling him Wongi land has to be taken back not for gold but for its sacredness, and that history is told through the eyes of the coloniser. “Wongi didn’t come from no god, big Noah and the flood,” says his dad. “Whitefullas gave Wongi the Bible to make him stupid.” We learn that, 40 years earlier, six police officers dragged Breythe’s father into the street and beat him, and the top cop of that crew was rewarded with promotion to commissioner.

As the drama builds during Breythe’s homecoming, director Isaac Drandic knows when to ratchet up the conflict between the brothers – who come close to blows over how they have applied their father’s lessons – but he also knows when to build in a couple of beats of silence to make a point. “What’s the life expectancy for a blackfulla?” asks Breythe. “Sixty-seven, if you’re lucky,” says Carina, who then admonishes her brother for making a joke about those statistics. “I’ll close my gap then,” says Breythe, before a pause to let reality sink in about the glibness of Commonwealth “closing the gap” targets.

Wyatt dedicates the play to his father, Brian Wyatt, who died in 2015 at age 64. Wyatt was chief executive officer of the National Native Title Council, and prior to that a longtime chief executive of the Goldfields Land and Sea Council. The New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council said Brian Wyatt was “a strong advocate for land justice, protection of culture [and] economic empowerment of Aboriginal people”. In the 2001 book Indigenous Peoples, Racism and the United Nations, edited by Martin Nakata, Wyatt contributed a paper titled “Practical Racism”, in response to then prime minister John Howard’s insistence on “practical reconciliation”. Howard, he wrote, “dismisses the symbolic importance of Reconciliation, and he has no time for our rights as Indigenous Peoples, including our Native Title property rights. He says he is only interested in practical measures to improve our living standards and our opportunities in a non-Indigenous world. In perhaps more brutally honest times, this policy was called assimilation.”

In the same paper, Brian Wyatt wrote of living and working in “one of the most racist places in Australia – the Goldfields region of Western Australia. The Goldfields is perhaps one of the more obvious examples of a national problem – where gross inequalities between the Indigenous People and other local groups reveal the continued operation of a complex and deep-seated racism.” Meyne, who was born in the region in 1989, presents a Kalgoorlie where attitudes are little changed: black people are beaten for sport, and police brutality is a given.

On stage, Meyne Wyatt retains much of the youthful physical alacrity I recall from his portrayal of Peter Pan in a delightful Belvoir production in 2013. Yet it is evident the loss of his father in 2015 has had a significant impact upon him, which he channels into this deeply truthful work, lending his craft an edge. Wyatt writes movingly in the City of Gold program notes of the 18-month period following his father’s death, when he had his first encounter with depression and fell out of love with acting.

Towards the end of the first act in the performance I saw, Wyatt cried when he said: “I regret not treating him better when he was alive.” Then, in the opening monologue of the second act, he gave a soaring performance alive with fighting energy. This cannot be an easy twist in emotions to navigate, but clearly Wyatt’s acting passion has been reignited, for good cause. He is assisted with strong performances by Sebbens, who conveys determined reason, Cooper channelling anger as Mateo, and Jeremy Ambrum as their gentler, light-hearted cousin, Cliffhanger.

City of Gold takes its place among some of our best theatre works by Indigenous playwrights that deal with racism, postcolonialism, identity and self-determination, including Jane Harrison’s Stolen, Nakkiah Lui’s Blackie Blackie Brown and Black Is the New White, Ursula Yovich’s Man with the Iron Neck and Barbara and the Camp Dogs (co-written with Alana Valentine), H. Lawrence Sumner’s The Long Forgotten Dream, Andrea James’s Winyanboga Yurringa and Coranderrk (co-written with Giordano Nanni), Jada Alberts’s Brothers Wreck, Tony Briggs’s The Sapphires and Leah Purcell’s take on The Drover’s Wife.

Many of these stories drawn from the authentic voices of experience would and should lend themselves to movie or television treatments. While The Sapphires was adapted as a feature film in 2012, directed by Wayne Blair and starring Sebbens and Wyatt, and Purcell’s film is about to begin production, more of these stories, including City of Gold, need to be adapted for screen. As a country we must acknowledge the past and understand how we got here. Real reconciliation will first require a critical mass to sit, watch and listen to these narrative truth-tellers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "With might and Meyne". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.