Illuminating, angry and funny, Sydney Theatre Company’s remount of the classic play The 7 Stages of Grieving powerfully shows how Indigenous survival is a radical act. By Tristen Harwood.

The 7 Stages of Grieving

Elaine Crombie in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The 7 Stages of Grieving.
Elaine Crombie in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The 7 Stages of Grieving.
Credit: Joseph Mayers

At the heart of The 7 Stages of Grieving is a solemn utterance: “I miss my grandma, she took so many stories to the grave.” We witness an unnamed Indigenous woman mourning alone on stage, her loss palpable in the aftermath of her nana’s funeral.

The 7 Stages of Grieving is a vital play for the current moment. Written 26 years ago by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman and originally presented at Metro Arts Theatre, Brisbane, it remains poignant to this day, expressing a resurgent Indigenous response that cuts through the dispossession and exploitation that continues to underpin settler-Australian life.

Director Shari Sebbens has made considered updates to the original. The play’s structure eschews a linear plot, unfolding as a series of intense vignettes that stage tangled moments of despair and resilience. Here the grandmother’s death acts as a framing device for other moments of grief but it is also the way in which The 7 Stages of Grieving creates Blak performative space that illuminates the everyday practice of survival.

Enoch and Mailman’s script was written during the first few years of the nation’s formal reconciliation process, which indicates why the last of the “seven stages” is reconciliation. There’s no mention of more recent “stages”, such as the Northern Territory intervention, Closing the Gap and so on. As the play shows, the different phases are permeable and the intervention or Closing the Gap can – and arguably should – be thought of in terms of invasion and assimilation.

We’re not given a whole lot of specific information about The Woman’s nana but the story is framed through the grandmother–granddaughter relationship. Elaine Crombie, who plays The Woman, is the sole cast member. The performance moves through several phases – from the funeral, to beautiful singing in Kamilaroi, to an Aunty who returns from England. There’s a protest for a 19-year-old Aboriginal man who was killed by the cops, stand-up comedy, dancing and more song.

Crombie is deft and empathetic as she flows through the different characters. She handles the range of anguish and levity and the moments of rupture through the script with tenderness and agility, taking the audience through “seven phases of Aboriginal history”: Dreaming, Invasion, Genocide, Protection, Assimilation, Self-determination and Reconciliation.

The “seven phases of Aboriginal history” is a model developed by Michael Williams. Enoch and Mailman transposed this theory with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Reflecting on the play’s evolution since 1995, Enoch said in 2017 that connecting these two concepts “started a line of inquiry that delivered the concept that Indigenous history has been a long and complicated grieving process since colonisation”.

The script is sparse and fragmented, intentionally leaving it open to performance, set design, sound and audience interaction. The performance space is a black, faintly lit stage lined with several middens, with mounds of what look like white oyster shells piled upon heaped black particles, like sand. The middens were made in collaboration with Quandamooka artist Megan Cope and inspired by her work RE FORMATION (2019).

“Midden” is the term given to massive mounds of shells that were created over long periods of time from the discarded meals of coastal Indigenous peoples. Cope’s artwork re-establishes these middens, which were burned by settlers and used as mortar for colonial buildings. The midden is asserted as an architectural site in itself, an undeniable material marker of Indigenous presence. The stage becomes a resurgent space of First Nations habitation, where Indigenous life plays out through kinship, uncurtailed by the seven violent stages of settler-colonialism that the play names.

The backdrop is a digital screen projecting words of despair – “I FEEL NOTHING”, “LOSS” – as well as the lyrics of the classic country song “Delta Dawn”, allowing the audience to sing along with The Woman as she elatedly mourns her nana’s life. A dedication to Oodgeroo Noonuccal – a crucial poet, Aboriginal rights activist and educator – unrolls across the screen and the play begins.

The Woman enters carrying a coolamon with smoking eucalypt leaves, singing in Kamilaroi. She walks back and forth across the stage, brushing the air with the leaves. It’s a purification ritual. The smoke fills the air. It smells good as collectively we breathe it in, participating in this ritual along with The Woman/Crombie. She begins the story of Nana’s death – which is to say the story of her life – with a monologue. Yet the play isn’t so much a biography of the family matriarch as it is an emotive examination of the contours of colonial violence that have disrupted the old woman’s life. The Woman recalls the brutal history of this country because – to quote Native American poet Paula Gunn Allen – “the root of oppression is loss of memory”.

The Woman places a floral wreath in the shape of a crucifix at the end of one of the middens. It’s not stated, but the grandmother, as with many Indigenous people of her generation who were taught to worship a white god, found solace in Christianity, epistemically violent as it is. This was partly because missionaries offered protection from the massacres – “Genocide” – that were methodically carried out by settlers across the country well into the 20th century.

Crombie inhabits different characters, including Aunty Gracie (Nana’s sister), a young girl and an old woman she sees in church. They suffer in different ways but share history and agony. In this way, the play demonstrates that settler-colonial violence cannot be understood as a series of personal injuries but as an ongoing project of sociological annihilation targeting Indigenous lives and worlds.

The funeral is durational and communal; as with grief, it will end when it ends. “Everything has its time” is a refrain repeated throughout the play. The Woman tells of big family feeds and mob singing together, collectively working through the pain of loss. She brings out a suitcase that she tells us is full of family members who’ve died and she recalls the day her parents moved the photo of her grandmother from the living room into the suitcase under the stairs.

The suitcase is a central metaphor in the play. It conjures the loss of people – departure – and land – transience/displacement – but it also creates a provisional space where memory, the knowledge of who we are, is protected. In the suitcase, grief becomes a burden you can carry or hide away.

When Aunty Grace – who Nana thought was gammon because she married a British man and took off to England – returns for Nana’s funeral, her sorrow is visceral. In desperation she discards the English clothing in her suitcase and replaces it with earth from Nana’s grave. Finally she clutches the case to her heart. Is it her sister, her land or part of her identity for which she grieves? The suitcase holds the hope of finally being able to return to her Country.

In another scene The Woman uses the dirt from this same suitcase to make a three-dimensional diagram of an Indigenous kinship system. This multidimensional system intricately links every person, place and thing in the Indigenous world across the country. Here are the land, the children, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and cousins. She explains that you’ve got to marry the right skin – it follows the female line. “I get it wrong sometimes,” she says, as she sits down trying to recall who exactly is her right skin in this diagram. She does remember, however, the utter devastation wrought on Indigenous family structures by the state’s ongoing forced child removal. In a single gesture she sweeps away the diagram.

The kin system is juxtaposed with the cycle of criminality that traps The Woman’s cousin. Poor fella, all shame now. The shift brings into sharp relief how directly the state has defined and controlled Indigeneity through the prison system.

The play’s most devastating moment is when The Woman reads the police report coldly detailing the death of Daniel “Boonie” Yock, a 19-year-old victim of police brutality. As she reads, the screen enumerates hundreds and hundreds of dates, marking the Indigenous lives lost in custody. The Woman is angry, in a mess of hurt – nine more Indigenous people killed in custody so far just this year.

When the lights come up after the final act, it’s not over. In the epilogue, Crombie steps forward with seven calls to action – composed collaboratively with Sebbens and assistant director Ian Michael – that are addressed to the audience – actions that the audience can take towards stopping further grief. There can be no absolute break between the suffering and resilience represented in the play and the everyday Indigenous practices of survival.

The 7 Stages of Grieving is illuminating, angry and funny when called for. But most of all, it insists that surviving through utter despair is a radically creative act. The play is like the suitcase full of gut hurt that is then transformed into a shield that protects these stories and lives on the verge of being lost.

The 7 Stages of Grieving plays at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney, until June 19.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 5, 2021 as "Grief works".

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Tristen Harwood is a writer, cultural critic and researcher, and a descendant of Numbulwar.

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