A former thief and heroin addict, theatre legend Uncle Jack Charles has been part of some of the most important movements in Australian theatre history. By Jacob Boehme.
Theatre legend Jack Charles
Content warning: this piece contains the names of Aboriginal people who are deceased.
“I have no problems being a gay and old arty bloke, because I’ve been a gay and young arty bloke for many years and everyone’s accepted it,” says Uncle Jack Charles. But back in the 1950s and ’60s, being gay was a problem.
“In those days, you had to keep it dark because it was illegal,” says Charles. “I remember the days when the police were going around to the tearooms or the public toilets, as cadets to be blooded up, blood up and bash the poofs ... Thankfully, they did it at night and I’m dark, so they never saw me.” He lets out a cheeky laugh. “Don’t show the whites of your eyes and don’t smile.”
Charles is an Australian theatre legend. An Indigenous elder, musician, former heroin addict and former cat-burglar, he is also widely regarded as one of the founding grandfathers of modern Blak theatre. We’re speaking over a Zoom call from Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung country, Melbourne. A mane of white hair fills most of the screen. He wears a pair of black-framed glasses, red braces and a black T-shirt with an image of Gary Foley at the Tent Embassy in the 1970s holding a sign that reads: “Pardon me for being born into a nation of racists.”
As a survivor of the Stolen Generations, humour is as much a tool for self-preservation as anything else. At the age of four months, Charles was forcibly removed from his mother and placed in the care of the Salvation Army at Box Hill Boys’ Home. He speaks candidly of the absence of love and family in his formative and teenage years, growing up in the boys’ home, a subject he explores in a new series of Who Do You Think You Are? that premieres on SBS on July 6.
“I was unafraid of going to prisons because I’d spent a childhood in institutions and when I finally got to Pentridge I saw all the other failed adopted kids who remembered me coming into Box Hill Boys’ Home as a baby,” he says.
“When I first went to Pentridge as an adult, I realised everybody knew I was gay. I hadn’t told anybody. But my perfect diction, my ability to write letters for all the crims, my engagement with them, they all knew. And they’d talk, ‘You’re gay, aren’t ya?’ And I’d say, ‘Give us a kiss and I’ll let ya know.’
“Well, that caused alarm and a fondness for me. So I was unique there. I used to knock around with the trannies there in Pentridge, Castlemaine and Beechworth jails and was always known as the odd man out. But I always had respect.”
Charles says that theatre helped him to make sense of the world and of himself. He was living at the Gladys Nicholls Hostel in Northcote when he was approached by two members of New Theatre.
“They asked if anybody wanted to be in a production they were envisaging of African–American playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. So I went along to the New Theatre, paid my five shillings and became a regular there,” he says.
“It was called the Pink Theatre back then because of its left-wing leanings. Many of us Indigenous people had been plucked by members of the ‘red’. As much as they tried [to convert me to communism], I was just interested in theatre and being an actor and enjoying the political, comic reviews we had of the day, sending up Bob Dyer, Pick a Box, Bob Menzies, and having a go at Prince Charles when he was down there [at Timbertop] in Geelong.
“You gotta remember when I came onto the scene to play a negro in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, I had to black up as much as the white actors were blacking up. It’s just that I had a better foundation. You couldn’t see the streaks in my make-up.” There’s that laugh again.
“Over those seven years [at New Theatre], I never played an Aboriginal. I played a South African, West Indian, all kinds of different … blind-casting most of the time, never referring to my Aboriginality. I remember Bob [Maza] being cast in Bellbird, the black-and-white TV series, as a lawyer. I was the second [Aboriginal] person cast in Bellbird in their first coloured episode.
“So the industry, through the ABC, started to realise that there were these two Aboriginal characters professing to be actors and so from now on the industry had to have a rethink, they couldn’t anymore put black make-up on to play Aboriginal people. They had the real McCoy.”
Charles met his first partner, Jack Huston, during his time at New Theatre. “I was performing in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot. Athol Fugard was a playwright from South Africa under house arrest at the time. It was a two-hander; one African, me, and one brother white enough to pass, played by a white Russian–Australian actor, Ollie Lewinski. I realised my potential as an actor in that production. I also realised that this young fella, Jack Huston, a De La Salle College boy, was sitting in the front row every night, watching me.
“We spoke and he said he loved me and I said, ‘Oh well, you better come home then.’ We were an item for five years. It was a wonderful time, just before drugs came into the community. Jack helped me, along with Bob Maza and John Smythe, to establish the first Aboriginal theatre in Australia, the Nindethana Theatre.”
Nindethana Theatre (1971-75) was housed at The Pram Factory in Carlton, also the home of the Australian Performing Group, which was one of Australia’s most influential theatre groups.
“The first production we performed at The Pram Factory was Brumby Innes by Katharine Susannah Prichard,” says Charles. “There was nothing written for us in those days. Bob and I decided then, after Brumby Innes, to co-write a production with comedy sketches. I penned some music to Kath Walker’s [Oodgeroo Noonuccal] ‘Son of Mine’ in the ’60s in Castlemaine Gaol and so I put that into the show. Jack Huston had written some and so did John Smythe.
“John Timlin, the director of the moment, holding the reins behind the scenes and directing us, was a great asset in those days. He still lives around North Fitzroy there. I have fond memories of him, the old Timlin, and many of the people of The Pram Factory. People from La Mama helped kickstart the modern Blak theatre movement in Melbourne ’71. All those old people, many of them gone now, gave us a big chopout, with Bob and I kicking off the first modern-day Blak theatre. I’m grateful for them and now I see the legacy of what Bob and I have left.”
This legacy saw Charles working with Bob Maza’s daughter Rachael, artistic director of ILBIJERRI Theatre Company. With the playwright John Romeril, they created the autobiographical show Jack Charles v The Crown, in which he speaks about his life as a member of the Stolen Generations, his criminal past and his addiction to – and recovery from – heroin. The show toured Australia, Japan, Canada, Britain and the United States for a decade.
“Mr Trump gave me a waiver to go to New York and perform Jack Charles v The Crown,” he says. “That’s the ultimate for an old thief like me. I’m still thieving, stealing things. I’m stealing hearts and minds nowadays.”
Getting off heroin happened late in Charles’s life. “I was due to do jail time and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service convinced me to get on to the methadone for this sentence,” he says. “From my observation, methadone is the most insidious drug of them all. I was determined that once I finished my sentence, I would quickly jump off that methadone ... I undertook the Marumali program delivered by Aunty Lorraine Peeters and her daughter Shaan, which relit the burning embers of my grogged-up, locked-up, drugged-up, mucked-up dreamings.
“The penny dropped and I came out of that process intending to hurry up, finish off the doco [Bastardy, 2008], jump off the methadone, and I would play a leading role, the ultimate role that I could ever undertake, of being the new Blak light of the future in the Collingwood, Fitzroy, Smith Street strip. I’d be the role model, the ultimate one, the one that’s off the drugs.
“It took me two years to get off the methadone, two years to finish the doco. And I knew full well I couldn’t do anything unless I was off the methadone first.”
On his release, Charles petitioned local councils and the then Aboriginal Affairs minister to create a community hub for people returning to community from prison. “I have the big, unfulfilled wet dream of having community centres across Victoria with 24/7 measures, so that anybody coming back into community from prison could gravitate towards that place, get a bed for the night, have their clothes washed, their shoes shined, get a feed and see a doctor and start working themselves off the methadone.
“Of course, I wasn’t going to be listened to. I’m a criminal. I’ve got a criminal record. I’m an Aboriginal. What Aboriginal Affairs minister is going to take me seriously? What local council is going to take me seriously? Even with the high profile I have now, I still can’t get a building to have an outlet for those coming back into my community.
“It’s taken me a long time to realise I’m never going to be listened to. They might honour and respect me for my longevity in the performance field, but in the humanities, they’re not gonna give me any leg room there.”
Charles’s commitment to his community is unwavering. It’s the job of an elder statesman such as himself, he says, to be there for the people.
“Everybody knows where I drink my lattes there on Smith Street at Friends of the Earth, and that’s where they come, to get sustenance,” he says. “There’s nothing like sitting at Friends of the Earth or Rose’s cafe or even up at Redfern and somebody will bounce up excited, trippin’ over themselves, ‘Oh Uncle, I’m off the methadone. I did exactly what you did!’
“And so I say, ‘You haven’t regressed? You’re not dabbling?’
“ ‘No, no, Uncle. True, true. Haven’t used.’
“ ‘Very good,’ I say. ‘You’re thinking more clearly now, eh?’
“ ‘Oh yes Uncle, I know what’s happening.’
“And I don’t know them. They just walk up to me. Often, they’ve heard me talk about my journey at A Night with Uncle Jack. Everyone loves to hear and witness for themselves the story of a reformed and rehabilitated old coot that they feel they know so well. They’ve seen me at my worst, read about me at my worst, and now they see me at my best.”
Charles says he’d like to do more A Night with Uncle Jack.
“I’ve still got a lot to say. I’ve still got a lot to tweak people’s consciences. It’s my job as a thief to remind people. Old thieves like me, we cry loudest when we see injustices. And at the moment I see many injustices ... We still have problems with unaccountable deaths – in custody, in police cells and sometimes in hospitals, especially over in the West [Western Australia].”
Of the growing wave of Indigenous queer artists and performance-makers, he says: “I admire each and every one of them.” “I sometimes think, ‘I wish I was like that when I was younger’ – openly gay and that. But I thought I was open enough. The mere fact that I was one of the first blackfellas in theatre, I thought that was gay enough.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 3, 2021 as "Stealing hearts and minds".
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