Tiddas combines a portrayal of the warmth and strength of sisterhood with a rebuke to the publishing industry for being slow to appreciate Indigenous talent. By Yen-Rong Wong.
Sisterhood is, and has always been, an important part of women’s lives – but portrayals of such groups in popular culture have usually been white. Tiddas deliberately and delightfully rewrites this narrative. Tidda is a northern Koori word meaning sister, or women who are like sisters, and Nadine McDonald-Dowd’s production of Anita Heiss’s play, based on her novel of the same name, brings the joys and tribulations of such a bond to life on stage.
The play starts while the audience is still filing in and chatting, the five eponymous tiddas greeting each other and pouring glasses of wine as they settle down for their monthly book club. These five women, high school friends hailing originally from Mudgee, have all moved to Brisbane over the years and managed to carve out lives for themselves in the city.
Veronica (Anna McMahon), Izzy (Phoebe Grainer), Xanthe (Shakira Clanton), Ellen (Chenoa Deemal) and Nadine (Louise Brehmer) represent a range of women. Veronica is a devoted mother who is newly divorced, Izzy is on her way to becoming the Australian Oprah when she falls pregnant, Xanthe is a cultural consultant and desperate for a baby of her own, Ellen is a funeral director with commitment issues, and Nadine is a bestselling author who uses alcohol as a crutch.
Aboriginal creatives are represented not only in the play but also celebrated in Zoë Rouse’s carefully curated set. It was a delight to see lampshades and cushion covers in Warlukurlangu Artists designs and clothing by Magpie Goose, with art by Karen Morgan, Janine Mandijalu and Pauline Sampi, all of whom live in Ardyaloon. Aboriginal artists also featured in Wil Hughes’s sound design, with the mournfully beautiful and haunting soundtrack to Aunty Molly’s funeral a particular highlight.
The manually operated rotating stage marks the passage of time, each crank coinciding with a new book club meeting. This circular motion may also be a nod to Aunty Colleen Wall, the play’s cultural consultant, who says in the program that “when acknowledging the local Spiritual Ancestors, I always move in a circular motion to surround us with protection”.
The passing of time is also denoted by Jason Glenwright’s lighting. The soft fades in and out allow for appropriate focus on each character, assisting in their development throughout the play. Heiss subverts stereotypes by giving Nadine, a white woman, an issue with alcohol, and Brehmer is devastating in her portrayal of a woman slowly succumbing to her addiction and the consequences associated with such a decline. Clanton’s performance as Xanthe finding out she has lost her long-awaited and wished-for baby is especially heart-wrenching, and Sean Dow, the sole man in the cast, nimbly switches between his roles as each of the tiddas’ partners.
The play takes every opportunity to educate its audience. Xanthe, Ellen and Izzy explain to their white tiddas, Nadine and Veronica, what it is like to grow up and live in Australia as Aboriginal women, the spelling of Blak and how this distinguishes them from other Black Australians, and the differences between Indigenous, Aboriginal and First People. They emphasise that First Nations people are not a monolith, and that even though Torres Strait Islanders had their land annexed to Queensland in 1879, it could just as easily have become part of Papua New Guinea.
The book club format provides a space for literary criticism, introducing the audience to several seminal works by Aboriginal authors, including Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby, Larissa Behrendt’s Legacy and Terri Janke’s Butterfly Song.
At times, the dialogue in these scenes seemed stilted, with more academic jargon than necessary, but the books were good jumping-off points for anyone wanting to read more work by Aboriginal writers.
There are also rebukes of a writing and publishing industry that still exhibits the same flaws as it did in 2014, when Heiss’s novel first appeared.
The number of published Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and editors is slowly increasing, and they are finally starting to get the recognition they have long deserved – such as Miles Franklin winner Lucashenko and this year’s Stella Prize winner Evelyn Araluen – but representation as a whole is lacking.
Aboriginal characters are still subject to tokenism and misrepresentation – that is, if they are present at all. Nadine’s passive-aggressive suggestions for the book group to feature one of her books echo the sentiments of those in the industry who wonder what all the fuss is about when it comes to Aboriginal literature.
Heiss’s adaptation also updates her book to cover contemporary movements and sentiments. Nadine’s complaint that it’s not just Black/Blak lives that matter, that all lives matter, is a refrain many of us have heard over the past few years. Nadine’s comment demonstrates the insidious nature of casual racism and juxtaposes with Veronica’s willingness to learn from and engage with her Aboriginal friends.
The play intersperses these and other important topics with Anita Heiss’s unmistakeable brand of humour. Jokes about vibrators, lube, sex with tradies, and the cliquey nature of school mums, are scattered alongside serious discussions of infertility, miscarriage, abuse and the death of a loved one.
It is with this fine balance of humour and sincerity that Tiddas emphasises the importance of Country to Aboriginal people, what it can be like when a family member is disconnected from their culture, and their duty to pass this culture on to their children. Roxanne McDonald is wise and humorous in her portrayals of Xanthe’s Noon and Izzy’s mother, respectively. As Noon, she is a comfort to Xanthe after her miscarriage, wordlessly welcoming the younger woman into her arms, and plays an important role in Xanthe’s acceptance of her loss. Izzy and her siblings all harbour a healthy fear and respect for their mother, highlighted to hilarious effect when Izzy tries to bribe her brother with $50 to break the news that she’s pregnant out of wedlock.
McDonald’s quiet and calm demeanour demonstrates the important role Elders play in grounding and guiding their communities, and highlights the strength and resilience of Aboriginal matriarchs.
Tiddas is, as Heiss says, a love letter to Brisbane. It is apt that the play premiered in Brisbane during the city’s recent festival, just before jacaranda season. The bouquet of jacaranda flowers that hangs from the ceiling is a homage not only to Meanjin, but also to the many sisterhoods that have been and will continue to be forged here.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Circle of trust".
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