Ngapartji Ngapartji One

By Big hART, Written and directed by Scott Rankin

The Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse 25 Jul 2012

In the heart of the South Australia desert in 1956, the British Government, with permission from the Australian Government, carried out the first of many secret nuclear tests in reaction to the arms race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The site was Maralinga; described as a vast and empty space perfect for such experiments, but in fact inhabited by the local Maralinga Tjarutja Indigenous people.

While some effort was made to relocate the Indigenous people from the area prior to the explosions, many were exposed to the nuclear radiation caused by the fallout and become seriously ill – with the effects of this poisoning and dislocation still being felt by communities today.

This scenario forms the centerpiece for Ngapartji Ngapartji One (pronounced Nah-pah-gee Nah-pah-gee and translating roughly into ‘I give you something you give me something’) with Indigenous performer and co-creator of the show, Trevor Jamieson, piecing together the very personal story of how this event tragically altered the life path of his family.

Riding high on the tails of the hugely successful and critically acclaimed production of Namatjira at the Canberra Theatre Centre in 2011, Ngapartji Ngapartji One uses a now-distinct melange of media to get across both a political element, with Canberra a very strategic location, as well as educate the public on Indigenous cultures and world-views; this particular project focused on reviving Indigenous languages.

Incorporating traditional and contemporary songs (including Bob Dylan and David Bowie sung in Pitjantjatjara) and dance, visual art, film, comedy, drama, physical theatre and audience participation, this production continuously engages without overloading the audience. The feel is relaxed, honest and unpretentious, but compelling - like sitting by a campfire and learning from a master storyteller.

Starting off with some educational context on the past 60,000 years of Indigenous history, wrapped in some trademark ribbing humour, Jamieson then invites the audience to join in on a game of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes in Pitjantjatjara language (Kata, Alipiri, Muti, Tjina) with the supporting cast – consisting of Jamieson’s angel-voiced daughter Keischa, senior Pitjantjatjara choir women, Milyika Carroll and Renita Stanley, Japanese Butoh dancer Yumi Umiumare, actor Lex Marinos and musical director Damian Mason on acoustic guitar.

Wondering what a white Australian man with Greek heritage and a Japanese woman have to do with an Indigenous storyline, it soon becomes apparent that Ngapartji Ngapartji One goes beyond the confines of Jamieson’s family’s confrontation with nuclear experiments. Extending to the first victims of nuclear war at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and the Australian soldiers used as guinea pigs of nuclear radiation at Maralinga, this production elegantly and creatively weaves in these parallel experiences, deftly setting the wider political and historical context for the subject matter.

While Ngapartji Ngapartji One has toured the country before, Big hART’s close ties to the Canberra Theatre Centre has seen this production especially adapted for the ACT. As the ‘One’ suggests, Ngapartji Ngapartji One used to be a solo affair with Jamieson at the helm, however, when the supporting actors each showed a keen interest to be involved in the latest version, they were ‘written in’ on an ad hoc basis – to great effect.

The reworked script incorporating the supporting actors is nothing short of poetic, boldly going beyond the original content into more complex territory, to ultimately create a powerful and dynamic masterpiece. However, the show maintains its focus on Jamieson’s experience, and he should be applauded not just for his adaptability and extraordinary performance range, but also his generosity in opening up some very personal and painful wounds in order to shed light on injustice. 

To solidify Big hART’s relationship with the Canberra Theatre Centre, it was announced after the show that the company will take up residency there in 2013, with plans to create some original works as part of the Centenary of Canberra.

Founder of Big hART, Scott Rankin, also used the occasion to launch their new ‘Watercolours of Namatjira’ iPhone app, from which proceeds will go towards building an arts centre for Albert Namatjira’s descendants – proving that Big hART walks the walk as well as talking the talk. While their plays aim to educate the public on the issues faced by Indigenous people, Big hART’s raison d’etre is to use art as a vehicle for developing and revitalising Indigenous communities to help close the gap.

Ngapartji Ngapartji One is a prime example of exceptional social change theatre, with heartfelt and profound messages that linger with you long after leaving the theatre, while also helping to redesign the modern Australian identity to be more inclusive of those who have shaped this land long before ‘G’day’.

Deborah Hawke

When: Closed
Where: The Canberra Theatre Centre
Bookings: Closed