A New Zealand production of the successful musical adaptation of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert has come under fire this week after the producer cut the Aboriginal role of Jimmy, played by the late Alan Dargin in the original production, claiming that there were no Aboriginal actors to fill the part.
Producer Gary McQuinn has told Maori Television that when an Aboriginal actor couldn't be found, or having white actors painting up and pretending to be Aboriginal, the production was better off to exclude the character from the show altogether.
"When we started this and frankly we cut it because somewhat we were embarrassed. We had Jimmy who was played by an Aboriginal performer and we've generally to the extent, thought it was possible, that we persisted in that Jimmy role and you know brutally honestly, when we can't find an Aboriginal to play that role which happens throughout the world like playing in Spain, that's a challenge okay, we don't have it,” McQuinn said.
For the thousands of Aboriginal actors working in the industry this admission and eventual omission of this part based on not being able to find someone to fill the role feels like a painful, even ridiculous oversight. In the Australian production, Aboriginal actor Kirk Page played the part of Jimmy but finding someone to fill the role in New Zealand proved to be seemingly difficult for the producer.
"It's the sad state of our artistic nation when this production that has cemented itself in the lexicon of Australian cinema and Australian theatre since the early 1990s, proclaims that there are 'No Aboriginal actors' for this designated role that was in the original productions and script from the start," Sydney based Gamilarray actor, director and writer Colin Kinchela told NITV. "Someone in the production and casting departments needs to be replaced, if that is what he/she/them are insisting!"
I thought it was a joke, when I first spied this on the internet. I'm shaking my head. It's incredulous. But as history has taught us, us Blackfullas have had to assert ourselves to be noticed.
Fellow Kuku-Yalanji/Wemba Wemba actor Bjorn Stewart told NITV that it was not hard to find someone if the intention was there, reeling off numerous names of successful Indigenous actors currently appearing on stage and screen.
"There are hardly any male Aboriginal actors. I can only think of probably, Steven Oliver, Billy McPherson, Jon Bell, Kirk Page, Stephen Page, Hunter Page, Mark Cole Smith, Wayne Blair, Ernie Dingo, Dean Daley Jones, Zac James, Aaron McGrath, Mathew Cooper, Meyne Wyatt, Damion Hunter, Kelton Pell, Bruce Carter, Isaac Drandic, Ian Michael, Trevor Jamieson, David Gulpilil, Luke Carroll, Jack Charles, Aaron Pedersen, James Slee, Adam Briggs, Colin Kinchela ... Oh and myself, Bjorn Stewart. That's just off the top of my head. There are plenty of Aboriginal actors out there, heaps more. It's just a Google search away. There is no excuse to whitewash stories that involve Aboriginal characters," Stewart told NITV.
With an obviously wide and rich talent pool to select from, it begs the question as to why the reason was given for excluding this character. Despite New Zealand existing abroad, the role of Jimmy in the original production was a popular one and important to the story line and perhaps if a company chooses to take on the stage production, it's a given that international cast members will have to be considered.
Quinn told Maori Television that they would fake their Aboriginal chorus line in the past, when they were unable to find a suitable actor, "We were looking at it and thought, seriously we're doing a show and we got white performers upstage behind our beautiful drag queens pretending to be an Aboriginal community. You can't do that," he added.
NITV also spoke to Wiradjuri/Gumbaynggirr actor Tysan Towney who has performed in theatre and TV, also recently ABC’s Cleverman. “I just found it weird they’d make that excuse [for cutting the Jimmy character], there are so many talented Indigenous actors out there hungry for unique roles. It’s really disappointing and I can only assume they didn’t look very far, if at all."
We could have an international voice for some of our community [that was previously in the film] but in this instance, it sounds like we weren’t considered.
Producer Garry McQuinn was contacted by NITV for comment but had not responded at the time of publishing.