There was a strong yet calming breeze blowing through the dry wild bush grass surrounding the mission fringes, making a rhythmic rustling sound.
Six-year-old Sandra Greenwood, a Gumbaynggirr, Dunghutti, Bundjalung girl lays within the gentle rustle of the Bowraville mission grass, looking to the sky. Her large almond-shaped eyes are bright with anticipation; the world is vast and her dreams are starting to form.
Life was simple, despite moving back and forth from Bowraville Aboriginal Mission on the mid-north coast of NSW to Byron Bay, 300 km north. Greenwood’s memories of her youth are filled with playing with her cousins, dressing up and claiming she’s going to be 'a star one day', collecting pippis on the beach with her mother and aunties, playing music around the fire with family and listening to stories told by her Elders— being warned to be home by dark before the ‘hairyman’ gets her.
Now, at 37, and an award-winning First Nations performer, Greenwood has returned home from living in Los Angeles to perform her debut one-woman show Matriarch, written and produced by Greenwood and selected as part of this year’s ‘Deadly Fringe’ program at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
Greenwood has appeared on stages for the country's top theatre companies including the Sydney and Queensland Theatre Companies and Ilbijerri, the longest running Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre. She has also worked internationally with the Seattle Theatre Company and gained roles in film and television including in the Britsh-Australian feature Killer Elite with big name stars Robert DeNiro and Jason Statham.
Weaving together the intricate lives of four generations of Gumbaynggirr women, Matriarch is an intimately personal piece paying homage to Greenwood’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother by exploring the direct bloodline of both beauty and trauma she was born into.
Over the years Greenwood has taken a lot of risks, being open and oftentimes vulnerable, in her persistent pursuit of a career in the entertainment industry. Having completed a drama honours degree through the Queensland University of Technology and studying theatre at the Atlantic Acting School in New York, she has weathered the ups and downs of the, at times, brutal industry and feels she has learnt lessons in both resilience and belief in herself.
“[Matriarch] is about honouring my matriarchs; the strong and graceful women of my direct lineage; I am my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother,” Greenwood told NITV.
Although I was born with an innate and beautiful connection to country and culture through my mother’s ancestry, I was also born with trauma.
“Over the years I’ve realised that intergenerational trauma is a very real thing. Although I was born with an innate and beautiful connection to country and culture through my mother’s ancestry, I was also born with trauma.
“A dormant trauma that hasn’t been processed effects the next generation, Matriarch explores the themes of the intergenerational effects of the stolen generation, looking at four generations of Gumbaynggirr women from the 1940s to the present day.”
Greenwood’s solo show will also provide a glimpse of what it means to be a fair-skinned, black woman in modern Australia.
“As a fair-skinned, black woman who looks white but was raised black, I have always existed between two worlds.”
The eldest of three, Greenwood was raised by her strong single mother, Lauren Jarrett, a member of the stolen generation and a visual artist; her father, a non-Indigenous man who struggled with addiction and was in and out of jail throughout her childhood. Her sister, Melissa, is a weaver and an artist, and her younger brother Minjarrah is a hip-hop performer with band Indigenoise. Greenwood’s uncle is the legendary country music icon Troy Casser-Daly.
“I was born into a very creative family; there are many musos and artists in my family,” she says.
“I was the drama queen from the day I was born, and I dreamt of going to Hollywood from a young age. I studied ballet, jazz and tap as a kid and I got right into drama class at high school…I always knew I wanted to be a performer.”
Suffice to say that performance runs in Greenwood’s blood as she taps into the striking beauty of her Gumbaynggirr culture, applying both traditional and contemporary lenses to her piece. Matriarch is a multi-disciplinary creation incorporating dance, music, story, traditional language and multimedia.
Greenwood’s one-woman show is as much a healing journey as it is a staunch tribute to First Nations women in general; their ‘strength, dignity, sense of humour, community ways and resilience.’
“Healing comes from telling my matriarch story, it’s essentially a history piece…it’s a form of spiritual repair,” she said.
“For me existing between two worlds has meant I’m always trying to find the balance between these worlds— going back to country, staying connected to cultural ways, spending time with family, honouring my ancestors and healing yet also trying to get a foot hold in this capitalist society, I am also ambitious and driven.”
“The idea [for Matriarch] manifested in drama school where I wrote a twenty-minute piece called Burri Burri woman (Rosella woman) about coming into womanhood as a young Aboriginal woman and the effects that growing up with a stolen generation mother had on me…”
“I knew I wanted to revisit that piece and develop it; it took me sixteen years to go there again…”
And the in-depth and deeply personal Matriarch is the striking result.
Matriarch runs 22-29 September at North Melbourne Town Hall. For more information go to Melbourne Fringe Festival.