• Wesley Enoch at the Ensemble theatre. (Supplied: James Marshall)Source: Supplied: James Marshall
Wesley Enoch speaks to NITV's 'Living Black' about white guilt, change the date and telling the neglected stories of First Nations people.
Ross Turner

21 Jan 2020 - 3:41 PM  UPDATED 24 Jan 2020 - 3:20 PM

There are some people in life who have a remarkable ability to tell a great story. To hold someone’s attention for a long time is a hard thing to do. Passion is the key to being successful in this.

Playwright and Sydney Festival Artistic Director Wesley Enoch is one of those people, and for him passion is a driving force. It helps him to tell the forgotten or neglected stories of Aboriginal people through new and creative mediums.

Enoch The Noonuccal Nuugi man has never been one to shy away from the spotlight; even from an early age. He has fond memories of taking to the stage purely to entertain an audience.

“I remember being in front of the audience. There was a little musical break, and I just started to improvise a dance in front of the whole school. It was outrageous. Can you imagine?” he said.

“Such an ego! And with the audience applauding; I knew I had them and it fed something in me.”

Not much has changed since then. The sound of applause are is still accompanying Mr Enoch and his works.

This year, as part of the Sydney Festival, he’s has been directing a new play titled ‘Black Cockatoo’.

Opening to a full house in early January, Mr Enoch was in his element.

Although not on stage this time, Mr Enoch’s work as a director and storyteller were on full display.

Seated in the middle of the audience, Mr Enoch was focussed; the wheels turning in his head as he critiqued character movements; always looking for new ways to improve the performance of the talented troupe of actors as they tell told the story of Aboriginal cricketing legend Johnny Mullagh. 

‘Black Cockatoo’ is another play in a long list of productions either written or directed by Mr Enoch. This is another where First Australians are put front and centre; having their stories told in a way that Wesley Mr Enoch describes as “insightful and emotional renderings of characters.”

“It’s these neglected stories that theatre can do so well. By telling them in these ways we can get closer to the human endeavour” he said.

There’s a strong sense of pride in the stories that the playwright has helped to tell. Some, such as the ‘Seven Stages of Grieving’ have gone on to have a lasting legacy.

“It’s been studied in schools pretty much every year since it was written,” Mr Enoch reflected.

“And you now get generations of people coming up and saying, ‘not only am I studying it at high school, but my parents studied it at high school’. And you go, ‘Oh geez, I'm feeling old.’

The initial response to ‘Seven Stages of Grieving’ was mixed when it was first written 25 years ago.

"It was interesting that people at the beginning didn't get it. Non-Indigenous people that is,” Mr Enoch said.

“Indigenous people though were extraordinarily connected. It was taking them on a journey [through grief] and then bringing them back up as a way of exorcising those spirits, getting them spoken onto the public records so that they could then move on.”

'Can they get off their guilt trip?'

But in the 25 years since the play came out, the concept of ‘white guilt’ is something that has become an increasing source of frustration for Mr Enoch, and something he believes needs to move onto the next stage of the “grieving” process in Australia’s history.

“Don't get me wrong. I love white people. Some of my best friends are white people. They're fine, there's not a problem with them” Mr Enoch said.

“But can they get off their guilt trip? They have to get off their guilt trip and get onto actually making a difference.

“Guilt's not very useful. If you sit there and wallow in your guilt, you're not going to get to the next step.

“How do you actually say, ‘what are the steps you're going to take? What are you going to do?’ I know there are people out there that would say ‘Oh, but Wesley it's a real guilt.’ Yeah, great, but that time's done. We've got to get on. Wallowing in the guilt is not going to be useful.” 

Yet Mr Enoch believes that it’s not just white people that should be looking inwardly.

“We [First Nations people] have to challenge ourselves to not be bitter. Because I think, Aboriginal Australia can be incredibly hemmed in by our bitterness and our grief,” he said.

“We need to break out of that too, and I know it's not easy. I'm not saying it's easy, but you've got to be able to step out of that or the destiny of yourself and your next generations is not good. You've got to take charge of it.”

Mr Enoch, who has the unenviable job of curating the various performances for the Sydney Festival, has the difficult task of balancing the expectations of white and black Australians around the difficult date of January 26th.

He said he feels that there needs to be better leadership around that the date that goes across the board.  

“What I really despise is the lack of leadership on what the 26th of January could mean or should mean. I think what we're experiencing, more so in the last decade is a real leadership lag” Mr Enoch said.  

“It’s leadership from everyone really. I think that black leadership needs to take a stronger sense of what the alternatives are. Here is something that exists now, and it can shift. What is it?”

Reflecting on his time as the Artistic Director for the Sydney Festival, Mr Enoch said he’s beginning to notice a shift in thinking from corporate Australia around what’s appropriate on January 26th.

“It’s interesting to watch sponsors say, ‘Oh look, I think we just need to step back from this a bit, because public opinion is turning,’ and you go, ‘great, corporate leaders know that we have to have a different conversation about the 26th of January’. But our political leaders seem to be really digging in deep around it,” he said.

'Let's not brush it under a carpet'

But the idea behind changing the date that Australia Day is celebrated on is something that Mr Enoch thinks requires some deeper thought.

“I've got this thing about change the date. I'm a bit agnostic about it because there are pros and cons on both,” he said.

“What I am worried about is, if you change the date, you also remove the spur to help us talk about it. Because we should be talking about the colonial history of this country. We should be saying what does 230 years look like?”

Mr Enoch said it’s our whole history that helps us know who we are.

“Let's not just brush it under a carpet and think that it can just exist without fully understanding. The 26th of January is an irrefutable historical event,” he said.

“It is also the attempt to have a national day. The historical event of the arrival of the first fleet, you cannot change. It is history. When I challenge the 26th of January, I go, ‘well, you can't challenge that. That's a historical fact’. What you can challenge is, is it a national day? and what's the long history of that national day? It's not a very long history at all.

“We're talking about 1994 that it was legislated to happen on that day. It was whatever long weekend we could make at the end of January. It was a very ad hoc thing up until 1994.”

Mr Enoch takes his inspiration for how to consider Australia Day from Cape York Institute director Noel Pearson, and the three narratives that he believes Australia is founded on - that Aboriginal people are the longest continuous culture on earth; that there was a British colonial project with institutions that have been inherited; and that Australia is now one of the most multicultural countries on earth.

 “These are not contradictory narratives,” Mr Enoch said.

“They live in every room you go into; those narratives exist in everything we do. But on the 26th of January, they seem to want to clash and fight. And what we need to do is lift that up.”

Mr Enoch said he is encouraged by the next generation.

“Oh they get it, they know what it's about, and they say, ‘okay, we need to do something about that. What is it? Let's talk about a First Nations perspective on land care for example.’ And they sit down, and they listen to elders, and they understand that,” he said.

To Mr Enoch, the future is bright. And his passion to keep telling stories of First Nations Australians continues to grow.

“By giving a voice and by telling a story, the population of the country and the world can play witness to our stories being told,” he said.

To hear more from Wesley Enoch and his thoughts on Australia Day and the 250th Anniversary of Cook's arrival in Australia, tune in to NITV's Living Black on Saturday January 25th at 6pm, stream it on SBS on Demand.

NITV presents a selection of dedicated programming, special events and news highlights with a focus on encouraging greater understanding of Indigenous Australian perspectives on 26 January. Join the conversation #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe