• Wesley Enoch. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
Acclaimed Playwright Wesley Enoch speaks with NITV’s Living Black host Karla Grant about how he overcame a troubled childhood to become one of our country’s most celebrated writers and directors producing some of the most compelling stories that speak about our nation’s past.
Karla Grant

Living Black
27 Apr 2020 - 5:56 PM  UPDATED 27 Apr 2020 - 5:56 PM

Wesley Enoch was born on Minjerribah, also known as Stradbroke Island, off the coast of south east Queensland.

It’s an idyllic place to grow up and Wesley has many wonderful childhood memories of time spent on the island with family.

“I have this memory of my father giving us a little bottle of vinegar, and a small knife and us going down to the rocks and just eating oysters off the rocks and this sense of seafood and abundance in that way,” he said.

“This idea of always going over on the barge, because when we were starting schooling, my parents moved us to the mainland so that we could go to school there. And this whole idea of travelling over on the barge and this salt water just coming through on your face, the wind on your face.”

“And I have this absolute memory of Aunty Kath, or Oodgeroo Noonuccal, we called her Aunty Kath, and her speaking at a wedding once. Her doing this poem and this uncle in the background just heckling the whole time.

"And the sense of, yes, the lofty heights of this incredibly powerful woman, this artist and political activist. And then, family members go, “No, you’re not that special. You’re just one of us!” So, there’s a sense of the island being all of those things put together and in many ways it’s full of memories.”

Mr Enoch is now based in Brisbane where he’s lived for many years. Maintaining a connection to his birthplace is vitally important to him. So much so, that he purchased a house on the island a few years ago so that he could maintain connection to the land of his ancestors.

“The connection for me is two-fold. One is, it gives you a sense of anchor, there’s things that are unexplainable, things I can’t actually understand enough about," he said.

"But every time I go home, go back to Straddie, there’s a real sense of belonging.

“But it’s also this energising thing that I can travel more because I know where I come from. I can go around the world, I can be in different festivals and art centres and seeing shows across the world as part of my job, because I know where I come from.

"And that’s one of those things that I pity a lot of non-Indigenous Australians who don’t have that sense of connection to place in that deep, deep way, that theirs might only be like six or eight generations of connection.

"But you go through, and you go, no, I’ve got thousands of generations of connections to this place in the waterways.

"There’s a powerful sense of that. And I love it when farmers, and nothing against farmers, “Oh we’ve been farming this land for four generations,” and you go, “Oh, yeah love, that’s good. That’s great. But four generations, that’s like you’re in your infancy in this landscape.” 

The proud Noonuccal Nuugi man comes from a close-knit family that he said, “has a very strong moral compass”.

He comes from a long line of dancers, singers, artists and politicians. All have had a strong influence on his life.

Most notably, his Aunty Kath Walker also known by her traditional Aboriginal name Oodgeroo Noonuccal has been a powerful influence in his life.

“I think this sense of what is political and what is cultural and how those two things come together," he said.

"Aunty Kath was Oodgeroo Noonuccal, was a very strong woman. I did a play, one of my acting, very rare acting moments in 1993, was in a play about her and her life.

"It was called One Woman's Song. And it had Deborah Mailman and Lydia Miller was in it, and David Hudson, Neokigal Bonner and a number of people.

"And I remember we were watching rehearsal, and she came, she was sitting there, very regal static, sitting there in this kind of way.

"And I was sitting on the floor beside her, I wasn't in the scene. She leaned across to me, and she said, "You know boy, we'll do it our own way. That's your job. We'll do it our own way."

"And from that, there was this real sense of imprimatur. And she knew who I was in many ways.” 

“Like we were sitting over a lunch table once, and she said, "I know you. You're like my son." Which I think was to mean, yes, you're a storyteller, but also to mean, I understand that you're gay and that's okay.

"There was a real sense of going, yeah, I can see who you are, and I see you for who you are and don't be afraid of that, go forward.

"And we went on and did a whole lot of stuff from that. But Aunty Kath was a very powerful. I remember I was in Melbourne when I heard the news that she had passed away, which was that same year, 1993.

"And I was driving at the time and I was overwhelmed with this sense of loss. And I just pulled over for a quick second, and it wasn't like it was tears, it wasn't a selfish grief, it was this sense of this, something had shifted in the world.” 

“And later on, I'd write a play about this notion of inheriting from those who've gone before you, that they leave a hole in the world.

"It's like you scoop out, and you throw away something from the ocean. You can't tell where it comes from, it's gone.

"But you know in your heart that's never coming back. So you have to step into that hole and say, "I will be that part of the ocean. I will speak with that voice that needs to be spoken with."

"And when my time comes that I have to go, who replaces me in that voice, maybe better, maybe stronger. This notion of being lifted up by the generations that are before us.

"I remember being told a story that on the night of her passing, a massive wave hit Point Lookout, and there was a sense of saying that they were taking her spirit at that moment. Which is beautiful.”

Surprisingly, Mr Enoch admits he was a troubled young man. It’s a complex story he reflects upon deeply.

“I was incredibly troubled. I think, my father was a very young father, so by the time he's 30, I'm 10, and he's still trying to deal with who he was," he said.

"My father told a story of his father, when my father bought his first car, my grandfather took it and smashed it into a tree as a sense of, you're not the man in the household, I am.

"That's what I read from this conversation. And I was going, "Whoa, what was this happening?” And so, these role models for Aboriginal men were troubled in themselves.

"My grandfather had gone to war, seen incredible hardship in Borneo. This notion of an Aboriginal man growing up in Queensland, how troubling that was.” 

“And my father, I think was troubled. He had an alcohol problem. He had anger issues. He had ways that he wasn’t ready for.

"And I don’t want to speak ill of my father, but this is all part of my forging of him. To understand that he was this young man who was forced to leave school at 10, who had to earn money.

"He put food on the table with his father and his brothers. And his sense of the world was being challenged by people like me.

"And not that he’d never met a gay man before but noticed in me things that he didn’t like. And so, there were these tensions as a young boy about my own masculinity, my own sense of who I was becoming. My sense of my education and what that meant.” 

“And it was playing out in me in lots of different ways. Rejection of him, rejection of male role models, pushing back and anger.

"I remember in year seven, the story that I tell of picking-up the school table and hurling it at a teacher, and this incredibly furious fire that was in me over things that I think were injustice, things that I thought needed changing and things that I needed to be there making things happen.

"And it wasn’t until I saw my father become a grandfather that I think I really relaxed in myself and saw his changes and saw him becoming the man I always wanted. So, the anger was a lot of stuff.

“And the violence I was on a pathway. There were two paths. This idea of the destructive path of which I know I would have done terrible things to myself and others or this more constructive way.

"And the constructive way was about making sure my story was being told and about being part of the storytelling of the world.

"So, in many ways that’s what fuels my anger now. And I do have anger, I have big anger issues. But the way I do it is by saying how do you make sure there’s honest things being told? How do you fuel a world that needs justice exercised in it and you have more constructive ways that, that anger can be expressed? "

Ultimately it was the theatre that provided a focus and pulled him out of this dark time in his life.

“I remember my mother holding me while I was kind of raging once, and she was saying “You know I love you. I love you, I love you.” And I went off to get analysed and the doctor said that I was a very creative brain, and very ordered and things, and that I should get into computers," Mr Enoch said.

"And my mother said, “Computers, that doesn’t sound right.” We’re talking about the 70’s and early 80’s. And this notion of going, computer was not a thing.

"And so, when I showed some interest in this school drama, I had a big voice, I was prepared to project and do all that stuff. I got into drama, and my mother just fanned that flame.

"And my father did too, funded it, so there was a sense of getting into amateur theatre and student theatre, and it just grew from there.

“And to be honest, it became an obsession. This notion through all my high school years in particular, it changed me when I moved from primary school to high school, I was a different person.

"This is going to sound silly, but I never used to wear my socks up, because you had to in those days, I used to always crush them down.

"But when I went to high school, I wore my socks folded neatly up. To say that I can be part of the system. I can survive the system, it’ll be okay.

"That I didn’t have to rebel against everything. I could wear my socks up. Not that we had shoes much in summer in primary school. But there’s this thing about being part of the system.”

From here there was no turning back. As Wesley gained confidence, he went from strength to strength studying a Bachelor of Arts in Drama at the Queensland University of Technology and set up the Kooemba Djarra writing and directing plays with many of our most talented actors in the country such as Deborah Mailman.

Storytelling is Wesley’s passion. He tells me he is attracted to the forgotten and neglected stories that speak about our country's past.

He’s written and/or directed some of the most powerful plays that have left a legacy like the Seven Stages of Grieving, Black Diggers, Stolen and the Sapphires. He’s also been known for re-contextualising non-Indigenous plays like Black Medea and Mother Courage, telling those stories through an Indigenous perspective.

Wesley is also known for taking on big creative roles. Most notably he was creative consultant, segment director and Indigenous consultant for the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.

Ensuring that the Indigenous narrative was prominent on the international stage and for ceremony to take place in correct context. He was also very mindful of what was happening outside the stadium.

“I remember talking to the organiser saying, “you have to create a space for protest because it’s not about only one way of breaking this down.” It’s actually about saying, “what people have to say in a protest way is just as important as what we’re saying in the stadium.” How do you create spaces for that, that are non-violent and this whole idea of creating multiple cultural conversations? And I think that it’s a uniquely, well no, it’s not unique, but I think an Aboriginal experience of this country, is one where we can hold contradictory ideas as the truth," he said.

"We can say we are the longest continuous culture on earth and still be denied that we even exist. Those two truths sit side by side for us.

“We can still be expressing our cultural perspectives and cultural business inside the stadium for an international audience and be speaking from a soapbox outside the stadium about the things that need to shift and change.

"That is a continuum, it isn’t one against the other. And the more we feel that everyone’s working towards that, the better too. And the more respectful we are.”

As this year's Sydney Festival Director, it has been one of Wesley’s roles to bring an Indigenous perspective to the 250th anniversary of the landing of James Cook.

“For me, these anniversaries are meaningful and what we say about them is important. And what I’m not hearing at the moment is, I hear how it's being used as a colonial narrative, but not as a sense of how we as First Nations Australians view this," he said.

"And we're not being asked. And this is a much broader issue about the voice, the voice to parliament, the voice to the general public, our cultural voice.

"Are we seeing more and more of this threatened narrative of the colonial past? They feel threatened somehow, so they don't want us to actually express our sovereignty, express our ongoing custodianship and connection to land, because they don't have it.

"And so, when they come in and somehow Cook by planting a flag, raising a flag and saying a few words, that means that that's a meaningful act.

"When there are centuries and millennia of us being here. We got to see things in context. And I want the government who are promulgating the whole Cook thing to understand that things cannot be seen as just one single vision.” 

“The idea of this Cook Anniversary for me is, I'm taking it as an opportunity to put up a mirror to society and to say, just look at yourself and think about what a flag raising 250 years ago, what it did? And how we have changed, and how much change we have to still do into the future.”

“And in many ways my job while I've got a microphone is to get up there and to speak stories that I know were truthful.

"Not everyone will agree with it. There will be conversation and debate. There will be argument. There will be people feeling bad, there will be people feeling good.

"But it doesn't mean that you don't step up and have a go. And I think if anyone's out there listening and watching, the big thing is, we have microphones, we have a voice, we need to speak our story strong and proud and we need to step up.

"Because the alternative is that we disappear, and they win. They smooth the dying pillow and they win. Our job is to make sure we all win, by making sure these stories don't disappear.”

Not one to shy away from putting his point of view across, Mr Enoch has some strong opinions on how we can create a shared future.

“I think the shared understanding is important and also the acknowledging of our power, of our responsibility to our power," he said.

"That power coming from our landscape, coming from multiple generations of connection. And the idea that we have things to share that.

"It’s mind numbing actually in a world where we’re talking about climate change. First Nations actually have the knowledge to help you deal with it.

"So, come talk to us, we know how to deal with that. There's the Royal Commission into Aged Homes at the moment, you go, we know how to deal with that.

"We've been dealing with that for generations. How the elders and young people work together and how families work, we know how to do that.

"Come to us, we've got lessons to teach you. It's not us with our hand out asking for money and resources all the time, it's us saying, we have things to offer.

“So for us, we have to value the things that are important. For non-Indigenous Australia they have to recognise that it’s not just a power differential, that they have power and we may not, it’s actually that we have knowledges that they don’t have.

"And we are the keys to that knowledge, so come to us.”

Karla Grant speaks with playwright and Sydney Festival Creative Director Wesley Enoch about his life, inspirations, his love of storytelling and what the 250th anniversary of Captain Cooks landing in Australia means for our collective culture. Living Black, tonight, 8.30pm on NITV