An opening night review of The National Black Theatre's Basically Black in the Sydney Morning Herald recognised the performance as a historical event, with critic Margaret Jones writing, “Black political theatre in Australia had its first serious airing this week when Aboriginal actors presented a savagely satirical revue to a packed and partisan Nimrod Street audience."
"For the first time, a predominantly white middle class audience was able to see black actors presenting their view of both black and white society, in a technique peculiarly their own.”
Basically Black grew out of the fiery combination of political activism and the performing arts that was embodied in the goals of the National Black Theatre (NBT). Spearheaded by actor and activist Bob Maza, who was inspired in part by a visit to the National Black Theatre in Harlem, the NBT advocated a grassroots approach to theatre that involved street performances, demonstrations, dance and workshops, based on a vision of theatre as 'for and by the people' whose struggles it sought to represent.
The NBT was headquartered at 181 Regent Street in Redfern. Organisations like the Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal Medical Service and Aboriginal Housing Service all operated in the same area. Carole Johnson was teaching dance workshops, the seed for what was later to become the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA).
NBT was embedded in this political and creative context. All theatre activities had a direct relationship and relevance to the Aboriginal community and broader issues of social and economic justice. Political struggle was at the heart of performance, and directly related to movements such as the Black Moratorium to save the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and ongoing land rights claims.
Lester Bostock, who was deeply involved in the black theatre movement as well as a pioneer of Indigenous media in Australia, described the aspirations of the NBT in New Dawn magazine in 1973. He said, “National Black Theatre was formed in 1972 to supply [Aboriginal] people with art forms to which they could relate. It grew out of political struggles…those who were not political celebrities found they could become involved as actors and dancers etc. and that they could show their convictions in this way."
"Many had not realised the political force that the theatre represented…”
He added, “An important point to keep in mind when we consider theatre is not whether is professional or amateur work, but that it is there performing to the people and giving expression to the interest and emotions of the people.”
The performance of the Basically Black revue at the Nimrod Theatre was a huge success, and caught the attention of the ABC, who produced a pilot episode for a proposed television version of the show in 1973. Far ahead of its time, the show wasn’t continued, perhaps considered too provocative for mainstream audiences in the 1970’s.
But it was truly groundbreaking, and the first all-Indigenous television program in Australia. As Bindi Williams describes in Darlene Johnson’s illuminating ABC documentary The Redfern Story (2014), “This show showed people that we knew what people were saying, and for us to perform it to other people showed them that we had another nature other than what was really thought about us at that time. It was a great forum.”
Fast-forward to 2016...
Sean Choolburra, Sani Ray Townson, Medika Thorpe and Darren Compton are with producers Rima Tamou and Pauline Clague, rehearsing at the Aboriginal Dance Theatre, Redfern for season two of NITV’s stand-up comedy show Express Yourself, which will provide a platform for established and emerging Indigenous stand-up comedians from across the country. The Express Yourself team all talk about the pioneers that paved the way to this point. As Sean Choolburra says, “When you see yourself on TV, it's literally thanks to the life of the first people, our black pioneers. The ones that were the first black faces on TV. After seeing that, then you're like, ‘Okay. I'm a face on TV.’”
NITV's Express Yourself is dedicated to the men and women of the legendary National Black Theatre, Redfern. - "May their spirit live on in the following generation of entertainers to come."