Two-and-a-half years ago Ursula Yovich found herself travelling back to her mother’s hometown of Maningrida in Arnhem Land to arrange her funeral.
Despite being raised by her Serbian father in Darwin, at a distance from her mother and her traditional culture, Ursula was thrown into organising a traditional funeral ceremony.
It was a confronting process that provoked her to question- ‘am I really Aboriginal?’
“I identify as that and when people look at me they go ‘oh you're Aboriginal’,” she says.
“There was a lot of identity questions and [feelings of] abandonment, you know, I didn’t grow up with my mother and yet I still have a connection with her,” she says.
This story is the basis of Ursula’s pitch for a play that explores being caught between two worlds and the complexities of Indigenous traditional funeral ceremonies that’s taken out this year’s Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright’s award.
Ursula says her story is both about a broader clash of cultures, with the western world infringing upon Arnhem Land, and her personal journey of ‘being the child of an Aboriginal woman and a white father, and living in a western world and not fully understanding the importance of this particular ceremony’.
The $20,000 prize - with a $7500 cash prize and $12,500 to go towards commissioning the play- has helped past winners such as Leah Purcell and Nakkiah Lui develop unique Indigenous stories for the stage.
Ursula is already one of Australia’s most well-loved performers across stage and television, nominated five times for the Helpmann Awards - winning once in 2007, and appearing on-screen in 'Australia', 'Jindabyne' and 'Redfern Now'.
While she has written before - debuting her one-woman cabaret show 'Magpie Blues' in 2009, and currently working on her first co-written play 'Wildheart' - this will be her first solo effort at play writing.
“I was a little bit shocked that I got it,” she says.
“I'm not someone that's been around for a long time with regards to play writing… it’s daunting but I'm also excited at the same time because I would really like to tell this story.”
Hamish Balnaves, General Manager of the Balnaves Foundation, says he’s excited about helping Ursula bring her story to the stage, and he believes her story about mixed cultural heritage is something that ‘much of Australia can relate to’.
The Balnaves foundation was set up in 2006, to provide support to organisations with a focus on young people, the disadvantaged and Indigenous communities, with this particular award launching in 2011.
“I really believe for real reconciliation to happen the whole Australian population really needs to understand Indigenous history, culture, customs and also the issue that are happening today, and I believe theatre can do that,” says Hamish.
“It can change people’s hearts.”
Ursula thinks most people can relate to her tale of losing a loved one and navigating complex personal or cultural concerns during a funeral.
However, she hopes Indigenous audiences will take away something deeper.
“I would really love countrymen to come in and… understand I guess, that for those of us that aren't completely involved in our culture, how difficult it is for us to navigate our way between the worlds.”