• Jada Alberts and Wayne Blair in The Long Forgotten Dream. (Supplied (Heidrun Lohr))Source: Supplied (Heidrun Lohr)
Howard Lawrence Sumner is now in support of a national Indigenous theatre company after claiming his most recent play was 'whitewashed' by a non-Indigenous director.
Tom Stayner

1 Aug 2018 - 3:16 PM  UPDATED 1 Aug 2018 - 5:28 PM

As playwright Howard Lawrence Sumner received a standing ovation for his play The Long Forgotten Dream, he says he was grieving inside.

Mr Sumner was troubled by changes made to his play he believes undermined the portrayal of the Indigenous characters, and is concerned the story was hijacked and misinterpreted by the non-Indigenous director. 

“The story is the story and that needs to be reflected in a way the Aboriginal writer wanted,” Mr Sumner told NITV News.

He cited decisions made to change way characters spoke to ‘countrify’ their language, and dressing women in flowery dresses typical of an outdated depiction of Aboriginal women.

“These women in my play are tough women, they’re articulate women. To see them put in flowery dresses as if they are mission girls is beyond understanding for me,” he said.   

The play examines a family trying to recover the bones of their ancestors from an English museum and the deep emotional scarring endured in this process. 

The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production stars Jada Alberts as an archeologist and Wayne Blair as her father, and was directed by veteran Neil Armfield. 

In a statement, STC said it "maintained a constant dialogue with [Mr Sumner] as changes were proposed". 

“Bringing new work to the main stage is always a challenging process," STC Artistic Director Kip Williams said in the statement.

"This is the case regardless of the cultural background of the writer, director and others in the creative team."

Director Neil Armfield said he is "immensely proud of the work" he and Mr Sumner created together.

Writer and actor Nakkiah Lui tweeted in defence of the theatre company for its history of presenting work by Indigenous writers - including her recent plays Black is the New White and Blackie Blackie Brown.

She said STC is "open to criticism and they genuinely listen because they are invested".

Mr Sumner said overall he admired work done by the STC, but the experience has made him reassess the need for Australia to have a national Indigenous theatre company.

"I was dead against anything like that I saw it as a form of separatism and didn’t understand the need for it,” he said.

“Until I put my material in the hands of non-Aboriginal companies and directors, and it’s a different thing when you look at it from the outside.”

But some are questioning why Mr Sumner also says the theatre industry is platforming works by Indigenous women playwrights, to the detriment of their male counterparts.

Actor Shari Sebbens wrote on Twitter: "Howard Sumner's idea that Aboriginal men are not being let into theatre is grossly exaggerated... You're hardly lacking in representation, mate."

"Howard Sumner is disgruntled because out of the last three Black playwrights to write for the STC two are women. Two. Out of three. So unjust."

She also says he is just the latest in long line of people to call for a National Aboriginal theatre.

Rachael Maza is the artistic director of the Ilbijerri Theatre Company, Australia’s longest running Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre company.

She says calls for a national Indigenous theatre program date back almost a decade.

“We have to as a country make the distinction between a work that has full cultural integrity, from beginning all the way to presentation,” she said

“At the heart of this conversation is we [want to create] a culturally safe space in which we have authority over the narrative,” she said.

Ms Maza said there is an increased risk of cultural biases and insensitivities seeping in if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not involved at every stage.

“It is critical that if we are to move forward as a nation, [that] First Nations people have authority over their own narratives otherwise false narratives will continue.”

Ms Maza questioned why Indigenous directors are not being offered opportunities to direct work by Indigenous writers when there is now a ‘fantastic pool’ of applicants.

“It is not an equal playing field out there, until we are on equal standing then sure you can direct our stories, we’ll direct your stories, I’ll play white fella, you play black fella whatever,” she said.

“It’s all open slather once we’re on an equal playing field - but we’re a long way from that.”

Playwright Wesley Enoch is one of those who has long been supporting a national Indigenous theatre company.

He said it would not have to be a centralised body but should instead share resources to artists across the country.

“When we all work together as Indigenous artists there is something different about that,” he told NITV News.

He said it's also important that all Indigenous artists stand up for each other.

“As Indigenous men we can’t find blame in Aboriginal women," he said.

“If anything Indigenous men have to lift their game to be just as good.”

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