Life told from the other side

Right about the time the sun collapses into the afternoon and casts fairy floss shadows over the roof of an old timber church, a proud warrior named Jarrah stokes a fire and prepares to act out a narrow slice of his 60,000 year old story.

On the other side of the village-come-stage, a group of curious visitors amble in, prepared to walk in the footsteps of Australia’s First Nation’s people. Some of these visitors have been transferred from their Brisbane and Gold Coast hotels by the theatre guides. They already know that for the next 90 minutes the secrets, the shame, the healing and the hopes for the nation will unfold.

Barely two years old, Spirits of the Red Sand is an attraction that will change the way Australians feel about life in early Brisbane; or anywhere in Australia for that matter. Believed to be a first in Indigenous tourism around the globe, it is a roving theatre experience that travels through real building sets allowing the voices of direct descendants to re-enact a time in the 1800s when Western settlers claimed Aboriginal land as their own.

This is not a history that can be googled. But it is a fictional archive of time based on factual data, collective memory, and transcripts from court and government records.

For the visitor, the stroll from church to school house, and bora grounds to general store is like travelling in a Tardis. Visitors are deposited on pews and bleachers and watch from the sidelines as the central character, Jarrah, and his two Aboriginal brothers deal with colonial threats and clan issues.

Co-producer for Spirits of the Red Sand and master storyteller, Mike Tamaki, tapped into his forty years’ experience running the Tamaki Maori Village in Rotorua to co-create the Brisbane show. The difference here is a skew on education over pure entertainment.

“I started out (in New Zealand) entertaining. When I asked the audiences the tough questions, they didn’t come away with much,” says Mike who partnered with Uncle Eddie Ruska, a well-respected Nunukul Yuggera Elder to create the script.

“This is a journey for two cultures and a story of how they came together. I don’t think Australians have been given an opportunity to embrace Aboriginal culture. They’ve never been taught this. From the other side, the Aboriginal people didn’t really know how much to give.”

The show directly impacts the lives of some 30 Indigenous people from South East Queensland and provides a platform for them to tell their story. Apart from two characters, all roles are Aboriginal and are acted out by direct descendants from this land.

For Vanessa Clements, an Indigenous woman who works as a policy officer for the Department of Health by day, the chance to re-enact this time in early Brisbane history aligns with her passion for cross cultural education.

“I see the show as a bit of a game changer. If the everyday Joe in Australia saw this show and knew how we felt, it would change things. Until someone sees a show like this, you don’t get a different perception.”

“We are giving our ancestors a voice. They see the cast and say ‘finally!’,” says Vanessa whose five daughters aged between six and 19, are proud that she can pull off the role of such a “prim and proper religious woman”.

Mike believes this part of Australian history should be embraced to help all Australians to see themselves as they are.

“It’s part of our history. It is our story. We need to embrace it; good or bad. There is not one country in the world that has not had good and bad. But at the end of the theatre, all the actors come out together with both flags as a symbol of learning to live together.

“That’s a really key cultural message. There are vast differences between us, but if we take time out to understand each other, we can move forward.”

Sensitively handled, the roving theatre experience ends with a traditional feast – also prepared and served by an all-Aboriginal crew – on the veranda of a traditional homestead. Here guests sit down with the cast and can choose to continue the conversation and the cultural exchange.

That may include the chance to pop up to the kitchen and chat with Norm, the ‘amazing cook’, who is considered to be one of the last Aboriginal people released from a mission when he was a child. 

“I encourage guests to go up and talk to him,” says Mike. “He gives his story. And surprisingly, his perspective is not such a bad thing.”

Mike adds that the reactions to the tour have been positive with the Australian market proud to see Aboriginal people owning their experience. “They run it. They own it. It’s their story. So, it’s quite easy for them to tell. And, when it’s personal, it brings more of a truth home.”

“This is not a turn on, turn off. It’s not just entertainment.”

More: A roving theatre experience showing a slice of 19th century Aboriginal life
A roving theatre experience that re-enacts a series of true events (as told through the eyes of fictitious characters) at a time when western settlers claimed Aboriginal land. The roving drama experience is thought to be the first of its type in the Indigenous tourism world.

Performed in a 19th century historical village in Beenleigh, half-way between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, the focus of the attraction is on education using entertainment as the medium. The walk-through docudrama outlines the sometimes gritty struggle between two cultures as well as the conflict within one Aboriginal clan.

The stories are presented by an amateur cast and crew of some 30 local Indigenous people who are directly related to those impacted by the historical events. These “actors” are proud to have a platform to express their voices and their culture.

An Indigenous-inspired three-course supper and traditional dance allows guests to mingle with cast members and provides the opportunity to extend the conversation and the learning process.

Guests can opt for hotel pickups and drop offs and use the additional 30 minutes of drive time from Brisbane and the Gold Coast to candidly chat to cast members. No topic is off limits and this extends the cultural understanding.

The experience was created after Aboriginal Elder, Eddie Ruska toured the Tamaki Maori Village in New Zealand. They later met with founder, Mike Tamaki and worked to create a story suitable for the Australian market. Red Sands is a self-funded venture. 

The non-Indigenous Australian market makes up more than 50 per cent of the audience. The show can be confrontational and gritty, but it ends with unification and hope. It has an average TripAdvisor rating of just under 5 stars.

How much do you know about indigenous history? Given this is the Year of Indigenous Tourism, do you think you might seek out an indigenous experience?

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Written by Shelley Winkel

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