Bob Maza AM 1939 – 2000
- Bob Maza AM 1939 – 2000
Bob Maza AM 1939 – 2000
Robert Lewis Maza was born on Palm Island in North Queensland on 25 November 1939.
He established himself as a musician and featured actor in television dramas such as Hunter and Homicide, but it was his continuing role as the articled clerk Gerry Walters in the ABC’s popular serial Bellbird that changed the way Indigenous people were portrayed in the media
Telling the black man’s story
A few months after Bob Maza died, his wife told an interviewer: ‘I think he felt really strongly about teaching through entertainment. I can remember when he was writing plays and he’d have a line that was really heavy, he’d say, “I can’t say that because I don’t want to bludgeon people. I don’t want them to hear that and get shocked and switch off.” And he always used to say you could teach people more by making them laugh than by making them cry. Not long after he passed away I was sent the video of Harry’s War. I couldn’t watch it at first.
But I watched it about six months later and it’s the best acting he ever did. It was just brilliant, and it was because he worked with an Indigenous director. He really liked Richard Frankland. And he loved working with Indigenous actors, directors, writers. He was so proud that he was part of something that was Indigenous. That’s what he always said: “Let the black man tell the black man’s story. We can do it. We just need to be given the chance.” He used to love it. It wouldn’t matter if they paid nothing, he’d still do it because he wanted to be involved.’
Robert Lewis Maza was born on Palm Island in North Queensland on 25 November 1939. His father came from Murray Island in Torres Strait and his mother was from the coastal Yidinjdji people, and he was reared to respect both cultures. Members of the isolated community often had to entertain each other – and it was this that engendered Maza’s love of both theatre and the arts.
Maza had virtually no formal training in the theatre. After rudimentary schooling in Cairns he worked as a manual labourer and later in an office in Darwin. In the late 1960s he moved to Melbourne, where he joined the Aboriginal Advancement League, shaped his political views, and determined to improve the status of Indigenous Australians. He established himself as a musician and featured actor in television dramas such as Hunter and Homicide, but it was his continuing role as the articled clerk Gerry Walters in the ABC’s popular serial Bellbird that changed the way Indigenous people were portrayed in the media.
In 1970 Maza was a delegate to the 25th United Nations Assembly to highlight the Third World status of Indigenous Australians. In New York he stayed with Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theatre of Harlem and in Canada he studied the work of the radical First Nations group. He returned home fired with the ambition to produce theatre that explored socio-political issues.
Back in Melbourne he and his friend, Koori actor Jack Charles, appeared in a breakthrough revuecalled Jack Charles is Up and Fighting. This was the inaugural production of Nindethana (‘a place for social gatherings’), a spin-off from the New Theatre Movement. Material for the revue came from Maza, Frank Hardy and Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal), among others; one of Maza’s contributions was a piece on the tragic Indigenous actor Robert Tudawali, the star of the film Jedda. New Theatre’s Dot Thompson directed. Jack Charles, with its confronting subtitle, ‘It’s tough for us Boongs in Australia today,’ played a short but successful season at Melbourne University’s Guild Theatre in March 1972; it was later seen at Monash University and at the Aboriginal Arts Seminar in Canberra, where the Tent Embassy had recently been established.
In mid 1972 Maza moved to Sydney to help establish National Black Theatre. As artistic director he told the press, ‘Black Theatre is geared to communicate with people, not just to entertain. We want to make people commit themselves to social responsibilities.’ National Black Theatre’s first production was the revue Basically Black, presented in November 1972 at the Nimrod Street Theatre. The cast included Maza and young actor and activist Gary Foley; Ken Horler directed. In The Australian, Katharine Brisbane described it as ‘an enjoyable and completely unpolished evening to be recommended to everyone.’ Its subsequent tour of Queensland met a far less friendly reception, though the ABC televised a version of the show in 1973. By then promised Federal funding had not materialised, and National Black Theatre was disbanded.
Maza was instrumental in setting up a replacement – the Aboriginal Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre in Redfern. It was opened by singer Harold Blair in July 1974, with Maza as artistic director. There, in January 1975, Maza tackled his first directorial assignment – the premiere of Robert Merritt’s only play, The Cake Man. Enormously successful, it was the first Indigenous play to be published, televised, and tour internationally. Later Maza directed Roger Bennett’s Up the Ladder (1989), Jack Davis’ No Sugar(1994) and Owen Love’s No Shame (1995).
As a stage actor Maza’s many credits included Eric Bentley’s Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been?(1976), Thomas Keneally’s Bullie’s House (1980) and Michael Frayn’s Clouds (1980) – all for Nimrod. On television he appeared in Women of the Sun (1981), A Country Practice (1982), Heartland (which he also co-wrote, 1994), A Difficult Woman (1998) and Wildside (1998). His major films include The Fringe Dwellers (1986), Ground Zero (1987), The Nostradamus Kid (1993), Reckless Kelly (1993), Lilian’s Story(1995) and Back of Beyond (1995). His plays include Mereki, Tiddalik, Rain for Christmas, and, most notably, The Keepers. Performed at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and at Belvoir Street Theatre in 1988, it was a passionate exploration of the destruction of the Buandig people of South Australia, and won Maza the National Black Playwright Award. His radio play Sugarbag was commissioned by the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse.
In 1981 Maza was an official delegate to the World Indigenous Festival held in Canada. His stature was acknowledged with membership of the Order of Australia in 1993. In 1995 he was appointed the first Indigenous commissioner of the Australian Film Commission. During his term (1995-98) he was instrumental in establishing the AFC’s Indigenous Unit. In 1998 he was awarded the prestigious Red Ochre Award. Presented by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council, the Red Ochre ‘pays tribute to artists who have made outstanding contributions to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture in the wider community, at both national and international levels.’ He also worked as Assistant Director of Studies at Tranby Aboriginal College at Glebe and lectured there in Indigenous Studies.
In 1981 Maza was an official delegate to the World Indigenous Festival held in Canada for Company B Belvoir, opposite Deborah Mailman as his daughter, Rosalind. Maza and Mailman were among four Indigenous actors in the cast. With typical enthusiasm, Maza said, ‘I imagine a lot of Koori high school kids will come along and watch and go, “Wow, it is a possible dream!”’
Bob Maza died on 14 May 2000. His wife, Kerry, said, ‘I think one of the special qualities that Bob had was that he always made people feel so important and he would never destroy anyone’s dream. They would talk to him about the most incredible things they wanted to do and he’d be so interested and really encourage people to do what they wanted to do. Three of Maza’s nine children, Ben, Rachael and Lisa, are pursuing careers in the performing arts.
To commemorate and celebrate Maza’s life and work, the Australian Film Commission’s Indigenous Branch has established the $10,000 Bob Maza Fellowship. This is awarded annually to an established Indigenous actor to fund his or her professional development. The fellowship must be used for international travel, further training or short courses at an international film training institution, or for meetings with agents, attending castings and establishing contacts in the international arena.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Maryrose Casey: Creating Frames, University of Queensland Press, 2004
Adam Shoemaker: ‘Bob Maza’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995