Jack Davis AM BEM 1917 – 2000
- Jack Davis AM BEM 1917 – 2000
Jack Davis AM BEM 1917 – 2000
Author, actor and activist Jack Leonard Davis was born on 11 March 1917 in Perth, Western Australia.
Words fascinated him; he wrote his first poetry at 14 and continued to scribble verse on scraps of paper.
From 1966 until 1971 he was director of the Aboriginal Centre in Perth, and in 1971 he was the first chairman of the Western Australian Aboriginal Lands Trust.
Australia’s Aboriginal Poet Laureate
Katharine Brisbane, whose Currency Press published most of Jack Davis’s plays, described himas Australia’s ‘most influential black playwright, although he was not the first. He inspired other Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to use the stage as a forum for communicating with white people. He understood storytelling and he was always political, whether writing poetry, articles for journals or plays – but with plays he found he could get at people’s emotions.’
Jack Davis was 61 years old when his first full length play, Kullark, premiered at the tiny Titan Theatre in Perth on 21 February 1979. Kullark drew on his six decades of life experience; it also marked the evolution of Indigenous oral story-telling tradition into a new, written form. But Kullark was not the first Indigenous play staged in Australia – that was Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers in 1971 – nor was it Davis’s first experience as a writer.
Author, actor and activist Jack Leonard Davis was born on 11 March 1917 in Perth, Western Australia, the fourth child in a family of eleven. Both his parents, he recalled, were great storytellers. He spent his early childhood in the Western Australian mill town of Yarloop, where his father worked in the timber mill. After his primary schooling, Davis and his siblings were sent to the harsh Moore River Native Settlement. Its abject brutality would inform much of his later writing. His hobby was reading his only book – an English dictionary. Words fascinated him; he wrote his first poetry at 14 and continued to scribble verse on scraps of paper. He also developed an interest in the local Nyungar Aboriginal language, which he eventually mastered, along with a deep knowledge of the tribal culture.
After many years as an itinerant worker and stockman in the northwest, Davis returned to Perth, where he became involved in Aboriginal causes. From 1966 until 1971 he was director of the Aboriginal Centre in Perth, and in 1971 he was the first chairman of the Western Australian Aboriginal Lands Trust. He was also able to devote more time to his writing. His first book, an anthology of poetry called The First-Born, was published in 1970; excerpts were recorded by actor Leonard Teale and released in 1973 – the first Aboriginal poetry on record. Jagardoo: Poems from Aboriginal Australia followed in 1978. From 1972 until 1977 Davis was managing editor of the Perth-based Aboriginal Publications Foundation. Identity, its quarterly journal, became the most important and influential Aboriginal ‘voice’ in Australia.
Davis began experimenting with theatre as early as 1972. ‘I was extremely interested in the prospect the medium presented,’ he recalled. ‘Theatre offered an opportunity to use all the talents of speech and body movement present in Aboriginal oral literature and dance since time began. It was an exciting way of reaching a wide audience. I started writing a play called The Steel and the Stone.’ The finished result was far too long, but a section of it had a week’s run at the Bunbury Arts Festival with Davis’s niece, Lynette Narkle, in the cast.
In 1975 Davis attended a workshop organised by Brian Syron at the Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre in Redfern, Sydney. His participation resulted in The Biter Bit, about a group of country Aborigines who venture to Sydney, where they succeed in conning a con man.
In 1976 Davis began working with Andrew Ross, the newly appointed head of the National Theatre Company in Perth. It was this association that resulted in Kullark, an Aboriginal view of the first contact between whites and blacks. It was included in Ross’s National Theatre Company of Western Australia Theatre-in-Education program to coincide with the state’s celebration of 150 years of settlement and gave Aboriginal actor Ernie Dingo his first major role. The play was controversial but it toured the state and the wide acceptance it found encouraged Davis to begin work on another play.
Davis returned to themes he had explored in The Steel and the Stone, developing the depiction of the lamentable history of the Moore River Settlement where he had spent some of his unhappiest days. After months of workshopping, the Swan River Stage Company premiered the new version of The Dreamers at Perth’s Dolphin Theatre on 2 February 1982 as a highlight of the Festival of Perth. Andrew Ross directed. ‘We were all pretty well untrained actors,’ said Davis, ‘but most of the cast had lived the life portrayed in the play; all they had to do was relax and be themselves.’
In 1983 The Dreamers was remounted by the National Theatre Company of Western Australia and the Australian Elizabethan Trust for a four-month eastern states tour, with Ernie Dingo as Eli. The run concluded with a triumphant season at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse. ‘As I had hoped,’ said Davis, ‘there was something in The Dreamers for a wider Australian audience – and there was a fair sprinkling of fur coats and diamonds. Those 30 Opera House performances will always stick in my memory and are a highlight of my career.’ The Dreamers was the first Aboriginal play seen in the United Kingdom: it had a four-week season as part of the 1987 Portsmouth Festival – ironically during a re-enactment of the launching of the First Fleet. It has been revived many times.
Jack Davis’s next play, No Sugar, depicted the forcible relocation of 90 Aborigines to the MooreRiver Settlement during the Depression years. Directed by Andrew Ross, it premiered on 18 February 1985 at The Maltings in North Perth in a production by the Western Australian Theatre Company for the Festival of Perth. The piece was presented as part of the World Theatre Festival at Expo ’86 in Vancouver; it was also seen in Ottawa and, in 1988, at Riverside Studios in London. There have been several notable Australian revivals. No Sugar received the Australian Writers’ Guild Awgie as Best Play of the Year and the Ruth Adney Koori Award.
In 1988 Davis was appointed artistic director of Marli Biyol Theatre Company in Perth. His next play, Barungin (Smell the Wind) premiered at the Playhouse in Perth on 10 February 1988 in a Marli Biyol Company production directed by Andrew Ross for the Perth and Adelaide Festivals. Though this was critical of white Australia’s attitudes, it did not shy away from depicting Aboriginals’ own weaknesses; it also made powerful statements about poverty, alcoholism and Aboriginal deaths in custody – all in the context of Australia’s bicentennial. Together, No Sugar, The Dreamers and Barungin formed The First-Born trilogy, first presented by the Marli Biyol Company at the Fitzroy Town Hall in Melbourne on 5 May 1988 in association with the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Western Australian Theatre Company. In The Australian, Dennis Davison welcomed the portrayal of what he called ‘the hidden side of Australia’: ‘The main impression of the trilogy is an authentic portrayal of everyday living, acted so naturally that we are absorbed … Davis is neither sentimental nor didactic but an honest realist.’
Jack Davis’s later plays included In Our Town (Marli Biyol/WATC, 1990) which dealt with racial bigotry, and Wahngin Country (Black Swan Theatre for the Festival of Perth, 1992), a heart-wrenching monodrama of life on the fringe.
As well, Davis wrote two plays expressly for youngsters, Honey Spot (Come Out Festival, Adelaide and Next Wave Festival, Melbourne, 1988, and later in the United States, Canada, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and Moorli and the Leprechaun (WATC/Marli Biyol at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, 1989), and two for puppet groups, Rainmaker (Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Perth, 1990) and Widartji (Polyglot Puppet Theatre at the Athenaeum, Melbourne, 1990). Davis’s verse anthologies included John Pat and Other Poems (1988). Probably Davis’s most famous poem, ‘John Pat’, chronicled the death of a boy in Roebourne police lock-up in 1983 – an event that led to the royal commission on black deaths in custody. The poem was later set to music by Archie Roach. Davis’s memoir, A Boy’s Life, written with Keith Chesson, was published in 1991.
Davis received a British Empire Medal in 1976, the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award in 1984, the Order of Australia in 1985, and honorary doctorates from the Murdoch University and the University of Western Australia, where he established a course for Indigenous writers. And the Western Australian arts minister awarded the accolade of ‘State Living Treasure’ to a man who decades before had been imprisoned in Carnarvon for breaching a curfew designed to limit Aboriginal presence in the town.
Jack Davis died in Perth on 17 March 2000, widely mourned in both the Indigenous and white communities. His was a special talent: the ability to sympathetically encapsulate the differences between generations of blacks and between blacks and whites. He had an uncanny ear for reproducing the subtleties of the spoken word and he told even the most harrowing stories with a generous measure of humour and irony. Aborigines, he said, ‘learnt to keep themselves alive by laughing’.
Davis was survived by his wife, his son, and several siblings. His sisters Dot, Barbara and Judith also made stage appearances, and Western Australia’s only Aboriginal theatre company, Yirra Yaakin, produced a play about their lives. Widely accepted at home and abroad, Davis’s plays provided a showcase for a generation of Indigenous actors, including Davis’s niece, Lynette Narkle. In his last two years, Davis co-wrote a play, Triangle, with his wife Madelon. A working draft was completed before his death.
Davis also provided inspiration and encouragement for other theatre-makers – Jimmy Chi, for instance. The Western Australian-based Deaths in Watch committee described him as the 20th century’s Aboriginal Poet Laureate.
Perhaps, had he lived longer, Davis would have written about the saga of his rediscovered son, Nick Davies – his surname taken from his non-Aboriginal adoptive parents. Jack and Nick did not meet until 1983, when set designer Robert Juniper recognised that they shared similar facial features. Nick was then 14. He has since graduated from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. He lived with his father during his last illness, and undertook to complete Triangle.
‘The biggest thing dad ever taught me,’ says Nick ‘is that you always have to fight racism with your head, not your fists. Contradict. Always look for the contradictions. I hate the ideology of “Look at me. I’m black and I’m oppressed.” I just bloody hate that.’
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Maryrose Casey: Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre,University of Queensland Press, 2004
Keith Chesson: Jack Davis – A Life Story, Dent, 1988
Jack Davis: A Boy’s Life, Magabala Books, 1991
Adam Shoemaker: ‘Jack Davis’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Photograph courtesy Performing Lines