Reinvigorate black theatre with troubled youth, urges Uncle Jack

Uncle Jack
Photo: Bindi Cole.

Troubled Indigenous youths should be sent to theatre workshops rather than jail, says Uncle Jack Charles, the award-winning actor, Aboriginal elder and National Treasure who has had his own past brushes with the law.

As he prepares to celebrate his 73rd birthday next week (Sept 6), Uncle Jack says Indigenous theatre in Australia has lost some of the momentum of past decades and needs to be re-invigorated.

He says the arts can bring about social change and give young people who are struggling a focus — as it did for him.

In his home state of Victoria, he says many young people in country towns have nothing to gravitate towards because community centres have been sold off or abandoned.

“They are coming home from school, running amuck because there is no central place for them to go to,” he says.

“We need to have workshops in places like Horsham, Shepparton, Mildura, Swan Hill.

“I’m sure magistrates and judges would dearly love to have a building, an organisation, a workshop run by Indigenous people to send their charges to rather than jail them.

“They can do their community-based orders directly here. People coming out on parole can do their parole or whatever is required at Indigenous community centres.”

Uncle Jack, Victoria’s Senior Australian of the year, will celebrate his birthday on stage at A Night with Uncle Jack show at Trades Hall in Melbourne on Tuesday night and then at the Old Castlemaine Gaol on September 9.

In his 70s, the grandfather of Indigenous theatre in Australia is showing no signs of slowing down.

He says he has a dream that the National Black Theatre company that was based in Redfern in Sydney in the 70s can be reborn. The theatre grew out of political struggles and its famous students included a golden age of Indigenous talent including Jack Davis, Freddie Reynolds, Maureen Watson and Lillian Crombie.

It is more than 40 years since Uncle Jack himself co-founded Australia’s first Indigenous theatre company, Nindethana, in Melbourne in 1972.

“Here in Melbourne we haven’t got a black theatre,” he says. “We need to get back to basics and get that underway again.

“Funding is pretty tight now in the arts so I don’t see it happening any time soon, but nonetheless we should push.

“I have a great dreaming that in Redfern the National Black Theatre can be reborn on the same site and let’s start again. There are a lot of great stories that can be told via the stage and music.

“Yirra Yaakin is about the only one I know, the black theatre in the West, but I can’t think of any other Indigenous theatres of each state. We need to do that again.

“There are many who have completed their journey through the arts college . . . I’d love to have buildings for these people to go to . . . Indigenous theatre should be refunded again.”

Uncle Jack’s own acting career covers six decades of amazing highs and devastating lows.

A member of the Stolen Generation, his roles have included The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Bedevil, Ben Hall and the Marriage of Figaro, Jack Charles v The Crown, Wolf Creek 3, Rake, Black Comedy and Pan.

He was also in the recent ABC sci-fi series Cleverman and he’s just finished performing in his stage show in Canada.

But there were also many years where he struggled with a heroin addiction, was homeless, a thief and a regular in Victoria’s prisons.

Uncle Jack says 2009 was the first time he’d performed without heroin in his system. He says the respect and support he’s had from the theatre industry helped him turn his life around.

“They watched the highs and the lows,” he says. “Seeing me in a state of misery and yet now being an uplifted spirit ever since I jumped off the heroin wagon.”

In between performances Uncle Jack likes to provide a shoulder for people who are struggling — and believes his life experiences can help others.

He recently completed a three-month Hepatitis C program with a new anti-viral drug and says he has been cleared of the virus which saw him abstain from sex, unable to be a blood donor and worry about not being able to donate his organs when he dies.

“I’m at pains to press upon others to undertake this measure,” he says. “Check out their blood. Go to the Aboriginal Health Service or the needle exchange for white people.

“There are no side effects . . . three months once a day and it will kill the virus.”

Uncle Jack also still has a mind to sue the taxi industry for discrimination over several incidents. In one a driver refused to pick him up unless he paid his fare upfront moments after he was named Victoria’s Senior Australian of the Year.

He says he gave the industry an ultimatum — have an Indigenous or Torres Strait Island person work with drivers’ during their training or face him in court.

He says it may be the courtroom.

Many of the people who have been important to Uncle Jack throughout his colourful life will be joining him on stage at his birthday shows. The nights will feature Uncle Jack talking and sharing stories and will be hosted by broadcaster Namila Benson.

The special guests will be such a big surprise that not even Uncle Jack knows who

will be appearing on stage.

He says the show is a celebration of his longevity as a performer, but also his “journey from addiction to be a significant role model, a player, in the health and mental stability of many other people who are struggling in my community”.

Down the track he’s thinking about writing his memoir.

“I will write about my life, but I’m on a roll at the moment,” he says. “Life’s ongoing for me and I can’t see the end of it at this stage. It may be little short stories. I dunno. There are some things I actually can’t write. In the telling of my tale I have to respect other people who have struggled along with me and maybe haven’t approached the level of health that I have nowadays.”

  • Tickets to the September 6 show at Melbourne’s Trades Hall Council are available from Oztix. Seats for the September 9 show at Old Castlemaine Gaol are available from Try Booking.

Wendy Caccetta

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