On July 12, 1979 the US space station Skylab crashed to earth over the small West Australian town of Esperance, creating one of the most bizarre chapters in the town’s history and leaving a lasting impression on actor Melodie Reynolds-Diarra.
Reynolds-Diarra was just a tot living with her family in the town, 713kms south of Perth, during the Skylab frenzy.
Nearly four decades later the Wongutha-Nadju woman has turned the Skylab saga into her first play — a comedy — which will debut at the Black Swan Theatre Company in Perth next month and is hoped to also be staged on the east coast.
While Reynolds-Diarra says she only has a child’s fuzzy recollection of the time, her family remembers it.
“I suppose it was one of the biggest things to happen in this country town and it just stuck in my head,” says Reynolds-Diarra, who was born in Kalgoorlie and now lives in Melbourne.
The action was hard to miss.
In the Skylab fallout, NASA officials were sent to Esperance to check out the wreckage.
Locals who collected pieces of Skylab and took them to the shire offices were given plaques and the San Francisco Examiner offered $10,000 to the first person to arrive at their office with an authentic piece of the space station.
US President Jimmy Carter even telephoned the Balladonia Roadhouse to apologise for the debris, while Esperance authorities, tongue-in-cheek, issued NASA with a $400 fine for littering, which was never paid.
Reynolds-Diarra’s play, Skylab, features an all Indigenous cast and is loosely based on her family’s Skylab experience. It is being promoted as Dreamtime meets the cult TV show Monkey Magic by Black Swan and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company. It’s the first collaboration between the two companies.
A sci-fi fan, Reynolds-Diarra says she wanted to write a play that wasn’t a tragedy.
“A lot of the plays I’ve acted in the past have been about massacres and the characters have been raped and desecrated in all these different ways, so years of telling those stories, as a writer, I went ‘wait a minute, I want to tell happy, inspiring Aboriginal stories about our strength and our power’,” she says.
“What better way to do that than a sci-fi comedy on stage….
“I didn’t set out to write a comedy. I didn’t realise I’d written a comedy until the first workshop I’d done, and they were laughing.
“I walked away and said, ‘I didn’t realise I wrote a comedy’…’I just wrote about my family and my family happen to be funny’.
“Marrying my memories from growing up with what could possibly happen in the future.”
Rehearsals began in Perth this week and Reynolds-Diarra — who is better known as an actor and has appeared in TV shows such as Natural Justice, Broken Shore, and Redfern Now — is in Perth to see the play through to its premiere.
After a season at Black Swan, at the State Theatre Centre of WA, from August 16 to September 2, it will tour to Karratha on September 5 and Carnarvon on September 8.
* For ticket information visit: https://www.bsstc.com.au/plays/skylab.