The Sydney Opera House will turn into the Big Top in October, hosting the world premiere of the First Nations cabaret, Natives Go Wild which brings to the stage truth-telling about the First Nations performers of the early circus era.
With First Nations talent from all walks of performing, Natives Go Wild hosts Beau James, accomplished physical theatre and circus performer and Manager of the Indigenous Programs at the Australian National Maritime Museum from the Mununjali clan of the Yugambeh Nation, and Pajinka Wik man and Bangarra dancer, Waangenga Blanco.
“I’m really excited what a wonderful opportunity to share the truth about our past, I jump at any opportunity to educate the wider audience, an opportunity to learn more about my culture and history for myself – delve into these forgotten stories,” Mr Blanco said.
Mr Blanco steps into the role of Cornelius Colleano, one of the most famous circus performers of the 1920s. He performed with the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus and was the highest paid circus performer of his time, however claimed Spanish heritage to conceal his Aboriginality.
“This guy needs a film or a Netflix series about him, he is amazing. Transcended the shackles of racism and forged a career in circus by being the best he could do,” Mr Blanco said.
Beau James takes on many roles including The Clown – also doing a strait jacket routine which reflects upon their own personal experience with their gender identity. James was raised in Brisbane as Donna Carstens and identified as gender fluid at a young age.
James will also take on the role of William Jones, also known as Little Nugget. William Jones appeared in almost all Australian circuses in the 1850s and performed as an equestrian, juggler, acrobat, ropewalker and ringmaster.
“I feel really privileged and excited to tell that story, so many people wouldn’t know that Aboriginal people were coerced, stolen, taken overseas or for themselves changing their name to earn an income overseas,” said James.
“It is a great honour – he is a little bit of a clown, and that matches with my background so honouring his voice will be a great opportunity.”
Natives Go Wild presents an array of performers from all backgrounds which together provide an intricate web of overlaying talents that thread the show together.
“Everyone brings something new and different to the table, coming from a contemporary dance world where it is kind of like a dance factory – this makes me feel like I’m in The Avengers, everyone is coming with their own superpower,” Mr Blanco said.
“There is so much talent with our mob and there are Pacific Islanders in the show as well. Being Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal, I feel a close kinship to our Pacific Island brothers and sisters, and it’s so exciting to share the stage with them.”
Although centring on the circus, the production is filled with singing and dancing, something different for Beau James.
“It’s new for me, using my body in a different way to tell a story, and my body is a bit older these days too – it isn’t what it used to be!” James said.
“We all come from different backgrounds, and we all have those moments when we feel out of our comfort zone but that’s what makes good stuff when you push yourself out of that comfort zone.”
Natives Go Wild is a show that attempts to air the stories that have been locked away, stories that haven’t been told – doing so through a First Nations lens.
“I feel a huge responsibility to entertain but also to tell the truth. I want people to leave with a wider, broader perspective of truth, and I want them to leave with the songs stuck in their head,” Mr Blanco said.
“Coming from a circus background I did know a lot of these stories, and what is great is that they are finally being told. I think we are finally giving a voice to those people who didn’t have that opportunity at the time,” James added.
“Barnum Circus, it profited by making a mockery of Indigenous people and culture. And not respecting culture. Getting people to sit back and think ‘that is disgusting,’ but ending on that good note.”
“We want people to not think it’s all doom and gloom, there were trailblazers. I hope they leave with a better understanding of that era in our world. And I hope they see how powerful our voice and our stories can be when they are told from our perspective.”
Natives Go Wild will hit the Sydney Opera House stage between October 22 and 27.
By Rachael Knowles