Playwright Raymond Lawler’s classic stage play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll has remained unchanged since it became a runaway hit in the ’50s, but there will be one significant difference when it is performed by Western Australia’s Black Swan State Theatre Company in May.
For the first time the lead role of main character Roo will be played by an Aboriginal actor — Kelton Pell, whose long and celebrated career has seen him take on groundbreaking television and stage roles and who is arguably best known for the SBS legal drama The Circuit.
“At the end, because a black fella hasn’t done it before, the last line in the play, Roo’s mate Barney says to him ‘C’mon boy’,” Pell says during a break in rehearsals.
“I just said ‘Ring Ray and ask him to cut ‘boy’ out please’.
“Black fella can call black fella ‘boy’ but white fella can’t call black fella ‘boy’.
“I’ve always had that ability to change things that I say on stage to be correct. It’s not disrespect; it’s so people don’t get into trouble.
“The director he said ‘I hadn’t read that into it’. People read different things into different texts.”
Black Swan’s performance of the play will open at the Heath Ledger Theatre in Perth on May 5 and run through until May 20.
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll tells the story of two mates, Queensland canecutters, who live it up in Melbourne with their girlfriends for five months each year during the lay-off season.
Playwright Lawler, who is now 96 and lives in Melbourne, released it 63 years ago in 1955. It is still his most famous play.
Breaking old moulds
Pell is used to stepping into roles traditionally played by white actors.
“Being cast in the last (Black Swan) play, a (Samuel) Beckett play, I’m not sure how many black fellas have played the character I played, but I didn’t bring that element into it and I’ve always been like that in the past,” Pell says.
“It’s extremely important when black fellas are cast in non-Aboriginal roles … originally they bring another element to it, but I didn’t see that I had to with this one.”
“I’m so proud to be a part of this production and it is a great opportunity I have in representing my country men and women again, my people, and I think there are productions we don’t need to keep explaining about; really I don’t have to refer to myself as a black fella in this and I don’t.”
Pell, 50, began his career in 1985 at the age of 17 in late Aboriginal playwright Jack Davis’ No Sugar. Since then there have been a string of roles in TV series including The Circuit, Cloudstreet, The Gods of Wheat Street and Redfern Now, as well as high-profile stage roles in Shakespearean and Indigenous productions.
Last month Pell won Best Male Performance of the Year in Tasmania for his role in Indigenous playwright Nathan Maynard’s The Season. He was also Best WA Actor in 1994 and WA Aboriginal Artist of the Year in 1991.
He is among the cast of the upcoming ABC series Pine Gap.
‘Follow your dreams’: Pell
Pell says more roles are opening up for Indigenous actors.
“It’s getting there,” he says.
“I’ve been really fortunate most of my career. For the 25th anniversary of The Removalists, a David Williamson play, I was the first black fella to play Carter. That brought a deaths in custody into the play.
“It’s still got a long way to go. Why should we just be playing the black fella?”
Pell says he is proud of his Nyoongah heritage — and despite variations in spelling prefers it with a ‘y’ and a ‘h’.
“Being born black, belonging to this country, to this land, we have something that a lot of people don’t and that is a proper connection, an umbilical cord to this country,” he says.
He says young actors wanting to get into the arts should follow their dream.
“It’s important work,” he says. “It’s a chance where if we don’t want to become an actor we need more writers and designers and we’ve got so much talent, our people, that we can.
“If you have a vision or a dream, follow that dream and grab that dream with two hands.
“It’s so important that you enjoy the work you do. If you don’t enjoy the work you do, you’re not in the right job.
“I found that being an actor, I’m a voice also for our mob, for our people. We’re all born for a reason; the sooner we realise the reason, the better chance we have of fulfilling our dreams.”
Pell says Aboriginal actors such as Uncle Jack Charles are invaluable to the arts in Australia.
“Knowing we still have people like Uncle Jack Charles alive – Uncle Jack was from the black and white days of television – they are our treasures,” he says.
“I hope to be like Uncle Jack, to live as long as Uncle Jack has. He’s had a hard life but what a bright light he is on his little yellow scooter.”
* Summer of the Seventeenth Doll runs at the Heath Ledger Theatre in Perth from May 5 to 20. Ticket information: https://www.bsstc.com.au