Jimmy Chi’s multi-award winning 1990s musical Corrugation Road is a celebration of the power of Aboriginal culture and performance pitted against the enduring forces and legacies of settler colonisation. This is radical, uncompromising and unsettling theatre. In this paper, I explore my responses to the musical and discuss various strategies used to generate the sense of the uncanny and unsettledness that dominate the work. Beginning with the chaos and madness of a psychiatric ward and raunchy nightclub in Perth, the action shifts to a pilgrimage of return to the coast north of Broome. A chance remark by Jimmy Chi directed me to explore the significance of this stretch of sea as ‘sea country’, a living space of Aboriginal cultural knowledge, healing, sustenance and spirituality. Aboriginal cultural healing and the sea emerge as central themes in the musical’s narrative of return and redemption. The seeming absence but pervading presence of both in the musical is a vital strategy in creating its all-pervading sense of the uncanny and unsettledness.
Keywords: Jimmy Chi — Kimberley — Aboriginal theatre — Uncanny — Spectral — Culture and healing
For Jimmy Chi (1948-2017)
After the pain, the peace.
Jimmy Chi’s musical Corrugation Road was an emotional rollercoaster ride for Australian audiences fortunate to see the 1996-97 production or the 1998 revised version. Directed by Andrew Ross, the multi-award winning musical followed the popular style of Chi’s earlier musical hit Bran Nue Dae with songs by Jimmy Chi, Steve Pigram and the band Kuckles, some of the original cast, and hopeful messages for all Australians in the 1990s, decade of national reconciliation. In our 2013 interview Chi explained1 that ‘the reason I wrote [Corrugation Road] was to get healing. Not to polarize but for people coming together … It’s about a healing thing rather than sickness’. The healing in Corrugation Road came from Jimmy’s struggle to survive the abuse and madness in his life:
I wanted to write something about mental health and along the way I confronted my demons, my own abuse as a toddler… and the various things that happened to me [and] going in and out of Graylands [psychiatric hospital].
The original 1996 production had to be rushed through in six months and this put Jimmy under severe pressure. He regretted that it left out ‘a lot of the things I wanted to put in to soften the blows to make it seem more about what Aboriginal life is all about’. The result was raw, confronting, contradictory and compelling theatre that blew me away. The juxtaposition of emotions throughout was deeply unsettling. Jimmy’s personal ghosts haunted scenes that were hilarious and then dark and desolate. Songs were joyful and alarming. I wept to see Jimmy’s painful revelations and cheered his audacious protests. I roared with laughter at incidents I wouldn’t normally have even smiled at. There was the rapid succession of events in the psychiatric ward: the comical eccentricities of conjoined twin brothers, psychotherapist Doctor Fruitcake and Doctor Basketcase; their callous assessment of Bob Two Bob’s ‘psychosis’ after he was admitted by the police for climbing a clock tower dressed as a black Santa to celebrate Christmas; and Bob Two Bob’s anguished singing of ‘Suicidal Blues’ alone on a bleak stage. These scenes of belittlement, hurt and alienation remained with me long after the performance ended. Critical response to the musical was enthusiastic but muted, and carefully worded to avoid giving offence about the contentious Indigenous issues raised:
Corrugation Road was created by Aboriginal Australians and expressed some of their concerns and struggles in dealing with the dominant European society. It provided a unique insight into the plight of Indigenous Australians in dealing with the social structures and a health system imposed by white Australia, and of the oppression experienced at the hands of some of those who inhabit them (Johnston, 2004: 162).
Corrugation Road was radical theatre that disrupted all in its sweep and challenged audiences on multiple levels. Jimmy Chi jokingly summarised the plot to me as ‘Corrugation Road starts, funeral, hospital, street, dream sequence, journey back to Broome and on to Sunday Island’ but the narrative was a complex, intertwined mix of personal, political, historical, cultural and spiritual stories. There was no one message and no simple answers. After sitting through the performance, I felt mentally all at sea, even lost at sea. I was left wanting to understand why.
The writings of Helena Grehan and Christina Lee speak to this experience. Grehan (2009: 20) outlines the power of theatre to create ‘radical unsettledness’, to engage audiences ‘viscerally, emotionally and intellectually’ and to open up ‘multiple, nuanced and often contradictory spaces for consideration and reflection’. Citing Jacques Derrida, Lee (2017: 7) explains that ‘haunting afteraffects’ can charge spectators with ‘ethico-political responsibility’ and ‘politicisation oriented to the future’. I left the theatre feeling charged with this responsibility, even more so because my friendship with Jimmy Chi revealed the depths of his struggle to survive schizophrenia, and the traumatic life events that preceded its onset.
Greehan and Lee’s scholarly observations provided the starting point for the journey of research I trace here, one driven by my unsettledness and compulsion to understand. I describe the insights gleaned into the radical power of the musical, and its origins in Aboriginal culture and the sea that inspired my own writing about Nyungar healing and performance. I share what the musical revealed about Jimmy Chi’s creative genius. We were old friends and had planned to write a biography of his life. This paper is a small fragment of that unrealised ambition, cut short by Jimmy’s deteriorating health and his early passing in 2017.
Aboriginal theatre confronts mainstream audiences with unfamiliar cultures, histories and identities. There are also the haunting ghosts and ‘spectral spaces’ described by Lee (ibid.: 9) where ‘the supposedly dead and buried persist with alarmingly electrifying aliveness’. Actors work with the ghosts of their ancestors and their own family, as well as personal memories, in performances that mingle spectres from the past, present and future. Aboriginal experience and identity are vital resources for Aboriginal actors. For Chi, Ningali Lawford was the ideal actor to play Fiona because ‘she understood and grew up in Aboriginal society which is tribal so she knew the Kriol and she could portray Fiona who was a black woman who is a tribal woman’. Jimmy Chi’s ghosts populate Corrugation Road and as he said, ‘real stories are all woven in there’: his dreams and hallucinations; the ghosted inmates of the psychiatric ward; the Bardi woman whispering, ‘Talk to me in language’; a gay cousin who committed suicide after his son; a relative killed in the Vietnam War; and homage to his daughter and her mother, Jawi people from Sunday Island in the West Kimberley and Jimmy’s Bardi ancestry through his mother.
There is a disorienting sense of absence and presence in these spectral spaces. Lee (ibid.: 3) observes that the ‘appearance of absence, emptiness and the imperceptible can indicate an overwhelming presence of something that once was, still is, (t)here’. Corrugation Road reveals hidden colonial histories as its performers work with the memories of colonial practices inscribed in their hearts and bodies. These were systems which targeted Aboriginal people, initially to exterminate them, and, when this failed, sought to render them invisible as a ‘ghosted absence’ (Kleinert 2010: 173) through policies of segregation and eugenic and cultural assimilation. Lee’s ‘geographies of absence’ (2017: 5) are also relevant to the Aboriginal historical experience of exile from white rural and urban landscapes, and subsequent incarceration in institutions and reserves. In Corrugation Road, the psychiatric ward is a microcosm of the colonial project with its concentrated sites of trauma, loss and destruction where unwanted humans are swept up, tortured and locked away for life. The culmination of these revelations of hidden histories is a pervading sense of the uncanny, the ‘unheimlich’, enigmatically defined by German poet Friedrich Schiller: ‘everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’ (cited in Askay and Farquhar 2006: 72).
Aboriginal theatre is inherently political and activist. In the repeating cycles of colonial injustice, the past is never past and the present calls out for justice. Diana Taylor (2006: 68, 72) argues that Indigenous performance makes the past present as a political resource in ‘several complicated, multilayered processes’ such as re-enacting past issues and scenarios and, in its staging, keeping alive from the past an ‘infrastructure, a practice or a know-how, an episteme, and a politics’. As such, it provides ‘a repository of strategies for their current struggles and for envisioning new futures’. Rachel Fensham (2007: np) explains that Indigenous performance provides ‘a communicative structure’ to advance their political claims and to ‘affirm spiritual and secular Indigenous identities in the face of dominant policies of erasure and containment’. A further vital power of Aboriginal performance is to bring physical and spiritual healing, perhaps in the nature of national reconciliation, but more particularly here for Aboriginal people. This is the power of Corrugation Road’s redemptive pilgrimage of return to Jawi and Bardi country north of Broome. It is here that the broken spirits of Bob Two Bob and his companions are healed, and repeating cycles of trauma down the generations are released through ‘the recollection of previous generations, who faced similar struggles with fortitude and song’ (McNally 2000: 177-78).
Black humor and theatre in characterisation, action, dance and song reinforce the sense of the uncanny for mainstream audiences. Confronting and edgy humour that makes us laugh even at desperation is a vital disorienting tool. Mexicano/Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena (2011: 285) writes that humour is ‘a means to generate attention to sensitive issues ... if you are funny, you can get away with murder’. This is Jimmy Chi’s personal and creative style, a legacy of growing up in Broome where humour is used to great effect in politically outrageous statements that make people collapse with laughter. Daphne Brooks (2006: 8) provides a nineteenth century theatrical example of African-American performers who shocked white theatre audiences by replacing expectations of stereotyped black characters with ‘spectacularly eccentric performances’ of ‘excess’ and ‘sauciness’. They turned the tables on theatrical ‘normativity’ by replacing legibility and transparency with ‘opacity’ and ambiguity.
Fragments that hint at hidden narratives, and flashes of language left unexplained, reinforce the sense of unsettledness running through the scenes. The psychotherapists mention in passing that Bob Two Bob was once a deep-sea diver and a lawman of the ‘saltwater people’. Other Aboriginal cultural concepts like ‘promised man’ and language and Kriol words and phrases are not explained or translated. The combination of these elisions creates a disorienting sense for mainstream audiences of encountering worlds beyond their ken, and of unease as their control seems to slip away. Audiences are left wondering where Jimmy Chi is taking them.
These various theatrical elements are present in the chaotic scenes of excess in the psychiatric ward and the Perth nightclub, the Hellfire Club. An explosion of diverse personalities, perplexities of characters, multiple identities and ideologies, along with outrageous humour blows away the stereotyped Aboriginal characters we might expect to see. From this seething cauldron of humanity come the first steps towards healing as the action moves erratically back and forth, with disjointed sub-plots and characterisations creating a growing sense of unease (Black Swan Theatre 1998: 11-25). There are also revelations of secrets and hidden feelings, and of the injustices of life for Aboriginal people and suffering others. A clearing of bodies and minds is beginning.
But first there is violence, as the patients’ Christmas Nativity pageant erupts in a wild fight. Fiona begins telling her life story to Bob Two Bob in broken snatches, speaking about her husband Barry killed in the Vietnam War and his funeral accompanied by the beautiful song ‘Lay Me in the Arms of Jesus’ (written by Jimmy Chi and now regularly sung at Kimberley funerals), her boyfriend Larry who she followed to Perth, and the painful loss of a daughter, taken from her at birth. Meanwhile the Nativity pageant and the fight continue. Acting out a techno nightmare from Bob Two Bob’s psychosis, Fiona performs as Madam Lash, wearing a provocative red corset. In a scene of grim hilarity, the hospital surgical registrar cuts the twin psychotherapists apart using gruesome instruments behind a sheet in a mock shadow play. Bob Two Bob then shares his hardships with Fiona: the trauma of sexual abuse as a toddler; of how, as her promised husband he had tried to find her; and his guilt over what happened in her absence.
United and strengthened Bob Two Bob and Fiona take the next step in their journey of healing when they escape from the ward with the other patients and head for the Hellfire Club. Here another scene of chaos erupts, that brings further healing for Fiona. First, she finds her boyfriend Larry only to learn that he is gay and his partner is the club’s star Aboriginal drag queen who, in a fit of jealousy, launches into a raunchy performance of the song ‘Show Me What You Got There, Big Boy’. In a hilarious, surprising moment he turns and shakes his bare bottom at the audience. Then comes the second vital reunion for Fiona, when she is reunited with her lost daughter, Christina, who has been living as a homeless addict on the streets of Perth. The Hellfire scenes conclude in the manner of Bran Nue Dae, with Bob Two Bob deciding that they should all seek deliverance from the city of Perth and its madness, and travel north together to the Kimberley.
I only gradually came to understand the meanings of the sea and Aboriginal culture in Corrugation Road, and how their ‘appearance of absence’—which hints at ‘an overwhelming presence’ (Lee 2017: 3)—helped create the unsettledness I experienced watching the play. Feeling overwhelmed by the emotions of the psychiatric ward and the Hellfire Club, I overlooked their importance in other major scenes, including the bizarre wakes for Bob Two Bob on the beach on Sunday Island— which I interpreted as theatrical containment encircling the musical—and the travellers sailing to Sunday Island to refrains of the song ‘Saltwater Cowboy’, Bob Two Bob at the helm before the storm swept him into the sea.
Jimmy Chi eventually gave me the key to his imaginative and metaphorical vision of the musical, but first he offered this simplistic account of the scenes on the beach:
Yes, so the play starts with a wake for Bob Two Bob and he’s lost at sea and Fiona his girlfriend or wife has to bury his pair of underpants in the sand—djowadj—because that’s all they could find of him and then he comes back and says ‘Who dead? Who dead?’ and anyway they rush off away from him ‘cos they think he’s dead and he’s a ghost, and so that’s the start of the play.
The key only came later when we were chatting about the beach scenes and Bob Two Bob ’s resurrection from ‘a watery grave’. Frustrated with my shallow interpretation, Jimmy revealed that Bob Two Bob survived because he
… swam with the currents to the mainland. He’s a pearl diver and Bardi people navigate the currents. They know how to return to the islands if they’re marooned. They’re sea people. It’s a culmination of a number of stories.
Jimmy’s comment was akin to what Ross Gibson calls the ‘startling trigger’ and ‘extracted detail’ that can release a ‘flood of associations’ in a society like Australia that is so reliant on ‘concealment’:
… think of the land grabbing, think of the withholding of payments and wages to Indigenous workers … a well-chosen detail can act as the startling trigger that releases the flood of associations for anyone who has been primed to perceive what lies beneath the surface of ordinary experience. An extracted detail might grant a focused observer access to the systematic understanding of a larger reality (Gibson 2009: 44-45).
New levels of reality submerged within the musical began to unfold and reveal themselves once Jimmy offered me this extracted detail. With my eyes now opened I saw glimpses of the sea everywhere when I watched a DVD of the musical. There were many questions to explore. What did the sea mean to Jimmy Chi for it to be absent and so present throughout the performance? How did this drive the musical? Was it a ploy to further the sense of ‘radical unsettledness’ by igniting brief flashes of memory and imaginings? Was it fall-out from the rushed 1996 production that stopped Jimmy from showing ‘more about what Aboriginal life is all about’? Were the meanings too private to share, or too well known, like the device of the ‘omitted centre’ in Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters:
The riddle, the circumstance too well-known to be repeated to the initiate, the deliberate skirting of the obvious—this was the means she used to increase the privacy of her communication (Leyda 1970: xxi).
The particular stretch of sea north of Broome was certainly familiar and well known to local Aboriginal people like Chi, for whom it held depths of meaning and cultural significance. For Perth audiences, it was a place of imaginings, once an exotic site for visiting Macassan traders, adventurers and pearling crews, and now a dream destination of azure blue sea and white sand for tourists. The sea was also a metaphor for human emotions, mental states and depths of the unconscious so internalised that they require no special mention. Mieke Bal (2010: 32) explains that meanings of metaphor may remain hidden or they can multiply and unsettle us with ‘dilemmas of understanding that activate. This gives the autonomy of thought and affect required to deploy more fully social agency’.
I wondered whether Jimmy was deliberately holding back to make audiences work harder. I thought about how he used parable very deliberately in writing about concealed truths, as he explained, ‘Naked truth is too ugly. That’s why she must be dressed in the finery of parable’ (cited in Zubrycki 1991: np). In Corrugation Road, there are many unpalatable truths dressed in the finery of humour, dance and song. Amongst them is the truth that what white society offers Aboriginal people is often harmful: psychiatric treatment and drugs can drive their sickness to madness. The corollary is that to live on country with family and culture is what can heal. Another truth hinted at is the ignorance of many Australians who don’t understand, or even know where to start. Many assume that the cost of a ticket to a show earns them the right to be told. The truth is that in Aboriginal contexts, to learn demands relationships of trust and demonstrated application and effort.
The musical keeps secrets in ways that suggest principles of the imparting of Aboriginal knowledge. In the Aboriginal way of teaching, elders know the full meaning of certain subjects while others are only gradually taught, earning the right to know through social relations, maturity, age and evidence of determination to learn. Imagining an exchange of knowledge between Aboriginal people and settler colonists Ross Gibson (Personal communication 2013) described for me a process that was ‘not instruction so much as being present to the not-yet-known’. This seems an apt way to account for the strategic use of Aboriginal knowledge as absence and presence in Corrugation Road.
Jimmy’s ‘startling trigger’ revealed to me the central narrative of the redemptive power of Aboriginal sea culture and healing previously invisible to me. I began to explore the narrative and metaphorical significance of the stretch of sea north of Broome that Kimberley people call ‘sea country’. Respectful reading, listening and remembering my visits there revealed the significance for Bob Two Bob, Fiona and Christina as ‘saltwater’ people of returning home to their traditional Bardi and Jawi land and sea country around One Arm Point and Sunday Island at the north of the Dampierland Peninsula. As an outsider with no rights and only rudimentary understanding, I can weave only fragments of what I learned of this world into my interpretation of their return, presented here.
Sea country was revealed as a living space of cultural knowledge, sustenance, spirituality and healing. Noni Sharpe (2002: 12) explains that the features of sea—seabed, sky and shore—make up a ‘mosaic of signs’ that saltwater people read like a ‘vast atlas’ as they travel safely through dangerous tides of six to eight metres and ride tidal currents of five to ten knots. Saltwater people harvest the sea to survive and prosper where others perished. Elder Aubrey Tigan from Mayala sea country to the north of Sunday Island explains further:
They all got their own power and we are part of it.
The boiling water is part of our life.
We have been with that all our lives.
We feel the sound of the waves and the tide.
We don’t have fear of the sea.
It is part of our life.
… We live from the sea. Everyone must know the sea by heart.
How to travel, where to go to get dugong or turtle, shellfish, oysters or fish
And, we must know when to go (cited in Yu and Brisbout 2011: 10, 12).
With this new appreciation came the transformation of Bob Two Bob, Fiona and Christina from ghosted shadows in Perth to strong people with rights and traditions that gave them the strength to survive against all the odds. The world of gestures, chants and movements that connected them as saltwater people to sea country brought them healing and restored their wellbeing. To express the harm caused when this connection is broken, Noni Sharpe draws on Barry Lopez’s account of Inuit sensibilities:
It seemed to Lopez that they were attached to their country as if by luminous fibres. To cut them, he says, would cause physical pain and a sense of dislocation (Sharpe 2002: 41).
Saltwater people, Bob, Fiona and Christina had responsibilities to the sea—their rights of ownership and access to knowledge of sea country through Aboriginal law brought obligations to maintain and replenish the sea with respect through practical actions and ceremony. But as castaways struggling to survive and maintain their sanity in the psychiatric ward in Perth, this was impossible for Bob Two Bob and Fiona. As a Bardi lawman, Bob Two Bob had particular obligations to maintain.
A living force, the sea has the power to heal or take the lives of those who fail their responsibilities (ibid.: 27). Bob Two Bob had learned to navigate between islands and the mainland, but with his spirit damaged his skills fail him as he sails to Sunday Island in the storm. At first it seems that the sea has punished him by drowning him in its depths. However, it unfolds that his immersion was a spiritual healing by the sea and one of its creatures, as Bob Two Bob explains: ‘ulul shark he bin bring me back to Jawi’ (Black Swan Theatre 1998: 3).
By leaving and returning, Bob and Fiona were participating in larger cycles of coming and going established over millennia across this stretch of sea. Local people moved between islands and the mainland to hunt and gather seasonal foods, to trade and for ceremony and visitors came from islands in Indonesia and further north. Colonisation disrupted this flow with new visitors—explorers, pearlers, missionaries, government officers, fishermen, mining crews and tourists. Some stayed and took over coastal resources. Aboriginal people were kidnapped by pearling crews and sent south to Wajimup (Rottnest Island Prison). Many never returned. Families were rounded up into centralised missions and their children were taken from them to be made ‘civilised’. Others were forced into town camps where they lived in desperate poverty. During the Second World War, whole communities were forcibly evacuated but most had returned to their homes by the decade’s end. In the early 1960s the government instructed Bardi and Jawi people to relocate permanently to the town of Derby. They resisted but were eventually moved and scattered in Derby and communities along Dampier Peninsula. Elders who requested sea transport to maintain their ceremonies were refused. Like other Indigenous people taken from their country, they had the intention to return, and from the late 1960s there was a trickle of returns to Sunday Island and One Arm Point. The people had maintained their knowledge of sea country that survived as a ‘living memory bank’ (Sharpe 2002: 232-33) and played a vital role in the Native Title land and sea claim first lodged by Bardi and Jawi people in 1995. A claim that was finally recognised by Federal Court Justice Robert French in 2005.
Bob and Fiona were nearly lost forever, captured in the psychiatric ward that was crippling their minds and bodies. Their pilgrimage home took them away from the collateral damage of modern urban life, to re-establish their connection with sea country and kin, and to heal and replenish their sprits. My journey with Corrugation Road, documented here, gifted me with some understanding of the power of Aboriginal cultural healing. I saw how Western psychiatry intensifies the trauma of colonisation and might bring people like Bob Two Bob to the brink of madness, while the healing power of culture, sea, country, and family can save them.
All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have their own ceremonies and rituals to heal the pain and stresses of daily life as well as the legacies of intergenerational trauma and grief. Mirroring the power of corroboree gatherings down the generations, Nyungar people in the south-west of Western Australia continue to hold communal gatherings where they dance and perform songs that revive treasured memories of their ancestors’ courage to survive (Haebich 2018). In a similar way, the singing and dancing in Corrugation Road, along with the sharing of familiar personal stories, creates profound spiritual healing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences. However, these community ways of healing do not fit easily with the individualistic processes of mainstream psychology. Al Dueck and Katie Byron (2011) note the growing criticism of global application of western therapies that are used without consideration of local Indigenous practices, often with deleterious effects. Kimberley Theidon (cited in Canby 2013: 32) condemns the ‘trauma industry’ that normalises western methodologies and reduces local practises to ‘deviations of a universal truth’. In 2016, the Australian Psychology Society acknowledged the failures of their profession in a formal Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people:
We as psychologists have not always listened carefully enough to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We have not always respected their skills, expertise, worldviews, and unique wisdom developed over thousands of years ... (2016: np)
These ‘failures’ also included ‘silence and lack of advocacy on important policy matters such as the policy of forced removal, which resulted in the Stolen Generations’. The Apology made a strong commitment to change.
The culmination of my personal journey was to act on my ethico-political responsibility’ by publishing a book about the healing and political power of Aboriginal cultural performance in Nyungar country (Haebich 2018). Like Corrugation Road, this is a study of the power of performance pitted against the forces of settler colonisation, in this case, writ large over centuries. The book traces how, for millennia, Nyungar people have drawn on their rich culture of performance to create healing and resilience, in ways that are courageous, innovative and hopeful. Cultural healing continues today in gatherings on Nyungar country for making music, dancing together, yarning and sharing laughter. Contemporary theatre such as Corrugation Road also works with ghosts and hidden histories of the colonial past and injustices in the present. This performance activism—representing past struggles and envisioning new futures—is another powerful force for cultural and spiritual healing.
1. Jimmy Chi was a close friend of mine, and all his comments within this paper are taken from interviews conducted in Broome, July 2013 and July 2016.
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