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'The 7 Stages of Grieving' Turns 20 This Year. And It's Still Relevant As Ever. Interview with Chenoa Deemal

“Smile for the police camera! We have a tradition of story-telling. If this is the only way our story can be told…”



‘The 7 Stages of Grieving’ was written twenty years ago by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman. It explores Aboriginal people’s collective journey to reconciliation and reminds us how far we, as a nation, have yet to go. Its subject matter is probably the reason why the show has become a staple in the Australian theatre canon. The play is on the HSC Drama syllabus, and is frequently revived on our stages.

The issues of a silenced culture, segregation, and colonial attitudes, are as relevant today as they were when the show was first written. However, this production has been workshopped to include significant events that have taken place over the past twenty years, and which play a part in the story of Aboriginal people. These events include Kevin Rudd’s apology, the Sorry March along Harbour Bridge, and even the election of President Trump.

This is a one woman show, and yet it tells the story of an entire people (and the multiple, vast communities that they are a part of, too). In the production currently taking place in The Studio at The Sydney Opera House, Chenoa Deewal takes on this responsibility with astounding effect. Her performance is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking. Deewal’s strong presence is complimented by a cunning team of designers; Jessica Ross for sets, Daniel Anderson for lighting, and Justin Harrison for sound and production. All three contribute in ways that create instant impact, and deliver eloquent story-telling devices to assist the play.

I strongly encourage anyone to catch The 7 Stages of Grieving this weekend (it’s a short run). This is a team of people who really wanted to tell a story, and have gone above and beyond to do so. I met up with the performer, Chenoa Deewal, after a performance of The 7 Stages of Grieving’ to ask her about the experience of performing it, and the significance of it being staged today. 


Why was it necessary to rework the play?

Deewal begins by stressing the significance of the apology speech as “something good”. It needed to happen and it can’t go without acknowledgement. She adds, however:

There’s a lot that’s happened and you just go ‘oh, really? That’s happening? Now? … Pauline Hanson was in the original script. And she’s still included. That, to me, says enough.


Were the original writers, Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, involved in the rewriting of the show?

Everything we changed, we had to get permission for.

Deborah adds that this wasn’t so hard, because Wesley Enoch was acting as the artistic director when this production was first seen with the Queensland Theatre Company in 2015. She reflects;

“He would say no to certain things that I would ask for. Often these ideas were 'not ambiguous enough' " 

By this, he means the events have to be relatable to the broader Aboriginal community’s experience, not only Deewal’s family and community. The production, however, does not shy away from Deewal’s personal heritage and experience. In fact, though some aspects may not have been adapted, a lot of the changes are inspired by the performer’s personal story. The best evidence of this comes with a re-writing of the traditional language used. Instead of the scripted dialect, Deewal speaks in her native tongue, Guugu yimithirr.

Other examples of Deewal’s personal influence lay in the design aspects of this production. She performs inside a circle of sand that she has scattered onto the stage herself. The sand is representative of a place she knows from home, called ‘Coloured Sands”. This design device, by the way, is infinitely powerful. 

“But Wesley didn’t even see the show until it’s opening. He trusted the director, Jason Klarwein, that much… Theatre is something that’s fluid and changes overtime, so he was happy with that process”.


Why do you consider ‘The 7 Stages of Grieving’ to be a significant text to study for high school students?


“When I was sitting backstage today, I could hear the school kids playing up. The teachers were saying something to the effect of “don’t climb over the seats!” and I rejoiced thinking ‘I’ve got a naughty bunch in the audience today!” But this is so good because they get to come to the theatre, and they get to see stuff that they wouldn’t necessarily see on TV. These kids are the types of kids who need to see this show…

I suppose that’s why it’s worthy of study. It exposes kids to these ideas that they might not see in everyday life”.

There’s so many children especially in urban areas, even adults, who have never interacted with an Aboriginal person. So to see this show means they have some contact with Aboriginal content, which is really important for any Australian”. 


You’re performing as an Indigenous actor. Where does this place you in the industry?

“This is the thing. I love doing “Indigenous shows” and I love working with Indigenous actors. I have the best time… And so, I love doing shows that are made for and about Aboriginal people. I also love going to see shows about my people, because I relate so much to it…

There are out there, in the world, Indigenous GPs, lawyers, teachers… but we’re not represented as such in TV or in theatre. We’re not represented as being accomplished in these fields…. It’s not an accurate representation. That’s where things need to change”.


 

Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility in this role than you would any other role because you’re, in effect, representing all Aboriginal people?

"That responsibility I suppose began with the writers and the content that they chose to put in the show. So they would have had that responsibility of going “oh is this something that will be representative of all Aboriginal people, or not?

And the thing is too, not every Indigenous person is going to come to the show and relate to every aspect of it. But there’s a lot there that they can relate to. And white people too - there’s stuff in there for them to relate to. 

The responsibility is a massive one, yes. But I feel like these are the stories that the writers have put there in order to do a certain job. So, I guess the responsibility for me is just to do the writing justice.

 

In an interview with The Sydney morning Herald in 2002, Deborah Mailman said “The intention of the work was also to avoid Campfire, boomerang, didgeridoo choices”. Why would you say this was an important choice? 

“Of course, I don’t know why they have chosen that twenty years ago, but I think those aspects of Indigenous culture represent Tourism Australia and what people want to sell to the world. That’s the stuff that everyone knows about Aboriginal culture, but nobody knows about this stuff…

For some reason those things have also become a commodity in Australia. And so this show is more about how we feel about those things and how we feel about what’s happened to our culture and our lives. And how colonisation has effected all of the generations since colonisation.

I don’t claim to know the writer’s intentions, but I would venture that this would be a reason. "



What do you most relate to in your character? 

“I relate to the grief. I relate to the story told at the beginning. I had lost someone very close to me a few years ago and basically my character’s opening monologue was how life happened. My parents own a three bedroom house and when my mum passed away there were twenty people in the house. But I remember there was so much love and laughter at that time. I remember lying in my room and hearing jokes and laughing… and thinking ‘I’m so happy that we can still laugh...’

That for me was such a beautiful moment and it’s in this show. I remember having that specific thought in what was one of the most traumatic and horrifying moments in my life, but also the most poignant and beautiful because you get to see a side of people that you love that you haven’t necessarily seen before…

That monologue is really close to my heart in a way. It was in the original script, and that’s why I thought ‘wow, I have to do this play’.




 

The 7 Stages of Grieving plays until Saturday 20th May. Grab your tickets here.
 

Credit: Justin Harrison

Credit: Justin Harrison

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