“Where are you going to sit?” a burly rodeo master asks young girl Molly, gesturing towards a group of Aboriginal townspeople: “On our side, or with the animals?”
The line draws a palpable wince from the audience but would not be misplaced in 1969, when new Australian musical Panawathi Girl is set: just two years after a landmark referendum gave the federal government the power to make laws for Aboriginal people.
These clandestine segregation practices, and the broader legacy of racist policy in Australia, are playfully explored in the Indigenous-led show, which had its world premiere at Perth festival on Thursday.
Unfolding in the Western Australian outback, the self-described “big Black musical” captures the exuberance and progressivism of the late 1960s, combining deceptively jolly humour and song to explore the changing face of Australia at a time of great political transformation.
Written by David Milroy – the multi-award winning playwright behind Waltzing the Wilarra – Panawathi Girl is Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s largest stage production to date presented on Western Australia’s grandest stage, His Majesty’s Theatre. With an all-WA cast directed by Eva Grace Mullaley, it continues a string of nationally acclaimed Perth festival productions including The Sum of Us and the all-Noongar-language Shakespeare adaptation, Hecate.
Translating to “dream girl” in Milroy’s mother’s Palyku language, Panawathi Girl follows the story of Molly Panawathi Chubb (played by newcomer Lila McGuire) as she ventures from Perth, where she has been studying politics, to her hometown, Chubb Springs, to reconnect with her mob.
Molly reunites with her father, Chubb (Peter Docker), a rough and tumble white country bloke who is incensed by his daughter’s progressive views – reflecting the changing political tides of the era and the widening chasm between urban and rural Australia. Molly, whose mother is Indigenous, is between two worlds, not quite fitting in at either camp and having her pleas for an end to segregation sharply rebuffed. But it’s the rejection of the Black community that cuts the deepest.
Heading into her second year of Waapa’s bachelor of acting course, McGuire, a Whadjuk and Wardandi Noongar woman, is audibly nervous at the premiere’s opening, but settles in as the production progresses, delivering her dialogue with sass and aplomb and showcasing a flawless vocal tone that shines in numbers such as Shadow in the Dark.
Milroy’s comedic chops shine with the characters of Gough and Gorton: caricatures of Gough Whitlam (Luke Hewitt) and John Gorton (Geoff Kelso) on the 1969 federal election trail. In Long White Sock, the big-noting pair march triumphantly around the stage singing about giving our history a hysterectomy and soaking it in bleach, and on the campaign trail in Chubb Springs, Gorton announces he’ll fix Sydney’s traffic congestion – poking fun at the disconnection between Canberra and regional Australia.
Following the Panawathi Girl to Chubb Springs is the lovesick Ron (Chris Isaacs) and his friends Beth (Grace Chow) and JoJo (Manuao TeAotonga). This high-spirited trio are a giddy delight to watch – owing, in part, to the space cakes they consume en route – each in their own way exemplifying the struggles of young people in the 60s, in particular Ron’s dread about being conscripted to Vietnam and JoJo’s exploration of his queer identity at a time when homosexuality was a criminal act. Perhaps the finest moment comes when Pansy (Angelica Lockyer), Billy (Wimiya Woodley) and Ada (Teresa Rose) come together to perform The Fire Is Burning, a soulful ballad sung partly in language. Delivered with honesty and open-heartedness, it has the audience in full rapture, and Pansy’s solo is breathtaking.
Bruce McKinven’s elegant set design takes audiences to the sweeping north-west landscapes of WA, with a glowing Pilbara moon, the facades of quaint clapboard houses and an expansive cyclorama depicting the region’s fire-engine red sunsets and cloudy-blue skies. Look carefully and you’ll spot Milroy himself, performing in the five-piece band led by music director Wayne Freer and featuring Grammy award-winner Lucky Oceans; an intimate stage set-up that feels a bit like a knee-slapping country pub band.
There are, however, some missteps. The singing in some parts feels a little wobbly, muted even, perhaps owing to some early season jitters that will be ironed out. The storyline around Molly and her mother was left wanting too; perhaps in opening that up, the production could have offered a moment for some deeper reflections on the cultural and spiritual trauma that has left First Nations people “standing in the doorway for too long”. It could also have balanced out the saccharine numbers that at times feel more Oklahoma than regional WA.
But then again, hitting audiences over the head with a dark and dour message isn’t Milroy’s style. Brimming with heart and humour, Panawathi Girl is a wildly entertaining glimpse into an era of great optimism and change, prompting us to consider how far, or how little, we’ve come in the last 50 years.