Jimmy Chi and Kuckles’ Bran Nue Dae is a coming-of-age musical set in 1960s Australia. It is the first-ever Aboriginal musical. It originally debuted in 1990 and was later adapted as a film in 2009.
The story follows a young Aboriginal man named Willie, who is kicked out of his mission school and must find his way back home to Broome, where his family and the girl he loves are. Along the way, Willie finds a ride to Broome in the company of Stephen (Tadpole) Johnson, and free-spirited couple Annie and Slippery, who he meets after they accidentally hit Stephen with their car.
The set is nothing short of breathtaking, with a large, lit ‘Sun Pictures’ sign across the top of the stage, identical to the one that sits atop the world’s oldest picture gardens in Broome. The sides are adorned with barn-type doors and windows that open, whilst the back of the stage, with the help of projection, depicts a number of locations throughout.
The start of the show focuses on Willie, in relation to his friends and family. Ensemble members portray his friends who attend the same mission school, and the only word that could accurately describe the moments of the group singing, dancing and goofing around together is ‘delightful’. The ensemble in this show is strong in every sense of the word. Every single performer is a triple threat, and has an indescribable magnetism to them.
Marcus Corowa, who plays Willie, gives the performance of a lifetime – with a mixture of flawless vocals, endearing awkwardness and the ability to portray the most genuine and believable connections between characters. The audience is with Willie throughout the trials and errors of coming into adulthood and the harrowing realisation of how the people in his culture are treated and depicted in Australia at the time.
The scenes where Willie, Stephen, Annie and Slippery were driving together brought out an entire theatre’s worth of belly-laughs and joy. Callan Purcell as Slippery and Danielle Sibosado as Annie played their roles with incredible comic timing, and fiery stage chemistry. Their song Afterglow was a highlight.
Ernie Dingo’s portrayal of Stephen Johnson (Uncle Tadpole) is possibly one of the most impressive performances in Australian theatre history – bringing the perfect mixture of comedy and sincerity. The relationship between Stephen and Willie was both heartwarming and hilarious, the connection between the actors obvious.
Teresa Moore, who played Willie’s love interest, Rosie, is a performer to be watched. She was a burst of sunshine with a heavenly voice, and her portrayal of Rosie was nothing short of perfection.
The most breathtaking moment of the show was during the song Listen to the News, led by Ernie Dingo and supported by a phenomenal ensemble. Projected in the background was an historical image of Aboriginal men who were taken prisoner in Australia in the 19th century. The cast stood in a line at the front of the stage, the emotion on their faces speaking louder than even their words could, as they sang the line “Is this the end? Is this the end of our people?” This moment resulted in many, many tears.
In the end, Willie and his friends finally make it home to Broome and a bunch of plot twist revelations come to light. These reveals carry the message, “we are all family”. This show gives a true glimpse into indigenous culture: the music, the dancing, the stories, the family connections, and how hard they have had to fight to keep it alive amidst oppression.
The most poignant takeaway is the joyous spirit with which this show was written. Members of a culture who have every right to be furious and unforgiving, are endlessly graceful, joyous and merciful. Bran Nue Dae is full of hope – the hope for a bright future, the end of the erasure of indigenous culture, and the union of all people. In addition, it might just be one of the best musicals of all time.