Review By Lisa Lanzi
Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai theatre maker Andrea James (playwright, director and dramaturg) recently won the $30,000 Mona Brand Award for Women Stage and Screen Writers for her body of work, including more than 10 plays concerning contemporary First Nations stories and peoples. Her work was commended by award judges for being "unruly, delightful and heartbreaking" even as it spoke to "things many of us are too afraid to face". It is exciting to be involved in performing arts at a time when so many Australian tales are being brought to the stage. Even more so, as with Sunshine Super Girl, when that story celebrates a legendary indigenous female sportswoman with an entire cast of indigenous performers on the main stage - and perhaps an artistic way forward to increase the recognition and celebration of Australian Indigenous peoples and their stories.
James is both writer and director of Sunshine Super Girl and has crafted a deceptively simple, unpretentious work where surprising layers of emotional and historical depth are revealed as the narrative unfolds. Set on a ‘clay’ tennis court with moveable net, umpire’s tower, scattered benches and old wooden produce boxes, set and costume designer Romanie Harper has honoured the essential simplicity of the whole while suggesting various shifts through many changes of place. At one moment we are in Goolagong-Cawley’s Riverina hometown of Barellan on Wiradjuri Country (the ‘place of many lizards’), or later on centre court at Wimbledon. Lighting design by Karen Norris is outstanding and complements the cohesiveness of the narrative and the soul of the locations.
As the central figure, Ella Ferris (Taribelang) is riveting. Her performance is a perfect blend of vocal purity and precision movement, as well as total engagement with the ensemble and the emotional journey of the character. The ensemble are embracing the challenges within this production, each of them playing multiple roles and shining throughout. Katina Olsen (Wakka Wakka/Kombumerri), Jacqueline Compton (Wuthathi/Torres Strait Islander), Lincoln Elliott (Wiradjuri) and Kirk Page (Mulandjali/Badu Island, Torres Strait) are at their multi-talented best portraying parents, siblings, press corps, coach/abuser, competitors and friends. The synergy and easy cooperation onstage (physically and emotionally) between all performers was electric and definitely captivating.
The entire play unfolds in part as emotionally-charged and fact-laden monologues delivered by Ferris then interwoven with scenes where many characters interact both vocally and with superb movement sequences. Original choreographic concepts and movement direction were by Vicki Van Hout (Wiradjuri) with additional choreography from Katina Olsen, herself an accomplished dancer and creator. This interplay of contemporary and balletic vocabulary was contrasted with some First Nation’s movement and once the trope was established, the combination of spoken word and dance was delightful, poignant and revealing. One particularly moving physical motif (of many) was the cast’s elegant manipulation of a tennis ball through the air, both at the beginning and end of the play - the top and tail ends of Goolagong’s career. Another was Olsen’s athletic solo portraying one of Goolagong-Cawley’s competitors: the now pariah-like figure of Margaret Court which wisely was not highlighted here, although the ‘N’ word was uttered. Yet another bookended moment saw Ferris seated high up on the umpire chair and tossing an imagined line into the river as she spoke - also a moment where the beautiful sound design by Gail Priest featured. All performers used movement with great precision and segued easily and memorably from physical to verbal expression, or sometimes a stunning combination of both.
Thematically, the narrative delved into issues of segregation (for example, where First Nations people were only seated within a small roped section of a cinema) and a brief comparison to Apartheid with Goolagong-Cawley competing as a government-designated ‘honorary white’ in South Africa; the Stolen Generation and the spectre of ‘the black car’ that indigenous children were taught to be wary of; sexual predation and the exploitation of sports figures; the genesis of Australian indigenous activism including the freedom rides and the first tent embassy in Canberra. There is also much to reflect upon around the combination of passion, dedication, talent, opportunity, and success, and the way these things are ‘available to’ or encouraged for some but not all.
Sunshine Super Girl is a gentle yet direct and thoughtful experience. I read that James explored the Riverina locations where Evonne, her seven siblings and parents lived and went to fish and swim. This research lent the writing and direction a deal of emotion and deep connection. She also met with Goolagong-Cawley and her husband Roger and received their blessing to make the work.
There was great satisfaction learning of the life and times of this cherished sports star through the vehicle of theatre and long may the inspiration and entertainment inherent in this work stay with the audiences who are fortunate to attend.
Sunshine Super Girl is produced by Performing Lines and supported by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body; the NSW Government through Create NSW; the Seaborn Broughton & Walford Foundation; the Blake-Beckett Trust; Moogahlin Performing Arts; Australian Plays Transform through its Playwrights’ Retreat Program; and Production Co-Commissioners Melbourne Theatre Company, Griffith Regional Theatre, QPAC, and seven regional venue partners.