Emotion expected when life of prominent Indigenous Elder unfolds on stage

Published:03 July 2018

Henrietta Marrie (second from right) with the actresses - Taeg Twist, Alexis West and Maurial Spearim - who portray her in 'Bukal'.

Imagine pivotal moments of your life unfolding on stage in front of a VIP crowd at a world-exclusive performance.

That emotion-filled experience awaits Henrietta Marrie AM, an Associate Professor from CQUniversity's Office of Indigenous Engagement.

Even the rehearsals for a new JUTE Theatre* play called Bukal – based on Henrietta's life - have led to a few tears for the Elder of the Gimuy Walubara clan of the Yidinji people of North Queensland.

“There’s a graveside scene where I return from visiting the British Museum in London (as a member of the Indigenous Reference Group delegation from the National Museum of Australia) and apologise for not being able to bring back the shell head-dress worn by my great-grandfather, King Ye-i-nie, a great warrior,” says Henrietta.

“There’s another touching scene relating to the traditional fire ceremony where I got my Yidinji spirit name of Bukal (meaning black lawyer vine) from my grandfather, connecting me to country.”

Henrietta notes that her great-grandfather’s regalia was taken to London after he posed for a portrait in Abbott Street in the Cairns CBD around 1905.

“I get strong feelings in the vicinity of the JUTE Theatre, which is also in Abbott Street, and I wonder if that’s because it may have been near to the original site of the photo studio where he last wore his crown jewels,” she says.

The new JUTE Theatre play – part of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair and in the spirit of this year’s NAIDOC theme, ‘Because of her, we can’ - is presented in association with CQUniversity.

It’s a story of resilience and passion that traces Henrietta’s journey from growing up in the Aboriginal mission of Yarrabah to becoming an Aboriginal rights activist and taking on global forces to drive Indigenous law, legislation and public policy.

“This is so exciting – to see my life story told, and for that to happen at such an exciting time for me and for CQUni’s Indigenous engagement,” she says.

I’m hoping the audience, and especially young people, will watch it and think, ‘if she can do it, I can do it!’” she said.

“We need our kids to dream big, and sharing our stories can give them the strength to make those dreams happen.”

The crowd for Bukal’s premiere performance on 10 July is expected to include international educators who have been visiting Cairns for an International Education Training Summit, along with artists, theatre directors and Native American dancers who have been visiting for the Cairns Indigenous Arts Fair.

They will be joined by philanthropists, community leaders, politicians and renowned actor Rhoda Roberts, who carried out groundwork on the Bukal project before being drawn away by other commitments.

The play by Andrea James (with Henrietta’s input) features actors Maurial Spearim, Alexis West and Taeg Twist, portraying different life events.

It will be performed for general public and school audiences in Cairns from 6-14 July before a touring production winds its way around regional and remote Queensland, from 16 July until September 21.

In each centre, the show will be performed in school or community settings, giving young people an opportunity to see positive stories on stage. The artists will then remain for three or four days to work with young people to write, rehearse and perform their own aspirational stories of success back to their community.

This year has already been a watershed for Henrietta, who was presented with a Queensland Greats Award by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, only a few months after earning her Order of Australia in the General Division (AM) for services to Indigenous culture, intellectual property rights and education.

Last year, she was appointed to the National Cultural Heritage Committee by Minister for the Arts, Senator Mitch Fifield, on the recommendation of Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion. In this role, she helps ensure that movable cultural material which is part of Australia’s identity is adequately protected when considered for trade or exchange.

In 1997, she became the first Aboriginal Australian appointed to a full-time professional position within the United Nations, with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal, where she was responsible for the implementation of Article 8(j) regarding the protection and fair and equitable use of the traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of Indigenous and local communities. In this capacity, she represented the interests of some 1.4 billion people and became widely known in UN circles as “Miss Article 8(j)”.

Henrietta is currently focusing on plans for the establishment of a First Peoples Think Tank - a national and global centre of excellence - to operate out of CQUniversity.

* JUTE Theatre Company acknowledges the support of the Australian Government through the Building Better Regions Fund and the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory board. It also acknowledges support from the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland, the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation and CQUniversity Australia.