Heralded as Australia’s first indigenous musical, Bran Nue Dae was devised by Jimmy Chi and his band Knuckles in the 1980s. Since its premier at the Festival of Perth in 1990, it has toured Australia and was made into a highly successful film in 2009. With a new production celebrating the show’s thirtieth anniversary having opened in Parramatta in January 2020 ahead of a national tour, we reprint Part 1 of Peter Pinne’s article, first published in On Stage in Spring 2011, that looks at Bran Nue Dae and the career of its creator Jimmy Chi. Read Part 2 of this article»
Bran Nue Dae holds the distinction of being not only Australia’s first Aboriginal musical, but also the first hit Australian musical to be made into a major feature film. Yes, there had been two previous stage works committed to celluloid, Kenneth Cook’s Stockade (1971), which simply took Sydney’s Independent Theatre’s stage production and filmed it at the Colonial Australiana Village, Wilberforce, North of Sydney,  and Frank Howson’s What the Moon Saw (1990), which was based in part on his stage musical Sinbad the Sailor—The Last Adventure (1982),  but Bran Nue Dae was very different. Whereas Stockade had been seen only in Sydney, and Sinbad the Sailor in Melbourne, Bran Nue Dae had toured nationally and was a very well-known musical long before the cameras started rolling. As of 2010 the movie had grossed $7.6 million, and was one of the Top 50 Australian films of all time at the local box office. 
Bran Nue Dae had its origins in the 1980s when Jimmy Chi (1948-2019), a self-taught Aboriginal musician and composer based in the pearling port of Broome, Western Australia, wrote some songs which were performed by Kuckles, a local band. The first public viewing of the work as a piece of musical theatre took place in 1986 at a workshop produced by the Aboriginal Writers’ Oral Literature and Dramatists’ Association in Perth. 
The work received a positive reaction. Chi was encouraged to continue working on the piece by playwright and poet Jack Davis, Marita Darcy of Broome who persuaded him to get the songs down on paper, and Peter Bibby, editor of Magabala, the recently created Aboriginal publishing company in Broome. At this point the band Kuckles had also become involved in the project and had written some songs for it. Chi was a member of the group. 
Interest was shown by Robyn Kershaw, and later Duncan Ord of the Western Australian Theatre Company, Tasmania’s Salamanca Theatre, and the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust, which included the script in their National Playwrights’ Conference and Workshop in Sydney in 1989. 
Chi’s plot, set in the early 1970s and loosely based on his life story, opens in Broome, where Willie, an Aboriginal teenager, has his world turned on its head when his Auntie Theresa sends him to Perth for a Christian upbringing. At the Catholic mission Willie steals some food and is subject to harsh discipline metered out by Father Benedictus. Missing his girlfriend Rosie, he decides to run away back to Broome. Along the way he meets up with his Uncle Tadpole and two hippies, Marijuana Annie and Slippery. He also encounters police brutality, and has his first experience of sex. Father Benedictus pursues Willie and eventually they all meet up on the beach at Broome for a happy reunion and reconciliation when they discover they are all related to one another. 
The story opened with Willie and Rosie going to the movies at the Sun Picture Gardens Cinema in Broome, an open-air movie house with seating on canvas-backed chairs. The 80-year-old cinema still operates and is the last remaining open-air cinema in Australia.
The first commercial production of the musical took place at the Octagon Theatre, Perth, during the 1990 Festival of Perth, in a co-production between Bran Nue Dae Productions and the Western Australian Theatre Company. The work was credited to Chi and Kuckles, with the band providing the musical accompaniment and Stephen Pigram, one of its members, as musical director. Andrew Ross, a big supporter of the project, handled the direction, and Michael Leslie choreographed. Prior to opening, the company had rehearsed for eight weeks, six in Broome and two in Perth. 
The cast included Ernie Dingo (Uncle Tadpole), Michelle Torres-Hill (Rosie), John Moore (Willie), Bob Faggetter (Father Benedictus), Lynda Nutter (Marijuana Annie), Alan Charlton (Slippery), Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert (Pastor Flakkon) and Maroochy Barambah (Auntie Theresa).
Critical reaction was unanimous. Ron Banks (The West Australian) headlined his review ‘Aborigines put on satirical side’, whilst Peter Ward (The Australian) called it a ‘boisterous sunrise of engaging charm’. The Financial Review claimed ‘the humour is direct and frequently outrageous. One of the most obscene—and wildly funny—songs ends with condoms being thrown into the audience.’
The Bulletin said, ‘Bran Nue Dae’s joyous effect on an audience was apparent as its message of universal humanity—helped by an immortal borrowing of “Ich Bin Ein Aborigine!”—struck home,’ whilst Jill Sykes in The Sydney Morning Herald enthused, ‘Once in a while, something very special emerges in Australian theatre—something like Bran Nue Dae.’
The actors were also praised: ‘There is an especially fine performance from Dingo, while Moore and Torres-Hill are appropriate matinee idols’ (Australian), though it was also noted that ‘Some of the lesser experienced cast members had trouble with vocal projection.’ (West Australian)
The Financial Review, whilst endorsing the show, did carp: ‘Aspects of the scripting, performance, direction and choreography, for example, are simply awful. But after a while you realize that this is not the point. There is an authenticity to Bran Nue Dae which heralds the arrival of, not only a new musical form, but—more importantly—a new form of black theatre.’
And he was right. Bran Nue Dae did have a ring of authenticity about it. Granted it was rough and raw, but it was also fresh, invigorating, irreverent, funny and uplifting. Although it touched on Aboriginal issues such as alcohol, drugs, and police harassment, its treatment of Aboriginal culture was light-hearted and positive.
Chi’s exuberant score set the tone of the piece. Drawing on Broome’s mix of Koepanger (pearl fishermen), Malay, Chinese, Japanese, European and Aboriginal cultures and his own background with a Scots/Bardi/Aboriginal mother and a Chinese/Japanese/Anglo-Australian father, the songs were a mix of country, rock, Gospel, reggae and musical comedy.
Audiences could not resist the infectious title tune with its insistent reggae beat, or the country sensibility of ‘Long Way Away From My Country’ and ‘(Feel Like) Going Back Home’. ‘All The Way Jesus’ and ‘Child of Glory’ were pure Gospel, but the showstopper was the satirical ‘Nothing I Would Rather Be (Than To Be An Aborigine)’ which never failed to bring thunderous applause.
The musical was the hit of the Festival and played 15 performances at the Octagon Theatre. Later, with minor cast changes (Rohanna Angus as Rosie, Sylvia Clarke as Auntie Theresa and Stephen Albert as Uncle Tadpole) it toured from 6 to 29 September 1990 to the Western Australian regional towns of Kununurra, Derby, Broome, Port Hedland and Karratha, with Darwin the last stop. 
In Broome the musical came full circle when it played five sold-out performances at the Sun Picture Gardens Cinema.
The production then played 6 performances at the Canberra Theatre, Canberra, 2-6 October 1990 (The Canberra Times called it ‘A joyous parody’) and 13 performances, 10-20 October 1990 at the Playhouse, Adelaide. The Advertiser’s Tim Lloyd was equally laudatory: ‘As simple as a road movie, often very funny, and complex and even disturbing at the same time.’
Ernie Dingo returned to the role of Uncle Tadpole when the production played 12 performances at the Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, from 12 December 1990. Peta Koch (Courier Mail) called it ‘a pearl of a play … theatre at its most captivating and heartwarming.’
Sydney critics went overboard when the same production became part of the Festival of Sydney, opening on 4 January 1991 at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta: ‘Infectiously joyous, irreverent and life-affirming,’ (Sun-Herald); ‘Bran Nue Dae is in a world of its own … A great celebration and a wonderful experience to share’ (Bob Evans, Sydney Morning Herald); ‘Joyous, vibrant, wildly funny … sings with a voice unequivocal and unique’ (Frank Gauntlett, Daily Telegraph/Mirror).
The musical played 19 performances before transferring to the Seymour Centre’s York Theatre on 22 January 1991 for a further 22 performances, closing on 9 February 1991.
Melbourne was the only capital city not to see the show, but Leonard Radic did review a performance he attended at the York Theatre, Sydney, for The Age: ‘Bran Nue Dae stands out for its warmth and simplicity. It is a good-natured, unpretentious show which bounces along with engaging cheerfulness.’ He echoed these sentiments two years later when he again reviewed the musical when it finally reached Melbourne in a co-production between the Melbourne Theatre Company and Black Swan Theatre Company. It opened on 2 July 1993 at the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, during the 1992/93 national tour.
The tour was produced by Black Swan Theatre Company, an organisation that evolved from discussions between Janet Holmes à Court, Andrew Ross, Duncan Ord and Will Queckett, following the premiere of the first production of the musical in 1991, with help from Minister for the Arts, David Parker. Their charter was to produce distinctive regional theatre.  Almost thirty years later, Black Swan is the major State-funded theatre company of Western Australia.
The cast for the tour included Leah Purcell (Marijuana Annie), Trevor Jamieson (Willie), Alice Haines (Rosie), Steve Kidd (Slippery), James Hancock (Father Benedictus), Stephen Albert (Uncle Tadpole), Sylvanna Doolan), Sylvia Clarke (Chorus), and Josie Ningali Lawford (Chorus). Andrew Ross was again the director, Michael Leslie the choreographer, design by Steve Nolan, with musical direction chores being shared by Stephen Pigram and Chong Lim. The production had also acquired Lindsay Field as vocal arranger. 
A cabaret version was devised to travel to Fiji and other places. 
In 1991 a documentary by Tom Zubrycki about the making of the musical and the life of Jimmy Chi, Bran Nue Dae, premiered at the State Film Theatre, Melbourne. Reviewing the film in Green Left Weekly, Peter Boyle said he wished he hadn’t missed the stage version, and called it ‘Jimmy Chi’s Magical Musical’.
In 1994 Josie Ningali Lawford created a one-woman show that traced her life from the Kimberleys to her stage career in Bran Nue Dae. Produced by Deckchair Theatre, it played the Courtyard Studio in Canberra, from 10 to 15 October 1994.
Later the Aboriginal Theatre Program of the Community Arts Centre of Newcastle mounted a production of the musical at the Newcastle Community Arts Centre, where it played from 8 to 16 December 1995.
The musical won the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award in 1990. The following year the playscript with lead-lines of the songs was published by Currency Press and Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation. It won the Special Award in the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards.
The 1990 cast recorded the score in Broome. It was released on cassette (BND001) and was only available from the Broome Musicians’ Aboriginal Corporation, Broome. Later the 1992 Black Swan Theatre production was recorded and released on CD by Polydor (BNDCD001).
To be continued ...
1. Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper: Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford, 1981, p.335
2. Scott Murray (editor), Australian Film 1978-1992. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, p. 307
4. Chi & Kuckles, Bran Nue Dae playscript, Currency Press, Sydney / Magabala Books, Broome WA., 1991
12. Philip Parsons (general editor), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 97
Newspapers and magazines sourced
Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), The Australian (Sydney, NSW), The Bulletin, Canberra Times (ACT), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld), The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Financial Review, Green Left Weekly (Sydney, NSW), Herald Sun (Melbourne, Vic), Los Angeles Times (California), MTV Australia, Orange County Examiner, Sunday Age (Melbourne, Vic), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), The Sun-Herald (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Voice, West Australian (WA).
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