Mum Shirl talks with BOB MAZA - 1986
This is one of the interviews that Elaine Syron organised in the mid 1980s. Thank you to Elaine for digging deep into her many boxes of archives and finding this for us. As neither of these much loved and immeasurably productive people are still with us, [nor some of the people they talk about], this is a treasure, and it has some valuable information about Redfern's Black Theatre.
MS It‘s a long time since I’ve known you.
BM That's right. About twenty years.
MS When you opened your first Black Theatre.
BM Yeah. That was in the early seventies, about the time of the Embassy.
MS That was the time the young blacks was jumping out in the street getting their guts kicked in.
BM Yes. That was when the Theatre started because that was when we had something to say.
MS Not just holding demonstrations then. You done that with the Theatre.
BM We let all of Australia know that Kooris are quite capable of using theatre as their sounding board. We needed to show all Australians that Kooris are quite capable of determining their future. And what we were trying to say in the Theatre was that we can stand up and we can be counted and we can do our own thing.
MS You see when the young people like Gary Williams, Gary Foley, and all the young boys what's now in their late thirties, and your two girls... Well, how old are they now?
BM Nineteen and twenty.
MS Well, they was babies in arms.
BM That's right.
MS Well you know, you come to an era with the young blacks – the activists, the black power kids, and only for the platform that people like you and Betty Fisher provided for, not a jumpin' off suicide platform, but the name was 'We'll tell the world that we're black Australians'. I want you to tell me about that, Bobby Maza.
BM Well, it was through people like yourself - Chicka Dixon, Cec Patton, Bill Ferguson. I mean these were our role models. When we were coming up through it, these people – I mean you people – were using the political platform, yous were making inroads, but there were a lot of discontent going around. And then of course in the seventies when that whole movement started right across the world – it was starting in America, it was starting in Europe - all the little people, all the minority groups, were starting to stand up. And of course this flowed on to Australia, and the Kooris picked that up. And of course the high point of the exercise was when the Kooris, those poor young blokes, went and put that tent up at the Embassy. And I mean that put us on the international map, and that inspired so many people. And out of that of course, that was where we did our first theatre performance on the lawns of Parliament House.
MS That was the platform.
BM That was the platform, and we’d just come back from America on a tour. We'd had a look at all the theatre that the Indians were using and all the black Americans were using, and we thought, 'Gee, this is a good way of telling people, and we can entertain them, and they can come and pay to hear us put our message across. And so we came back very inspired — Bruce McGuiness, Jack Davis, Solly Bellear ...
MS Gerry Bostock -
BM Well, look at them all now. I mean they're in the international arena now, either in films or in politics or in the arts.
MS Brian Syron
BM And Brian Syron. It was a very exciting time.
MS You worked with a black girl called Betty Fisher.
BM Yeah, Betty Fisher. Now that was, she was an entertainer, and a very successful one too. She didn't need the black cause.
MS No, she didn't.
BM She was living quite happily as an entertainer and getting a good name for herself, but she wanted to do something. She heard that the Theatre had been and gone, because between '73 and '75 it had been and disbanded, because we'd run out of people. We only had about a dozen people. We'd burnt them out in two years.
BM We didn't have a school or something where they were training so that the new ones would come along. And so all of us that were in it, by the end of two and a half years, were all burnt up, and so everyone went their own way. But we're still in the industry. People like Gary Foley of course is a director now and is going into politics — government I mean — and Ralph Rigby is a cameraman at the Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Eileen Corpus is a producer with the ABC. So all the original Black Theatre people have gone into other areas. But Betty — it was after '75 that Betty came along, and she saw this great hole ...
MS Yeah ...
BM In activities, in cultural activities. And so she was a real energetic woman and she managed to pull a lot of people together, all the people that were still on the fringes, and a lot of the young people too. And then she formed the Black Theatre and Culture Centre. She started out with exhibitions. She got a whole collection of Aboriginal art and had it on display. She had workshops in theatre, she had workshops in video, children's workshops. Oh, an amazing woman.
MS And out of that came Gerry Bostock's play, Here comes the nigger.
BM Here comes the nigger. Oh yes.
MS It was a seller, and it went to Japan or China?
BM Was it a seller! It went to China, and of course out of that Gerry Bostock, the writer, the poet, was born. He suddenly realised that he didn’t have to be among the unemployed Aboriginals, that he did have skills, that he didn't have to go to university, he already had those skills. That is what we're trying to say. We're trying to show all the Kooris that you got to have skills. You don't have to go to the school and be in that rat race and try to compete with the rest of the community, because we got our own skills. All we have to do is learn how to use them for ourselves and for our own reasons. And with Gerry now, I mean he produced and co-directed the award-winner – how many awards now? – eight awards internationally – Lousy Little Sixpence, the documentary. Hyllus Maris now, in Melbourne ... Hyllus is very strong. All her family are very strong - in particular the women. We got some of the family here workin'. But Hyllus always had something to say. She got so inspired by what was happening that she went and wrote Women of the sun, and she never wrote anything in her life, and won awards internationally. This is so exciting – international acclaim! These people using their God-given gift. There is a lot of kids walking the streets and the gutters, you know smokin', because they are lost and don't know that they got this tremendous energy and this tremendous creativity, that they can use it.
MS You just finished a film, didn't you Bob?
BM Yes. The Fringe-dwellers, and it is an unusual Australian film because it has an all-Aboriginal cast. It went to Cannes, France, although it didn't win an award, but we don't feel too bad about that because The colour purple by Spielberg, and he is a super international, and he has an all-black cast as well. It doesn't bother us because we were up there and we were counted. I got reports back from Justine Saunders and Kristina Nehm, who went over to France, and they were so overcome when at every showing, particularly the first one, an international audience – to capacity, it was – stood and whistled and cheered and stomped the floor. And she said, 'I'm here as an Aboriginal first, and then as an Australian'. It was magic stuff. It has really put us on the international arena now in terms of film and talent. A lot of people don't even know we exist for a start, and those that did thought we were still walking around with spears and ...
MS In the nude.
BM In the nude, and all that sort of stuff.
MS You got an agency, haven't you?
BM Yes, the ABENA. That's run by Lou Davis.
MS Is he black or white?
BM He's a blackfella. He's a printer here in Redfern, and he's another one like Betty Fisher. He could have gone out and been a successful printer either in North Sydney or the northern suburbs and lived quite happily, which he did. No, he wanted to come back to the Kooris, so he worked here. Most of his clients are Aboriginal people. I mean he is barely scratching a living, but he is still hanging in there.
MS He is making a way for the young people to follow you.
BM Well, when the agency came about ............ They said, 'Look the agencies that are around are not promoting Aboriginal people. If a job comes up – well an Aboriginal actor might get work once every six months. But he went out to the producers and said, 'Why don't you write a part for an Aboriginal? This part you've got here, why not make it for an Aboriginal. So he went out and actually created work for the Aboriginal. He has only been going for six months to date. They turned over $150,000 in the black community, and don't forget he's not subsidised by the government either. So it's really exciting stuff. And as far as filming goes, I've got my own film company. I'm doing films for the Education Department, and the latest one is for Aboriginal employment. I'm doing two videos: one will be shown to employers, and the other to Kooris in schools to give them an idea about Aboriginal people who are working in the private sector. Most of our Kooris are working for the Government or for the Public Service, and we were trying to find out if there were any Kooris working in the private sector. And I was amazed. In the first week I was able to produce twenty people in jobs like hairdressing, mechanics, butchers. This was in Redfern or the inner-city area. The other thing I'm doing is a radio program on the Pope's visit. It's being held in Alice Springs, and 10,000 people are coming from all over Australia. It will be an audience of only an hour or two. There is a little bit of fighting going on about who is going to be organising it, and who is going to be the host, and who is going to meet the Pope. There are some Kooris who don't want anything to do with the Pope because the Vatican has Aboriginal paintings and bodies, skulls — that sort of stuff — and the word is they want those returned. Well, it is a nice thought, but it would set a precedent around the world that the Vatican would then have to return all the other treasures to other people. So I am going to interview people, for SBS television, about what they think of the Pope's visit, but also what they think of the Bicentennial. There are so many conflicting arguments — 'we don't want to join anything, but we don't want anyone else to join it' — that sort of thing.
MS Right. I think we should leave it to each person to make up his own mind and convictions.
BM That's right.
MS Why can't they take money and make a political platform with dancers and theatre? They started off in the late sixties and early seventies ………....... referendum in '67 they never had a black platform. They never had black actors. A lot of people come a long ways to see the blacks express themselves. We must remember it's not just the Australians, people in this country, that got to look at the Bicentennial. It's millions from all over.
BM It's an international forum. We could put on something the world has been waiting for. You see at the moment we are still invisible.
MS I think Betty Fisher once said, 'If you're black you stand back, if you're white you're all right, and if you're brown you stand around'. And I think that's an improvement now.
BM That's right.
MS Blacks have stood back long enough, and the whites was always right, and the little brown fella with no hat or no shoes, he's standin' around. Now he's out there with people like Lou Davis.
BM That's right. He's got shoes now.
MS When Lou Davis told me about it, I could hear Betty Fisher talking. You know, even the fellow what was in the play. Charlie, what was it?
BM Athol Compton?
MS No. That Charles fellow from Victoria.
BM Oh, Jackie Charles?
MS Jackie Charles, little tiny fellow.
BM A deadly actor.
MS But what a way to express his self! His hands and his voice and his motion of his body! See, you worked with them people.
BM Oh yes, and I know what a brilliant actor he was.
MS Yes, and Athol Compton.
BM Yes, that's right. And some of these young people coming up. It's amazing.
MS That's it. The young boy Dargin.
BM Never had acting experience in his life, and just walk in front of a camera. And they look so good, and they are — excellent.
MS Somebody once said, in the old Black Theatre in Botany Street, and they said, `How do you know I'm actin'?' And I heard one voice, I won't mention the voice, said, `Us blacks been actin' all our life, and we're not in Hollywood'.
BM All right. I better be getting along.