Chenoa Deemal on ‘The Seven Stages of Grieving’

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A one-woman show sharing stories of Aboriginal history.

Just over 20 years ago, Deborah Mailman and Wesley Enoch – now fixtures in the Australian theatre scene – penned The Seven Stages of Grieving. Wesley (now artistic director of Sydney Festival) taught at Queensland University of Technology, and Deborah (known for Cleverman, The Secret Life of Us, Playschool) was his student. As writer Melissa Lucashenko put it in the Griffith Review, they were “young, black and savvy – and [Mailman] was fast refining the tools of [Enoch’s] theatrical trade.”

In Queensland at the time, the concept of seven stages of Aboriginal history had currency in academic circles. The idea – which coincided with Elizabeth Kubley-Ross’ model of the stages of grieving – struck a chord with Wesley, who in 1993 had returned to his Minjerribah home in North Stradbroke Island to take part in a funeral and other rites after his grandmother had died. With Mailman, he wrote a one-woman show about grief and hope for reconciliation, weaving stories from different people of various mobs across the region.

The play had mixed reviews in Australia in 1995, but the London critics loved it, and it was restaged in 2006 and 2008 and again in 2010 by Ursula Yovich and Lisa Flanagan respectively. Now, actor Chenoa Deemal steps onto the stage to deliver about 60,000 years of Indigenous history and story in the 55-minute one-woman show. She’s part way through the Grin and Tonic and Queensland Theatre Company tour – and we spoke to her before the Sydney Opera House shows May 19-20.

This one-woman show explores some big subjects, and theatre luminaries Deborah Mailman, Ursula Yovich and Lisa Flanagan have each performed it. How did it feel to step into this role?
I felt like they were big shoes to fill. The three actresses that did the show before me went on to have great careers; they are incredible. I felt a little out of my depth. I was really nervous, but we changed the show a bit – all with permission from the writers. We asked if we could use some of my own language (Guguu Yomithirr) in the show and one of my own jokes.

The play marked its 20th anniversary when you were first cast in the Queensland show two years ago. On tour two years later, are you bringing anything different to the role?
We added a new ending. It’s actually its third ending, which includes some of Kevin Rudd’s apology speech. We end it with that. It’s beautiful and powerful. We have changed the lighting and some of the set… We use rocks and sand, so it’s reflective of where I come from [in North Queensland]. There’s a place called Coloured Sands. It’s a massive canyon, which is pretty big. The escarpment is full of all different coloured rock and sand – red, yellow, black – as well as silica sand, which is white. So we’ve used white sand, red dirt and phosphorus stone – that adds to the North Queensland feel.

Do you feel that working with Wesley Enoch at Queensland Theatre Company prepared you for the show he wrote?
I played Katrin in Wesley Enoch’s Mother Courage and Her Children [in 2013 at QTC]. Katrin doesn’t speak – she’s a mute. She’s physical and emotional, so there was a lot I had to play with in that role. My director [Jason Klarwein] saw me in that show, and had always wanted to do Seven Stages of Grieving. He approached me – and now I’ve got all the words in the world!

Did that prepare you for this one-woman show?
I suppose I don’t think anything can prepare you for a one-woman show. I think you just have to do it. It’s one thing off your bucket list and you just do it with as much confidence and hard work as you can.

Deborah Mailman, Ursula Yovich and Lisa Flanagan are all wonderful actors. Do you look up to them?
Absolutely. In Mother Courage [and Her Children], Ursula Yovich played my mum. She’s an incredible woman and a powerhouse. Knowing she’d done this play and knowing her kind of energy on stage, how she commands the stage, I knew I wanted to achieve something like that. But I always try to do things my own way. I never want to emulate someone else. I’ll always take inspiration from someone like that. She always gave me great advice. She is very giving. She’s a very generous actor.

Are there stories you draw on in a massive, emotional role like this?
I think there’s not very many Aboriginal people who can’t relate to these stories. So many of these stories I really relate to. In particular, through my grandmother’s story. The Stolen Generation didn’t directly affect me, but it affected my family.

Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman grew up in Queensland where the kinds of stories this play touches on were silenced. A Griffith Review piece said: ‘They must have known that to talk about Aboriginal sorrow in Queensland was a revolutionary act.’ What is your response to that?
In south-east Queensland, there’s a history with people breaking those silences, those barriers, in making themselves heard. There are a lot of great activists in south-east Queensland. There’s a real kind of culture, kind of determination, by local activists that have broken moulds.

Do you think, 20 years later, the way we talk about these things have changed?
I think it’s an important play because a lot of it is still relevant. 20 years later, there are things that still resonate within the Aboriginal community. In 2015, the week before we started rehearsals, it was announced they were going to close all these west Australian communities. It sparked conversations about belonging. When you come and see the show, they’re going to understand why it’s still so relevant. It’s a beautiful show. People can come and experience something really profound and cathartic, and I hope they do.

Where to next?
I’d to move on and do some film and TV. I love theatre – I think I’d always come back to theatre. I would love to do film and TV because they are mediums that scare me. I don’t know as much about them as I do about theatre. That, to me, is a new challenge, a different sort of medium. I’ve done film before – not TV acting in a sense, I’ve done reality, I haven’t done acting scenes. I’d love to do something like that, but I know I’m in a really good place.

Seven Stages of Grieving is touring the east coast of Australia in 2017.

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