Truth Sadder Than Fiction

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The Aboriginal play 'Stolen' packs an emotional punch: so far it's been responsible for three heart attacks, several episodes of hyperventilation and a weeping front row of 15-year-old schoolboys. The deceptively simple play tells of five Aboriginal children taken from their families and subjected to almost inconceivable cruelty. In a series of vignettes, they grow up and struggle to make sense of themselves, suffering rape, imprisonment and mental illness all because of their skin color. The stories are so disturbing they would seem far-fetched if they weren't based on fact. "This is not the kind of material you sanitize," says director Wesley Enoch. "It's quite a harrowing night in the theater."

The play's subject is possibly the heaviest weight on Australia's national conscience. The title refers to the "Stolen generation" the Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families from 1910 until the 1970s under government assimilation policies. The resulting personal and cultural devastation has only really come to public attention in the past five years, fueling a popular push for Australia to make peace with its past. Stolen seems to have tapped into the Australian zeitgeist, winning standing ovations every other night. Since its premiere at Melbourne's Playbox Theatre in October 1998, it has toured the country during a volatile phase in the reconciliation debate, amid threats by some Aborigines to stage violent protests during the Olympic Games. Now it has come overseas for the first time, to London's Tricycle Theatre (July 4-15), as part of the HeadsUp Australian arts festival, marking the country's centenary of federation in 2001.

Since the Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-operative commissioned it in 1992, Stolen has evolved through workshops and community consultations. A chronological jumble, it is loosely set in a loveless children's home where the wards line up in order of lightest to darkest. Sandy tells Dreamtime stories and pines for his desert home, while Anne, raised by white parents, is horrified to discover her Aboriginal origins. Jimmy descends into despair: the authorities tell him his mother is dead, even while they're filing away the letters and birthday presents she sends him year after year. He doesn't find out she is alive until 26 years later then she dies before he can meet her. Jimmy can't recover from that. "I've been a thug and a thief," he says in his prison cell, "but I've never Stolen anyone's soul."

Stolen is emotionally taxing but the most powerful scene is not actually in the play at all. At the end the houselights come up and the actors shed their characters to speak to the audience, unscripted, about their own lives. They too have been Stolen and abused. "It reminds the audience that they haven't just sat through a show," says Enoch. "They've sat through people's lives." Writer Jane Harrison who, like Enoch, is part Aboriginal agrees: "It hits the audience between the eyes that this is not about history it's not something that happened 100 years ago."

Aboriginal children were still being taken from their homes as late as the mid-1970s. But it was not until 1997 that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released its Bringing Them Home report, a collection of accounts from Aboriginal people brought up in white families or institutions. The phrase Stolen generation was coined soon after. But ever since conservative Prime Minister John Howard refused to apologize three years ago for removal policies of past governments, the reconciliation process has been troubled.

It stalled altogether in April when Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron quibbled over numbers, saying 10% of children did not constitute a Stolen "generation". The argument over semantics enraged the Aboriginal community. But the gloom lifted on May 28, when an estimated quarter of a million people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of recon-ciliation. A skywriter sprayed "Sorry" across a clear blue Sydney sky, and Evelyn Scott, head of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, said: "I will die happy."

Harrison wanted to capture that sense of hope. "One thing I noticed was the lack of bitterness," she says, speaking of the "Stolen" people she knows. "I felt finger-pointing was divisive. And the play's not about white guilt it's about understanding and acceptance." Her writing is spare and understated, as is the set just five steel-framed beds and a single filing cabinet to symbolize an unyielding bureaucracy.

Stolen seeks to open up the past and exorcise the shame for both black and white and shatter some prejudices in the process. Aboriginal theater has been doing that for years, quietly raising Australia's respect for indigenous culture. In the fight for reconciliation, a play can be more powerful than protest. "It's all about empathy," says Enoch. "Good theater lets you walk in someone else's shoes for a while." And when the curtain falls, you're somehow changed. Like those 15-year-old boys in the front row.