February, 2014 | Barbican Pit Theater
Jack Charles’ new project follows a seven-year long documentary [Bastardy, 2009] of his life as an aboriginal child; institutionalised within child care and the ‘Victorian’ prison system, as an actor, activist and drug addict of forty years. The play, which could be treated as an extension or aftermath of the documentary’s release has Jack Charles scrutinising his remarkable life, alluding to his crimes, struggles and sexual disposition with comment and reflection using real props, live music and multimedia in the form of projected film and official police documents.
The subject matter is serious but the execution is comic and lighthearted, laced with dark moments and unhappy reflections. At the start the audience are immediately thrust into a troubled life with a clip from Bastardy of the aged Aboriginal injecting heroin into his arm as he explains, “this is what I do… for forty years, doesn’t harm anybody; only me.” Meanwhile on set Jack is revealed molding wet clay into a pot, an activity he mastered in Prison which he claims is a feature of his incarceration he will never regret. His text is poetic and witty, with plenty of wordplay and comedy yet suddenly brutal in his address of the unjust treatment of his people in a new world colony.
“[Having been] plucked from my mother’s breast I know nothing about my Aboriginal heritage,” a brief but effective summary of the treatment of generations of his people and enforcing this with an old joke when meeting other black children by the name of Charles, “wouldn’t it be funny if we were all brothers and sisters?” A shimmer of awkwardness through the audience but it’s ok, we’re laughing, he’s telling us his joke in well-played irony. From the outset there was an uneasy truce between his existence and the state. On his upbringing in a white Melbourne school he says, “I was happy to assimilate. The only trouble was I didn’t fit in… I’m fucking brown, mate.” His objective is to hold the establishment to account, he did his ‘time’ and now he’s constructing a verbal biography while recovering from life-long institutionalisation. It works because the audience aren’t his target,
But far from turning an hour-long performance into an accusing lecture of racism at the hands of the whites, Jack Charles V the Crown is sensitive not manipulative, delivering with grace, charisma, charm and a cheeky grin throughout while speaking with an actor’s mastery to shape words armed with a rich, Australian voice that wins the audience over. This welcomes sympathy while avoiding pity: he sings with his backing band songs reminiscing about his days in Ozzy gigs, ironic yet affectionate – a black man steeped in white music, shows clips of a television career in the 70s, points out the black child across numerous photo projections, alludes to sexual experiences in prison while describing pottery, proudly lists confiscated items such as Gucci sunglasses and other objects of crime featured in police reports.
The significance of this show playing in London draws our attention towards the Empire, indeed, his childhood love of the Queen highlights his early efforts to assimilate, yet his visa application for a theatre tour is met with the obstacle of his police record. His retort, however, that it was the British who sent their Criminals to Australia in the first place demonstrates his wit and understanding of the themes of his life.
Well paced, balanced and sharp, dealing with monumental social issues combined with a deeply troubled upbringing but never sentimental, Jack Charles (mother: ‘Blanche’ Father: ‘A Black Man’) V the Crown is led by a fantastic story-teller with a gentle spirit and great sense of humour.
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