After a few rounds of “head, shoulders, knees and toes” in the indigenous Australian Pitjantjatjara language, co-writer/narrator Trevor Jamieson encourages the audience to settle back for an intensely personal, true story packing significant emotional punch. A collaboration between Aboriginal artist Jamieson and director Scott Rankin, “Ngapartji Ngapartji” explores big issues through intimate narratives and delivers a powerful, yet consistently gentle message. It is a classic festival piece with a big cast, expansive ideas and passionate ties to a place — in this instance the Australian Outback.
Narrator Jamieson describes his fears for the life of his brother, who has been in and out of prison and who he believes is a contemporary victim of crimes that happened generations ago when British settlers seized land in Oz, displacing the traditional inhabitants.
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Outback Aborigines suffered further pain when in 1953 the British government began a 12-year atomic bomb testing program at Maralinga. The environmental impact of explosions more powerful than Hiroshima has been well documented, but the toll on the lives of the land’s inhabitants and their offspring has never been told as exquisitely as here.
Jamieson describes how planes dropped pamphlets warning people to stay out of the vast bomb zones, but the pamphlets were written in English, a language few roaming Aborigines could read.
Tribes traveling from one waterhole to the next who came across fences erected by the government perished because they were too far from the previous waterhole and unable to scale the fence to get to the next one. They “died here like vermin, pests in their own country,” Jamieson says.
These stories have been rarely told because Aboriginal Aussies traditionally don’t speak of the dead, and there are few records of the lives lost. Aborigines were not given citizenship until 1967 and hence did not officially exist until then.
Produced by Big hArt, which works with community groups on large-scale, subsidized public art projects, “Ngapartji Ngapartji” has been eight years in development and is part of a wider collaboration with indigenous communities that includes a website, a three-state community arts program and a touring company.
Creators employ a mix of direct narration, audience interaction, dance, film and singing to string together threads of a broader story.
As the aud enters the theater, the grandson of acclaimed artist Albert Namatajira (uncredited in program) is sketching an exquisite bush landscape on the back wall. The set of black sand features a single copper wave-like curve across which the performers dance and climb like a skaters’ ramp.
The freewheeling storytelling in numerous languages (many of them employed at the same time), mimics Aboriginal culture, at least as Anglo Australians perceive it. “Ngapartji Ngapartji” is a gift of explanation from indigenous Aussies, packed with forgiveness and hope.