Foley – Melbourne Festival

I saw Foley surrounded by teenagers from Warrnambool. 

 Melbourne International Arts Festival 2011
Presented by: Ilbijerri Theatre Company, Melbourne Festival and Sydney FestivalVenue: Fairfax, the Arts Centre Thursday, 13 October 2011
Gary Foley in Foley for the Melbourne FestivalI saw Foley surrounded by teenagers from Warrnambool. 
At first I shhhed and glared at the rude boys who didn’t know theatre etiquette, but listening to their commentary was as fascinating as the story Gary Foley told about his transformation from angry young to grumpy old man.
Like Jack Charles V The Crown, this year Ilbijerri and our arts festivals give the stage to activist, actor, academic and ratbag Gary Foley, who tells his story of becoming politicised and his experience of the Black Power political movement in Australia. Unlike Uncle Jack’s story, we’re left without getting close to the person, but his telling is compelling and angry and without a rainbow serpent in sight.
Wearing a Viva Fidel t-shirt and a black jacket with a glittery black-power fist, Foley begins his story in 1965 when he was the only black kid at school and living in a “redneck hellhole” where it never occurred to him that a segregated cinema wasn’t normal.
Meanwhile, his history begins at the turn of the 20th century when Aboriginal water front workers were influenced by US black power movements and Fred Maynard formed the Australian Aboriginal Progress Association. Through his active involvement in Redfern, the Tent Embassy and early black theatre, Foley’s history is not the one I learnt at school.
As we who were alive in the 70s saw missed parts of our history, chuckled at the recognition and despaired at the lost opportunities, my teenage theatre mates were so bored, they may get detention from their embarrassed teacher.
As a Qanda-watching, theatre-going, Greens-voting, pseudo-hippy liberal, I hung on every one of Foley’s words. I laughed at every political reference (damn it, I remember believing in Labor), was fascinated by the Tent Embassy footage that I hadn’t seen, had no idea that teen-hero Simon Townsend (Wonder World) was a journo and nearly wet myself at the “Welcome to colour TV” and white-mask sketches from the never-screened pilot for Basically Black from 1972. 
These kids didn’t. They didn’t even get the obvious parallel between the mining industries current squillion dollar campaign to create fear and the one that turned Hawke. One didn’t even know that Eddie Maguire used to be on The Footy Show.
Chatting with them after, I have a much better idea of the show through their eyes and despaired at an education system that doesn’t seem to reflect on Australia’s recent history or current affairs. These teenagers have no connection to any of the events.
Foley’s ultimate message is that for all our Sorry t-shirts and the acceptance of Aboriginal theatre in our arts festivals, we really haven’t made that much progress and he encourages his young audience to take up the fight. Not a chance of this happening with these kids. 
But, that’s not so bad. If I’d been told the same history when I was 13ish, I wouldn’t have got it either. These kids said “no shit” when Foley showed the Aboriginal flag (and told us how it was really created), they giggled at the word “boong” because they thought it was “bong” – and they kept saying “bong” – and at “coon”.  They may not have studied Keating’s Redfern speech – or know who Keating is or where Redfern is – but these are teens who have never uttered “boong” or even know about “coon” and they thought that no one could be so stupid as to not recognise the Aboriginal flag. 
They didn’t get the wordy show about our missed history, but they didn’t see a black dude; they saw a boring dude. And if that’s the colour-free attitude they’re taking into life, that’s a damn fine step in the right direction. They’ll care about history as they become part of it
More of Anne-Marie’s writing is at

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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