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Thursday, July 25, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Van Den Berg gives his ancestors a voice

Gaye Doolan with Dylan Van Den Berg… “There is a joy in identity and I feel that Dylan has found strength in this identity,” says Doolan. Photo: Helen Musa.

DYLAN Van Den Berg and his auntie, Gaye Doolan, make a formidable double act.

He’s the up-and-coming actor and playwright who just snared the coveted Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, as well as the Griffin Award and the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights Award in 2020.

She’s the former chair of the ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, and the Environment Reconciliation Action Plan Committee at the ANU Medical School, and now works with the National Cultural Educators and Cultural Mentors Network. 

Both identify as Palawa Tasmanian Aboriginal Australians from the north-east of Tasmania, and both are linked through a close ancestral relationship, although Doolan prefers to call herself “more like his great-aunt”.

During his years studying Indonesian and drama at the ANU – the only university where he could do that – she’d come to watch him acting in plays like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and, as time went on, presenting plays in readings and workshops before he went on to study at the State University of New York.

Now, he’s the actor-writer, while she’s cultural adviser on a journey of discovery about their common forebears through Van Den Berg’s prize-winning play, “Milk”. 

The play has been admired by assessors of the Enright Prize for its exceptional originality, and is soon to be seen at The Street Theatre in the world premiere production by Virginia Savage.

It’s a resounding triumph for The Street’s “First Seen” program, where it has been in development since 2018.

Dylan Van Den Berg and Roxanne McDonald. Photo: Creswick Collective.

Not only have the three characters been expanded, but also the imagery in Imogen Keen’s set and costumes, the island soundscape by Peter Bailey and the lighting by Gerry Corcoran, which helps take the audience on a voyage through time and space, have been brought to life in the rehearsal room.

Briefly, a young Palawa man (played by Van Den Berg himself and, like him, light-skinned) takes a dark journey into self and country on a metaphysical island, travelling backwards and forwards between the early colonial years and the violence experienced by an ancestor (Roxanne McDonald), much like his great-grandmother.

As well, he meets her party-loving granddaughter (Katie Beckett) dressing up for a date in the 1960s.

“Milk” ends with a beginning, as his character is seen picking up a stone and leaving the island. 

Since its earliest dramaturgical workshop, which I attended, the play has been considerably refined, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement which has burgeoned in the last couple of years.

“Dylan sticks to his historical facts,” Doolan says.

“He hasn’t just made up things that would fit nicely in a story. He makes a contribution to truth-telling.”

Costumes designs for “Milk” at The Street Theatre.

“Auntie Gaye had done some research and found something about my great-grandmother,” Van Den Berg says.

“Yes, it seems that Augustus Robinson knew what she was up to,” Doolan cuts in. That’s a reference to the British preacher who helped negotiate between settlers and aboriginals in the so-called “Black Wars” of the 1820s.

He’s aware of the argument that it’s not good to portray deceased people in a play, but says it’s “okay”, because this is not a short story but a play, “a way of presenting stories that brings people together”.

“We don’t go into the theatre wanting all the answers, but rather posing the questions and that, to me, reflects life – I wanted to give her [the ancestor] a voice,” he says.

Dylan Van Den Berg in “Milk”. Photo: Creswick Collective.

Van Den Berg and Doolan felt it was fine to take license with the ancestor’s language, because she did speak a little English, but it was much easier capturing the lingo of the 1960s auntie, who “passes” as white to survive. 

The third character, his character, he says, is going through the process of remembering.

“He finds some beautiful stories and at least one very heavy story.” No spoilers for that one.

“When you look like I do,“ he says, in reference to the fact that he can very easily pass as white, ”you feel like you have to justify yourself and sometimes people will say things like, ‘just how much do you have?’” – meaning how much Aboriginality.

But in playing himself, he believes he has objectified the part, saying, “just the fact that I wrote it means I removed it from myself”.

Besides, Doolan says, “there is a joy in identity and I feel that Dylan has found strength in this identity”.

“Milk”, at The Street Theatre, June 3 (preview) to June 12, book here or 6247 122s3.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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