A wave of images and voices flood the stage introducing us to the hero of this tale, the real life actor, folk singer, cat burglar, drug addict, glass beveller and pottery maker, Jack Charles. As Charles gracefully shapes a new pot on stage, we see clips of him injecting himself with heroin and hear his extensive list of crimes. This is a man who has not just lived one life to the full, but rather many different lives – both good and bad, light and dark – and for the next hour we have the privilege of witnessing just a few of them.
Charles is a magnetic personality. Like an avuncular 71-year old jazz musician, he seems effortlessly cool. He recounts his misdemeanours – 22 times incarcerated, 40 years a heroin addict – with humour and honesty. Yet, as we slowly discover, this joie de vivre hides, or perhaps stems from, a dark past. Charles was the victim of institutionalized hatred, of physical and sexual abuse, and a racist government policy aimed at subjugating and eventually destroying his people – a people with a bloodline that goes back over 60,000 years. He reads from his own psychological profile that this has led to him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
His final act, a mock courtroom peroration, implores our understanding. I did those things, he says, that hurt both myself and others. But his hope is that in accepting and understanding his past, we will not let it determine his future. As the old saying goes, those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.
Indeed the weight of history courses through this play. Charles’s incredible journey may be utterly unique but he represents Australia’s greatest modern social and political divide. He is one of the Stolen Generations, the Aboriginal children taken from their families to be assimilated into the white race with the intention of slowly destroying Aboriginal culture.
His story is one of far too many, and its telling (the show premiered in 2010) remains relevant. It was only in 2008 that an Australian government finally apologized unconditionally for the removal policy which displaced thousands of children from 1908 to the late 1960s. Even with that belated recognition there still exists a new generation of Aboriginal youths facing the depravations of present day institutionalised racism, a lack of connection to indigenous heritage and the invincible edifice of Western culture.
Relying solely on Charles’s narration, interspersed with a few songs, at times the pace lags, and there is a huge amount of information to take in. Perhaps greater variety in approach could have helped the audience to a more emotional understanding of Charles’s experiences. That being said, Charles has an evanescent enthusiasm and charisma, which, when one tries to fathom the dark places and times he has been through, only makes his hopeful convictions and final appeal to unity and love all the more powerful.