When Evonne Goolangong was three, she found an old brown, bald tennis ball down the backseat of her father’s car and was instantly fascinated by it. Her brother wanted to know what it was. “It’s mine!” she says in one of the opening scenes in Andrea James’s play Sunshine Super Girl.

Tennis balls would, of course, play a central role in Goolagong’s life, as she went on to become one of Australia’s greatest tennis legends: not only was she the first Indigenous woman to win a Grand Slam, but she won 14 Grand Slams, including seven singles titles, two of them at Wimbledon – the second after she had had a child (the first mother to win there in 66 years).

Tuuli Narkle as Evonne Goolagong Cawley, with Kyle Shilling, in Sunshine Super Girl. Photograph © Yaya Stempler

Andrea James, a Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai woman, tells the story of Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s life and career in Sunshine Super Girl, which she wrote and directs. The play, produced by Performing Lines with a number of co-commissioners, had its world premiere at Griffith Regional Theatre in Goolagong’s hometown in October 2020 and now has a season at Sydney Festival.

The Sydney season is staged at Sydney Town Hall where the performance area has been transformed into a tennis court (designed by Romanie Harper), with the audience in seating banks on either side. Projected video by Mic Gruchy turns the floor into clay and grass courts, rippling ponds, linoleum floors and London nightclubs, as the production zips between locations, with lighting by Karen Norris.

Tuuli Narkle, who plays the title role, acts as a narrator, talking directly to the audience between dialogue scenes. After finding that tennis ball at the age of three, she and her brother start hitting it against the tin wall of the family’s shack in Tharbogang in the Riverina with a broom and then a racquet made by her father from a wooden fruit box. From there, the family moves to Barellan, living in a house next to the Barellan War Memorial Tennis Club where Evonne plays from the age of seven, winning junior championships with her siblings.

Spotted by tennis coach Vic Edwards (Luke Carroll), Evonne’s parents (Jax Compton and Kyle Shilling) allow her to move to Sydney where Edwards can train her properly and build her career, gradually entering her into international competitions including Wimbledon, where she meets her future husband Roger Cawley (Shilling).

Along the way, James refers to the stolen generations, the fight for land rights, and Apartheid when Evonne is granted status as an “honorary white” to go and play in South Africa. Rather than get involved in politics, Evonne prefers to make her own statement through tennis. As she says in the play: “I’m going to talk with my racquet.”

It’s a fascinating story, which James encapsulates in a tight, linear, biographical play running 90 minutes. It doesn’t delve very deeply beneath the surface but it reveals Goolagong Cawley as a kind, sensible woman brought up by a loving, supportive family who raised her well. James draws on Evonne’s deep connection to Wiradjuri country, and references the pressure she frequently faced as a First Nations woman in an often racist world – though the mainly all-white community of Barellan is shown to be wonderfully encouraging, raising funds and donating clothes and tennis equipment to help her move to Sydney. Evonne also has to deal with some unwelcome attention from Edwards.

Sunshine Super Girl. Photograph © Yaya Stempler

Tuuli Narkle is radiant as Evonne: the shining light at the centre of the production giving a charming, endearing performance that captures Goolagong Cawley’s warmth, strength and determination, and her loyalty to her family.

She is supported by a strong ensemble of four – Carroll, Compton, Shilling and Katina Olsen – who play a wide range of characters.

The production uses dance and physical theatre to convey the tennis strokes, with the cast sometimes using tennis racquets but often just their bodies. The choreographic concept and movement direction was initiated by Indigenous dancer/choreographer Vicki Van Hout, with additional choreography from performer Katina Olsen who is also the show’s Movement Director. It’s a clever way to capture the athleticism and grace of the moves on court, and some of the synchronised movement is really powerful, while the tennis net is moved around during the inventive staging.

The sound is occasionally a bit problematic. The performers are miked and in the opening scenes it’s sometimes difficult to hear what they are saying over the music. Your ear does tune in, though some of the dialogue is a hard to decipher when sports reports are made to sound a bit tinny in order to convey the fact that the dialogue is being delivered on radio or television.

That aside, Sunshine Super Girl quickly sweeps you up in its storytelling. It may not dig deep psychologically or emotionally but it is an illuminating, entertaining play, which tells an important Australian story with humour and heart. A story well worth telling.

Sunshine Super Girl plays at Sydney Town Hall until 17 January

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