The 7 Stages of Grieving was co-written by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman in 1995. When it premiered in Brisbane, performed by Mailman and directed by Enoch, it was a radical piece of theatre both in terms of the way the play told its stories about Indigenous history through a series of vignettes, and the way in which the production was staged.
A landmark when it opened, it has since become an Australian classic and has been performed numerous times, with actors including Ursula Yovich, Leah Purcell and Lisa Flanagan, among others, taking on the role on the unnamed Woman.
Elaine Crombie in STC’s The 7 Stages of Grieving. Photograph © Joseph Mayers
Sydney Theatre Company is now staging its fourth production. Shari Sebbens (a Bardi, Jabirr Jabirr person and one of STC’s Resident Directors) directs, while Elaine Crombie (a Yankunytjatjara, Warrigmal and South Sea Islander woman with German ancestry) plays the Woman.
Though the stories it tells are now far more familiar to theatre audiences than when the play premiered, The 7 Stages of Grieving still has plenty of punch and plenty to say – for, tragically, not a great deal has changed regarding the issues it addresses.
Referencing Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), The 7 Stages of Grieving adapts the concept to reflect on Indigenous history, the seven stages being – dreaming, invasion, genocide, protection, assimilation, self-determination and reconciliation.
Though the various vignettes, the Woman tells stories that reflect on the dispossession of land and language, the stolen generations, police brutality and the shocking number of deaths in custody, while also sharing tales of personal grief. The narrative ranges from the death of the Woman’s 82-year old nana, to an aloof auntie returning from London and finally breaking down at their nana’s grave, to the death of Daniel Yock – or “Boonie” as he was called by all his friends – who died in police custody in 1993.
Beginning with a smoking ceremony, the play segues between sadness, deep grief and anger, with resilience and exuberant humour mixed in.
Sebbens directs it on a black box set by Elizabeth Gadsby, which features middens made of dark earth topped with white shells – which tinkle when the Woman sprinkles earth on them.
At times, with the addition of a cross, they are clearly graves; at other times the Woman sits on them. The black floor and walls are shot with rainbow-coloured glitter, and so they sparkle and shine under the lights.
There are also projections (with AV design as well as lighting by Verity Hampson), with words and dates flashed up on a back screen. This can be powerful – illustrating the proliferating number of deaths in custody, for example, during the story about “Boonie” – but at times the production feels a tad over busy.
Elaine Crombie in STCs The 7 Stages of Grieving. Photograph © Joseph Mayers
Crombie excels when she is unleashing anger or exuding humour. She is most at home with the comedy and when she performs a stand-up routine (“Have you ever been Black?”), or lip syncs in a sparkling, sequinned cloak, or leads a singalong to Helen Reddy’s Delta Dawn, she is in her element and holds the audience in the palm of her hand.
In the quieter scenes, she is less comfortable. It doesn’t feel as if she has yet embodied the tragic stories and made them her own in order to fully convey the grief, so the production currently feels a little unbalanced and not as moving as it could be.
Crombie was clearly nervous on opening night, and had to be prompted a couple of times, but a warm, encouraging comment called out by Enoch led to a huge response from the audience – it was clear there was a lot of love in the room.
The 7 Stages of Grieving has evolved over the years. In 2008, Mailman and Enoch added a section about the 2000 Walk for Reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge. Crombie breaks character at this point to explain the addition. She then moves to a new epilogue, which she, Sebbens and her assistant director Ian Michael have added – seven actions of healing, which the audience can be part of. These are flashed up on the screen along with a QR code directing us to a portal where we can discover how we can help make change.
It is shocking that so little has changed since The 7 Stages of Grieving was first performed. Despite the Walk for Reconciliation and Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, there are still deaths in custody, and the recommendations of the Uluru Statement Of The Heart have not been enacted. As the play makes clear, a lot still needs to change.