Six Aboriginal women have come together at a campsite in Yorta Yorta Country, gathered there by family matriarch Neecy (Roxanne McDonald), hoping to reconnect them with the land. There’s Wanda (Angeline Penrith), single mother to five; her sister Margie (Dalara Williams), cagey about her relationships; Carol (Tasma Walton), the only Aboriginal woman in senior management at a museum; and newcomer Jadah (Tuuli Narkle), a photographer there to document their gathering. There’s also teenager Chantelle (Dubs Yunupingu), who the others perceive as at risk, having had brushes with the law and currently embroiled in an abusive relationship.

The cast of Winyanboga Yurringa. Photos © Brett Boardman

Andrea James’ Winyanboga Yurringa (Yorta Yorta for ‘Women of the Sun’) was first seen at Carriageworks in 2016, originally a Belvoir commission that was conceived as a follow-up of sorts to SBS miniseries Women of the Sun. An adaptation of Hyllus Maris and Sonia Borg’s novel of the same name, the miniseries was regarded as ground-breaking for its exploration of Aboriginal womanhood through time, covering the 1820s, 1890s, 1930s and 1980s. James’ play takes place in the present day, and in this sensitively directed production by Anthea Williams, proves itself a worthy instalment.

It’s a warm and enveloping piece of theatre, thanks in large part to the cast members’ obvious ease with one another. The audience slips gratefully into the rhythms of their conversation and salty banter, content just to be granted access to this pocket of life. Wanda and Margie bicker as only sisters can, jostling for the closest spot near the campfire. Carol is generous and open-hearted, welcoming Jadah even as she’s rendered an object of suspicion due to her light complexion. Chantelle, headphones obstinately covering her ears, with little time for her aunties’ spontaneous renditions of Pretty Woman, is the recipient of everyone’s good-natured needling and affection.

Roxanne McDonald in Winyanboga Yurringa. Photos © Brett Boardman

At the centre of it all is Neecy, intent on keeping them together for an act of reclamation that looks increasingly precarious as simmering tensions boil over. Some of this springs from Jadah’s incursion into their lives, the privilege she receives as somebody read as white, and the way her art is interpreted by the others as profiting off Aboriginality. Things come to a head when Chantelle leaves the camp at night to meet up with her boyfriend. Her whereabouts a mystery to the ones left behind, it’s a scenario that holds graver resonance for these Aboriginal women who immediately discount the possibility of police assistance.

James explores an array of ideas with admirable facility, the only downside being that some of the plot lines feel a little unrealised. However, the strength of the ensemble overcomes these concerns.

The cast of Winyanboga Yurringa. Photos © Brett Boardman

Roxanne McDonald is a strong presence as Neecy, showing us the anxieties that lie beneath the surface about Chantelle and her future. She balances steely resolve and generosity of spirit, making us feel her desperation as the interactions between her kin begin to break down. Dubs Yunupingu makes for a convincing teenager already too aware of the limitations placed on Aboriginal women, while Angeline Penrith, Tasma Walton and Dalara Williams provide strong support and consistent laughs. Tuuli Narkle deftly navigates the complexities of her character’s negotiation of identity.

Isabel Hudson’s set is a wonder, the river bank and sloping dunes seeming to embrace the six women in gentle inclines and curves. Combined with Verity Hampson’s lighting, which bathes the space in gentle pinks and golds, the land becomes a character in its own right, a living, breathing thing all too appropriate for a story about return to Country.


Winyanboga Yurringa is at Belvoir St Theatre until May 26

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