Burglar, heroin addict, serial convict, potter, actor: these are just some of the identities Jack Charles has tried on during his lifetime, many of them simultaneously. In Jack Charles v. The Crown, brought to the PuSh Festival by Australia's Ilbijerri Theatre Company, and playing at SFU Woodward's Wong Theatre through this evening, we hear directly from the man himself as he dispassionately--and with an abundance of humour and grace--states rather than pleads his case before us and an implied, but no less omnipotently disciplining, state apparatus.
Accompanied by a three-man backing band, Uncle Jack, who has appeared in films ranging from Fred Schepsi's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith to the recent Hugh Jackman blockbuster Pan, and who founded Australia's first Aboriginal theatre company in 1972, tells us what it was like to grow up as a member of Australia's Stolen Generation. Like thousands of other Aboriginal children born in the 1940s and 50s, Jack was forcibly removed from his family and reserve and raised a ward of the state in a religious-run institution (the equivalent of Canada's residential schools, which Jack cited as a direct parallel in one of his many local asides during the evening). Surviving physical and sexual abuse, and growing up with virtually no knowledge of his immediate family and ancestors, Jack forged a successful career as a singer and actor. Parallel to this, he was robbing homes in wealthy enclaves of Melbourne in order to finance a growing heroin addiction.
The story Jack tells is loosely structured around the revolving door of his incarcerations, one that replaced his name with a number: 3944. At first being "in the nick" isn't so bad; it gets Jack off the street and it is there that he takes up pottery, moulding clay with his hands in a way that reconnects him with his ancestral territories, and also allowing him to pass on his skills to his fellow inmates. A potting wheel is actually a key part of this work's otherwise simple set; it sits upstage left, and at various moments over the course of the show's 75 minutes Jack sits at it and shapes a lumpy bit of clay into a bowl or vase. The moment in the play when, sitting at his wheel, Jack talks about the intimacy of sharing this act with one of his fellow convicts, their hands touching as together they work the clay, their hair and breath intermingling as they stand over the wheel, is intensely moving. Jack is a born storyteller, and he has both the life and the voice to match this vocation.
Another dramaturgical feature of the piece is the use of projections and video clips, most of them drawn from a 2009 film, Bastardy, documenting Jack's improbable life shooting smack (which we actually see), burgling homes, and treading the boards. When in that film (which screened as part of PuSh's film series this past Wednesday), Jack is confronted with the prospect of another long visit to the nick, one that will almost surely break him, he decides to go clean. With the success of the film, Jack becomes a celebrity and among the fan mail he begins to receive are notes and photographs that start to fill in the missing pieces of his stolen childhood. This gift of getting his life back in his late 60s is what in turn inspires Jack's climactic post hoc appeal to the invisible magistrates of Australia's highest court; if the temporal fallacy of colonialism can construct the land upon which Aboriginal peoples have been living for millennia as terra nullius, and can likewise read Jack's stolen black body as a blank canvas, a tabula rasa, upon which to rewrite his history, then why can't the judicial system begat by colonialism expunge the equally specious causality of his criminal record?
While for me the play had, overall, a bit too much talk, Jack's concluding speech before the courts is a moment of undeniable rhetorical power. Referencing both his great-grandfather's act of political protest and the Fanonian colonial psychosis that has marked white settler Australians as much as Aborigines, Jack names what has made him both the sum of and infinitely more than a criminal justice system's anonymizing numbers.