Roxanne McDonald and Colette Mann in Head Full Of Love | Cremorne Theatre

The reconciliation movement is full of traps. It’s far more than Kevin Rudd saying “sorry”, or a sea of hands, or cheerful populist rallies. In practice, when it comes down to the one-to-one level, it’s too easy to get it wrong, especially for the naive do-gooder with the best of intentions.

In this enchanting but perceptive new play from Alana Valentine, we are presented/confronted with a white woman’s clumsy attempts to make friends with a black woman in a town camp at Alice Springs.  The whitefella Nessa (Colette Mann) has appeared in the Alice, having (rather unconvincingly) run away from an unpleasant life in the city, and naively hopes to do her bit for reconciliation by making friends with a blackfella, here personified as Tilly (Roxanne McDonald).

If only it were so easy! Nessa drifts around the mound of red dirt where Tilly is crocheting away at a beanie, in time for the judging of the Alice Springs Beanie Festival. Nessa wants to approach her, but doesn’t know how to do it, while Tilly never gives her any help, merely raising her eyebrows in comic exasperation. Oh, we cringe at Nessa’s awkward approaches, but we feel for her too, for how many of us whitefellas would be/are any better than she is?

With the best will in the world she is patronising in her ignorance, and although she can’t understand where she’s going wrong, we aren’t shocked at Tilly’s irritated reaction. Nessa can’t see any further than her own pre-formed prejudices, while Tilly proves that she is more than the uneducated anangu maru (black person) that Nessa thinks she is, by putting her in her place without any attempt at tact or concessions.

How the women come to bond in an awkward kind of way is the dramatic journey of this play, and there are serious themes beneath the often comical story. The narrative now has moved on from the early concerns in the reconciliation process of dispossession and the stolen generations, and deals with the serious and more immediate health problems besetting people in the Central Australian camps, especially chronic kidney disease and the shortage of dialysis machines outside the towns, so that people who need them have to move away from country into the city for treatment.

Tilly takes a casual attitude to her own problem as she operates her own machine, but we see the full potential of the crisis, and it’s with glad hearts that we empty our pockets at the end of the show and donate to the Purple House, a renal treatment centre in the Alice.  So be sure to take some loose change with you.

Moral issues aside, this is a highly enjoyable play as much as a solemn examination of a problem.  It’s about two women who must each learn to break down barriers, and here Roxie McDonald gives her strongest performance ever.  She is just wonderful as the laconic unforgiving Tilly, treating her white soon-to-be-friend with the contempt but eventually the understanding she deserves, and has that wry smile and raising of the eyebrows that makes us rejoice with her at every point she scores.  Her way is not the whitefella way, but we can relish and enjoy it.

As Nessa, Colette Mann is equally wonderful with her bumbling attempts at making friends and getting it all wrong. She has to learn a different kind of humility, to discard her patronising attitude, and come nearer to Tilly’s own experiences, before she can be accepted as a friend. But eventually it happens, in spite of the frequent breakdown of communications, and (spoiler alert!) Tilly’s inevitable death, she is accepted as a real sister.

A strong simple set of rusty corrugated iron panels with landscape projections when they go back to country; a haunting score from Brett Collery; sympathetic and understanding direction from Wesley Enoch; and a play as full of love as those beanies.  What a pity we can’t buy them — but I might get out my crochet needle anyway.

The details: Head Full Of Love plays the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC until August 11. Tickets on the venue website.