Last night 1000 locals from the Aboriginal community of Yarrabah sat in the shade of an imposing mango tree — it’s known as the “watery” tree, thanks to its juicy fruit — to watch the debut performance of Opera Australia’s latest production Yarrabah! The Musical.

An hour’s drive from Cairns, Yarrabah has had a fractured existence. It was formed in 1892, when the local indigenous people were convinced to join a mission established by priest John Gribble. Over the following decades, half-caste Aboriginal children from different clans of Queensland were taken from their families to live at Yarrabah in dormitories, where they worked without pay, and the girls were married off at 16.

In recent years the community has struggled with unemployment, drug issues and severe over-crowding in houses. “Nowadays it’s not a good picture. It’s really negative,” said Lucy Rodgers, who grew up in Yarrabah but had to move in recent years due to lack of housing. “A lot of it comes down to funding but at the same time we’ve got to be self-sufficient and do things from the ground up.”

Since his days working in the arts in Lismore, Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini has maintained a relationship with several elders in Yarrabah, who had long been keen to do a show about the community. “As soon as I got the job here [at Opera Australia] I got a call saying ‘hey bro, you gonna do the opera about Yarrabah?’,” Terracini told Crikey. He plans fto do a similar production in a different community each year.

Written and directed by Rhoda Roberts — and starring Australian Idol’s Casey Donovan and local performer Troy Brady, plus a cast of 60 Yarrabah locals — Yarrabah! The Musical tells the story of the town’s history from the 1890s until today. “It’s really the story of the people who’ve lived there and died there and who are there now,” said Terracini.

Rodgers is on the steering committee for the project and speaks positively about the production’s impact on the town. “It’s a move forward for us and it’s opening our doors for people to come across from Cairns and come into the community and see and say ‘well Yarrabah can do it’. We’re capable of doing anything,” she told Crikey.

Locals take to the stage at the first performance of Yarrabah! The Musical last night

Crikey didn’t hear the complaints first hand, but there is talk that while overall the Opera Australia production has been overwhelming positive, some locals believe there wasn’t enough community consultation nor enough time to prepare for the show. Although many historical issues are covered, the show doesn’t talk much about contemporary problems such as unemployment and housing.

A giant stage was set up in the town’s Bishop Malcolm Park, with images projected on to two screens on the side of the stage and a sophisticated lights and sound system trucked in. The stage sits on the land where the dormitories once stood. Metres away is the church built in mission days, just next to the beach and its signs warning against swimming because of the crocs. Surrounding it all are mountains of dense tropical forest that run down to the sea.

Just under a quarter of the community — the census gives Yarrabah’s population as 2500, but thanks to medical and police reports officials put the figure closer to 4500 — sprawled across the park to watch last night’s show. Some sat on deck chairs or on the grass, others leaned against car bonnets. Kids played and rode their bikes around.

Half of Yarrabah’s population is under 20. Crikey spoke to a frenzied group of six 12-year-old girls — Shatoya, Andrea, Moyah, Shaywarna, Hayley and Ella — who were preparing for their roles as dormitory girls and ukelele players in the production.

They declared the musical a collective “awesome” for the town. They say they usually spend their time watching TV or fishing and cracking oysters and chulki (pipis). None of them had ever been in a play before. They’d seen theatre performances in Cairns (and the occasional one in Yarrabah) but nothing with opera and singing.

Most of the music usually found pumping late at night in Yarrabah (a common issue) is hip-hop or country. Now these girls can’t get the “really cool” pop tunes of the play out of their heads — particularly Freedom, whose lyrics declare: “I want freedom: freedom from the government act. I want freedom: from salvation, starvation, the rations, my passion screams. I want freedom: give me freedom from the mission. I don’t need your protection, no.”

For years their mums and elders have been telling them about their history when they lived in humpies made of wood and “what George of the Jungle swings on”, as Andrea called it. And while they knew about the stolen generation and when the half-castes were sent to live in the dormitories, “I didn’t know it was that bad,” said Shatoya.

In 1934 about 100 children lived in the dormitories. There was little food — the kids used to pick mangoes, chew on lemon rind and try and find oysters since they were only served watery soup with no meat.The show has been a nice change for the youth of Yarrabah, says Elverina Johnson. She’s a single mum to four young boys and a cast member in the show, playing the granddaughter of Donovan’s character. “Having this production is probably a really good step forward in exposing the younger generation to the arts at a different level,” she told Crikey. Johnson has worked for arts organisations and events before and adds: “I don’t think the locals realise how big it is.

Yarrabah! The Musical is mainly funded by the Australia Council’s community partnerships. “We’re the first major arts organisation to get access to that money because of what we were doing,” said Terracini. The rest has come from donors, including the Christensen Fund (a philanthropic family fund in the US), the Myer Foundation and Wotif founder Graeme Wood.

But no one had to tell 90-year-old Alfred Neal — who grew up in the Yarrabah dormitories — about the importance of a production like this. “I think that’s a first-class show,” he told Crikey, minutes after the performance ended. “Not only because it was in Yarrabah, because it’s something that opens young people’s minds better than what we can do. They’ve got to understand the opportunities are there.”

Neal had never seen a play or production about Yarrabah before. He had one minor complaint: “I don’t want to criticise the whole thing, but it seems to be a little too modern. Maybe 5% or 10% too modern.”

A number of hip-hop dancers appear throughout the show, mixing the old with the new. “I don’t know where that came out from,” said an amused Fiona Patterson, an elder in the community. She appeared in one of the most moving scenes of the production, where older women perform a dance about fishing and collecting oysters while dressed in the white dresses of the dormitory days.

“I think Yarrabah’s getting too Westernised,” Patterson told Crikey. “We’ve got hip-hop and all that coming in.”

Patterson grew up in Yarrabah in a house with no electricity, sleeping on the floor of the house her father built. Back then Yarrabah had no streetlights and the only entertainment was whatever the kids created for themselves — but the elders played a strong role in educating and teaching the youngsters of the community. She sees the production as being critical for the young kids today. “We haven’t got much culture, but what we’ve got, we pass it down to the children,” she told Crikey.

As a member of the musical’s steering committee, which served as the middle man between the community and Opera Australia, Patterson was critical in getting the elders to agree to the project. “For us, it’s a way of showcasing our history,” she told Crikey. “What our elders went through, our mums and dad being taken away from their parents. Not allowed to speak their language or carry on the culture. They had to learn religion, how to live the right way.” Her mother had grown up in the dormitories.

Errol Neal, the mayor of Yarrabah (and son of Alfred), says the performances “brings back a lot of memories” for both himself and others in the community. “I think it [the mission history] still really affects us today in going forward,” he said. “What I’ve found in the performing arts is that when you’re performing, it takes away a lot of pain within.” He hopes it will inspire Yarrabah kids to examine the arts as a career pathway, telling Crikey he suspects a lot of future script writers and visual artists live in Yarrabah.

“Recently you’ve seen The Sapphires movie. It’s a pretty good story. We’ve got a pretty good story in Yarrabah too,” said Neal.

But opera and musicals haven’t featured in Yarrabah’s history before, notes Neal. “It’s something new to us, we’ve had old ceremonies and corroboree, but [this is like] the modern-day corroboree, bringing people together,” he said.

Tonight is the second and last performance of Yarrabah! The Musical. It’s open to the public and entry is by gold-coin donation.

*Crikey travelled to Yarrabah courtesy of Opera Australia