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