Few nights ago, I watched a play. Essentially, a coming of age story, much like the 14th tale, but thus ends the similarity, it stops entirely there. It was called Jack Charles Vs The Crown. 'The Crown' represents Her Majesty's prisons and Jack Charles is an Australian legend, a veteran actor, activist and until recently - a heroin addict / cat-burgler. He is also aboriginal, one of the indigenous Australians, and the story he told that night is as much a personal tale as it is a history of the conscience of Australia. It was political in the way I like politics to be: personal. The play was 1hr 30mins, utterly, utterly captivating, Jack is I'd say in his late sixties, just over 5foot, grey hair and beard billowing and a startlingly deep, melodious voice lifts from him when he speaks. The lights come up and Jack is bent over a potter's well sculpting a vase from clay. He begins speaking the essential truth; from clay we come and must return. The story follows with a film clip of Jack injecting heroine into his veins, real footage of a man tearing his skin apart for hard drugs and explaining straight down the camera lens, why, and how it made him feel. He talks of his childhood, one of the stolen generation: aboriginal children taken from their families forcefully by the state and fostered in white homes. He talks of his alienation, his life of 'buggery and bastardy' in a care home, his deterioration into crime, his sexual confusion and his 22 imprisonments. He tells this vast and twisting tale lightly, with too much humour than I thought humanly possible given its tragedy. The rich text slips casually out of him as if it was a child's tale, but I can't get across the impact of his presence on stage. It something you have to see for yourself.
The entire story is underscored by a live jazz trio, and they support the emotion in Jack's words. The audience of about 200 people include only three black folks. Two of them are my director, and I. Jack is telling cold hard truths about what was done to him and his people. I, an outsider flinched at his truth, I imagine what goes through the mind of the Australians. Jack finds a common enemy with his audience; the English. The most startling sequence in the entire play begins with defiling an English flag. It began like this: 1) He takes out the flag from his pocket, spits on it and uses it to wipe a table. 2) He lifts the heavy table onto its side and it has his prison number 3944 carved into the wood, it is shaped as a grave stone. 3) He stands behind it and further back, the image of a crown is projected on the wall.
For an aboriginal man to spit on the English flag alone is quite a statement. To use it to wipe his own gravestone, is to clean his deathbed with the what has oppressed him throughout his life. He makes a comment that he was born a number and will die one, to have this carved on his gravestone (and not his name) then, is to suggest that he will be tormented even in his after life. And the crown, crowns it all. He stands there, his frail arms holding the sides of his gravestone, an aboriginal king, without a kingdom, his grey hair billowing, looking out at the world like a dirty, fallen god.
Jack addresses us as though we the audience were judges, pleading for his prison record to be wiped clean so he can start a new life, work with those who are making the same mistakes he did; with his record, he can't do much. He makes no excuses for his crimes, 'justifications roll easy off an addict's tongue' he says, 'ironically some of the houses I robbed where on land stolen from my mother's people, I used to think of it as collecting rent... but I've done my time'. 'We all are works in progress' - Jacks says - 'things change as we must'...