Untangling the Wind: Reflections on Black Medea in Performance

Rick Brayford*, Tom Heath**, Leah Pigram***, Teejay Woods****, Myeesha Reid***** and Julianna Thomas******

Abstract

Quandamooka playwright Wesley Enoch’s adaptation Black Medea indigenises the Ancient Greek myth, reimaging the story within an Australian First Nations context. This paper reflects a 2022 studio production of Black Medea performed by First Nations actors enrolled in the Aboriginal Performance program at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). Using yarning as a methodology, the rehearsal and performance reveal how Enoch’s themes of destruction of Country, intergenerational violence and the Spirit World were embodied and realised, demonstrating how First Nations influences can be incorporated into performer training programs and creating a more culturally diverse curriculum for contemporary performance training.

Keywords: First Nations performance, adaptation, First Nation performer training, diverse and inclusive performance curriculum

A desert wind blows. The walls come alive. She winks in and out of sight as she walks.

Black Medea by Quandamooka playwright Wesley Enoch (2002) is a retelling of the Ancient Greek Medea by Euripides from a First Nation perspective. The above stage direction from Black Medea might be considered an imaginative provocation, rather than a prescription, from playwright Wesley Enoch to the creatives working to realise the play in performance.

This paper records the reflections from student actors enrolled in the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) 2022 cohort of the Aboriginal Theatre program in their studio-based production of Black Medea. The studio production, directed by the co-author of this paper, Rick Brayford, explored the dramaturgical elements of space, sound and setting, as well as the interplay between traditional First Nations culture and classical Western performance. Using yarning as a methodology, this paper records the reflections of graduate cast members from this production.

Medea murdering one of her children, neck amphora, circa 330 B.C., Louvre. Photo: Web/Wikipedia/Public domain

The paper begins by examining how Enoch has adapted Euripides three-thousand-year-old play into a contemporary First Nation context. We highlight how Enoch incorporates elements of traditional First Nation culture within the work and detail the complexities the student actors from the WAAPA 2022 cohort of Aboriginal Performance faced in untangling these concepts. The experiential data was recorded through an hour-long yarn up: a semi-structured interview, with graduates from the 2022 Aboriginal Theatre cohort on September 9, 2023 (Geia et al. 13).

The paper continues by exploring how the cast and director adapted Grecian iconography and traditional performance practices into a contemporary First Nation performance context. First, we explore reimaging the iconic Grecian pillar by covering it with chalk drawings. These drawings were inspired by the events of the plays, as well as traditional First Nation painting techniques. The second example explored is the use of the Chorus to represent the Spirit World throughout the piece. The paper concludes by encouraging contemporary Australian performer training programs to acknowledge and integrate First Nation’s influences into performance curriculum more holistically.

Classical and Cultural

Within an Australian context, contemporary First Nation performance concatenates elements of First Nations culture with contemporary Western performance storytelling practices. Black Medea offers a unique example of this, with playwright Wesley Enoch borrowing the story from the classical Greco-Roman myth and recontextualising it within a contemporary Australian First Nation setting. This section examines the classical story of Medea and explores how Enoch has incorporated elements of Aboriginal culture in his adaption.

While Enoch uses Seneca’s adaptation of the myth of Medea, our production also drew from Euripides’ dramatisation (431 B.C.), which has been interpreted by scholars and theatre artists in various ways (Boedeker 127). Nita Krevans argues that Medea might be considered a foundational heroine—such as Europa after whom the European continent is named—for the Medes (75). Medea’s displacement from her home in Colchis has led contemporary thinkers to interpret the play as the story of a refugee (Kasimis 393; Marwah 77). Classicist Laura Swift describes Medea as Euripides “most complex and ambiguous character, a figure who is in many ways attractive yet whose actions are the most repellent in tragedy” (90). In a response to Swift, Michael Ewans celebrates the capacity of the theatrical form to explore these complexities, explaining that “Euripides was not painting a static picture in which all the facets of a character can be viewed simultaneously but writing a dynamic play in which now one, now another aspect of Medea predominates” (7).

American theatre director Ann Shanahan’s 2007 production sought to use technology to “remove Medea incongruously from a sexual space that does not, and cannot, contain the female” (68). One such example occurred following the murder of the children when Shanahan had Medea’s face projected on over the set, simultaneously evoking a news report and referring to Euripides’ original story where Medea departs on a chariot above the house.

Feminist theatre-maker Lena Šimić’s 2009 adaptation of Medea, Medea/Becoming British, drew on her experiences of motherhood and being identified as a foreigner as a resident spouse of a British citizen in the United Kingdom. Šimić argues that through the murder of her children, Medea transgresses from mother to immigrant anti-mother (112). In 2015, Australian theatre makers playwright Kate Mulvany and director Anne-Louise Sarks retold the story of Medea from the perspective of the children, asking: “How does a child see the world? And how do they understand such epic events? What if I tried to tell the story of a tragedy through the eyes of that child?” (14).

The examples above offer a brief account of some of the theatrical adaptations of the Medea myth in the twenty-first century. The most impactful recent production for the current research project was Mulvany and Sark’s adaptation which offers new insight into the myth by changing the perspective of the storyteller.

Quandamooka playwright Wesley Enoch offers a unique reinterpretation of the Medea myth in his adaptation of Black Medea (Hallett). Enoch borrows the characters and play structure from the Roman writer Seneca’s telling of the myth (Kearns 236), and he places the story within a contemporary First Nation Australian context. Enoch’s adaptation highlights the destruction of Country by mining companies, intergenerational violence and the influence of the Spirit World. Each of these themes is further examined below.

In Enoch’s adaptation, Grecian Iolchos is replaced with the coastal city and Colchis is Medea’s Country in the desert. Medea is connected to the traditional ways whose “. . . got her language, she knows her dances”(Black Medea 66), and Jason is “a blackfella in a suit. Working his way up the corporate ladder” (66). In the play, Medea meets Jason on her Country and is drawn to move with him to the city by “dreams of living in a big house with a garden, in a place where sand doesn’t creep under the door” (66). The couple “see a way of making the life they want” (75) through money from mining. The text implies that Medea has shown Jason sites that could be used for mining, and he has informed the mining company that employs him. Through this act, Medea betrays her Country, choosing Jason and her personal wealth. Having moved to the coastal city, Jason and Medea have a child whom they raise without connection to Country or the Spirit World.

The theme of domestic and intergenerational violence is prevalent throughout the play. An extract from the scene, “Blackout Poem 1,” a series of vignettes showing moments of the family’s lives, offers an example: “MEDEA and CHILD huddle in a corner. JASON throws the beer bottle, smashing it, and throws a chair” (Enoch, Black Medea 71). Enoch emphasises these actions as intergenerational patterns of violence through a line from the Chorus that recurs throughout the play: “And so the father becomes the son becomes the father becomes the son” (71). Owen Richard, a reviewer of the original production, suggests that Medea’s infanticide is “to save the child from becoming a monster like him (Jason)” (32). In Black Medea, it is only through the murder of the son that the cycle of violence can be broken. In the final moments of the play, before the murder, Medea exclaims: “Spirits, this is my son. I have failed him. He has never known his Land, never left a footprint. I have abandoned him to follow his father’s footsteps” (78–79). The final moment of the play describes Medea walking with her child’s broken toy boat before she “disappears and becomes the wind” (81).

Enoch incorporates the Traditional Spirit World through the motif of the desert wind. Throughout the play, Jason is “pursued by the wind” (Black Medea 62), which forces him to clutch his head throughout the play and exclaim continuously “that fucking wind” (71). The wind might be considered the Country’s revenge on the couple for their actions. Throughout the play, the Chorus gives voice to the wind and the Spirit World: “The Land reclaims you. In the end we will always welcome you back. . . . You belong in your Land. The Land will always reclaim you” (78). By giving voice to the Spirit World, Enoch shows how the couple is tortured by their actions in the pursuit of wealth over Country. Through the motif of the desert wind, Enoch dismisses the Greek gods from the retelling and evokes the Traditional First Nation Spirit World.

Having examined the classical myth and Enoch’s adaption of the play into a contemporary First Nation context, the remainder of the paper reflects on a studio-based projection of Black Medea performed by students in the 2022 cohort of WAAPA’s Aboriginal Performance program. The performances were held between September 7–9, 2022. This paper assumes that knowledge can be created in rehearsal process and performance and that reflections of the performance can offer new insight. The experiential data was recorded through a yarn-up—a semi-structured interview—with cast members from the production. Yarning has been used in a range of First Nation-focused research projects (Coade et al.; Cumming-Potvin et al.; Godinho; Shay). The method emulates the rehearsal process, where the cast sits in a circle with the director to discuss the material. Therefore, yarning was chosen as the most appropriate approach to record the participants’ experiences of the process and performance. Questions focused on four elements: rehearsal; creating the wind; the pillars; and performance discoveries. After coding this discussion, two themes emerged as significant examples of Indigenous dramaturgical adaptation: painting the pillars and creating the Spirit World through the Chorus. These two themes are explored in depth.

Pillars and Painting

WAAPA’s Aboriginal Performance Program is taught in a designated studio at Edith Cowan University’s Mount Lawley campus, on Whadjuk Noongar Boodjar (Perth, Western Australia). The space is demarcated for the Aboriginal Theatre Program and the room is commonly referred to as “Ab Theatre.” The unassuming space has a sense of significance. For students in the Aboriginal Performance Program, this space becomes haven-like throughout their studies. Guests to the space are asked to remove their shoes before entering as a sign of respect.

As you enter the room, there is a half wall of windows directly looking out towards Ron Stone Park; a green space dominated by a large pond with an island in the middle. To the left is a mirrored wall. To the right is a sound system for music and a map of the 500 Aboriginal Nations in Australia. Students have marked their Country on this map by signing their name. Behind you is a wall of cupboards that functions like a whiteboard. The bright spaces can be darkened by theatre curtains, which hang in the left corner of the space to cover the mirror and the windows. In the right corner of the space, often ignored, sit four black rostra.

In the 2022 studio production of Black Medea, these rostra were used to evoke Grecian pillars. Director Rick Brayford recalls: “We spent a lot of time trying to fathom how with bare boards we might visually reference the classical and contemporary Indigenous or even the traditional Indigenous” (Brayford et al.). To do so, the cast dragged out the rostra and began experimenting with them. When the rostra were turned vertically, they began to look like pillars. The cast was concerned that while the pillars were striking, they may look plain with the bare black pillars. To counter this, Brayford brought chalk into the studio and said: “Go and draw some themes or images that pop into your head” on the pillars (Brayford et al.). The image below captures this process:

Rehearsals for Black Medea by Wesley Enoch, directed by Rick Brayford 2022. Cast members painting the pillars (from right to left) Mitch Walley, Theo Clarke, Jayda Corunna, and Leah Pigram. Photo: Tristan Tucker

The process took two and a half hours to complete. The cast worked on each pillar individually and did not have an overarching vision. The images on the pillars incorporated both traditional Aboriginal iconography and more literal visual depictions. Leah Pigram recalls: “They were random ideas we all had, but they just seemed to fit. Each pillar was a different part of the story” (Brayford et al.). The pillars were then brought together to see if they would connect to Enoch’s play. The cast experimented with the ordering of the pillars to tell the story of Black Medea chronologically when read from the left to the right. The image below shows the results:

Pillar set pieces with artwork by Lucy Arnall, Theo Clarke, Jayda Corunna, Gabriella Kaden, Liz Narkle, Leah Pigram, Myeesha Reed, Julianna Thomas, Tristan Tucker, Mitch Walley and Teejay Woods. Photo: Tristan Tucker

The meaning of each of the pillars is explained separately by Leah Pigram and Teejay Woods.

Medea’s walking in the desert and she’s saying: “I am Medea,” it’s the first introduction of baby and Jason, her families behind her, the Spirits are behind her, she’s walking away from everything.

The water, and there’s Jason and Medea; there’s the desert side and Jason’s saltwater side, and that’s when we start to see that they are really in love but arguing.

“This is where things start to get heated in the story.” This pillar represents the traditional elements of the story. The traditional symbols in the top left-hand corner are a “very strong representation of Country and community. The tracks running through the meeting places.”

There is a grave that symbolises the baby. There are footprints, probably Medea’s as she’s walking in the desert back from the city. And there’s the saltwater and some wind.  

As the audience entered the studio, the illustrated pillars stood erect, behind which the actors lay on the ground, as if asleep. In the moments before the performance, the audience could examine the images on the pillars. Each pillar depicts an aspect of the story; however, their meaning is only fully revealed in the act of performance as the audience begins to connect the images with the unfolding events of the play.

The dramaturgical interplay between set and story illustrates the capacity of theatre to reveal layers of meanings through performance. Leah Pigram summarises: “Just by looking at it (the illustrations) you would be like ‘what is all this stuff?’ But as the story goes you find little symbols in that you can match” (qtd. in Brayford et al.). By covering the black rostra with traditional Aboriginal iconography and images from the play, the cast of Black Medea indigenised the iconic Grecian pillar and linked the Western classical world and the contemporary First Nation space.

Chorus and the Spirit World

Having built the Grecian pillars, the cast of Black Medea was met with another dramaturgical challenge: how to evoke the Spirit World in performance? Previously, we explained how Enoch puts the words of the Spirit World in the mouths of the Chorus. But how might these worlds be embodied in performance? How can the actors bring life to the wind? Brayford explains that these issues were resolved by deciding that the Spirit World could be present throughout as the Chorus, “rather than hiding them (the Chorus), the Spirits are sleeping, they are in slumber and then they come to life” (Brayford et al.). The actors embodied this idea by lying behind the pillars, as if in slumber, using slight movements to suggest they were not dead, then activating when the Spirit World  had an influence on the events of the play. One such example was evident in a scene called Jason and Medea 3, in which: “CHORUS beckons CHILD over. HE goes to her, frightened”(Enoch, Black Medea 67). In this moment of the studio performance, the multiple actors playing the Chorus awoke from sleep, stood and moved towards the child. On the Chorus’ final line: “Then I will unleash hell upon you,” the actors returned to rest behind the pillars. Through this convention, the Spirit World was omniscient and omnipresent; as Pigram explains: “the ancestorial Spirits are always there, even if you don’t see them or hear them, they are always watching. Even when they are sleeping, they are still listening” (qtd. in Brayford et al.). By keeping the Chorus on stage for the duration of the performance, sometimes in slumber, sometimes awake, the production was able to evoke the omniscience of the Spirit World and its powerful impact on the events ofBlack Medea.

Chorus Spirits sleep behind the pillars. Photo: Simon Stewart

In addition to the Chorus’ physical embodiment of the Spirit World, the cast explored sonic material to evoke the desert wind. The wind is referenced consistently throughout the piece. In the interests of safe cultural practice, we have elected not to record what is being implied by the wind. It is sufficient to state that it has significant traditional cultural implications and was a critical element in the performance of Black Medea. To evoke the wind, the cast made several sonic offers. Woods recounts “We explored a range of performance materials such as clapping sticks, whispering behind the blocks, and other vocal effects reminiscent of traditional sounds” (qtd. in Brayford et al.).

The production chose to use live vocal effects to create the wind. As the audience entered the studio, the images on the pillars were accompanied by a gentle shhhh sound from the Chorus lying on the ground. The wind sound was utilised in multiple ways, underscoring some scenes, and punctuating others. Woods explains, to emphasise the concept of the Chorus being the Spirit World coming to haunt both Madea and Jason: “Whenever they would enter the stage that’s when the wind was incorporated, almost as if we were blowing them into the space” (qtd. in Brayford et al.). The desert wind was used as a sonic representation of the Spirit World unceasingly watching the actions of Medea and Jason.

Enoch’s Black Medea is a unique example of a classical Western text adapted into a First Nation context. This paper has examined work as a play text as well as a performance piece. Black Medea offers an example of contemporary performance training by Indigenising its curriculum. While these concepts are beyond the scope of the current paper, future research might explore how including materials from First Nations playwrights in performer training programs might create a more inclusive and enriching curriculum for twenty-first-century performance students.


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*Rick Brayford has a twenty-five-year association with Australian contemporary First Nations theatre and performance. He has directed over thirty productions and has been extensively involved in the facilitation and creation of new First Nations work. Rick is recipient of the Neville Bonner Award for Indigenous Education for his contribution to Indigenous performing arts. Rick coordinates WAAPA’s Certificate IV in Aboriginal Performance program. 

**Tom Heath is an actor, trainer, early career researcher and coordinator of WAAPA’s Diploma of Acting course. His research examines how to facilitate the optimal conditions for twenty-first century actor training based on Csíkszentmihályi’s flow framework. 

***Leah Pigram is a proud Yawuru/ Nyikina woman and a graduate of WAAPA’s Certificate IV in Aboriginal Performance and Diploma of Acting courses. Leah has a background in circus performing for 10 years with the Sandfly Circus in Broome, Western Australia. 

****Teejay Woods is a proud Noongar/Yamatji man and a graduate of WAAPA’s Certificate IV in Aboriginal Performance and Diploma of Acting courses. 

*****Myeesha Reid is a proud Wongi woman and a graduate of WAAPA’s Certificate IV in Aboriginal Performance. Myeesha is currently enrolled in WAAPA’s Bachelor of Arts (Acting) program. 

******Julianna Thomas is a proud Noongar woman a graduate of WAAPA’s Certificate IV in Aboriginal Performance and Diploma of Musical Theatre courses.

Copyright © 2023 Rick Brayford, Tom Heath, Leah Pigram, Teejay Woods, Myeesha Reid and Julianna Thomas
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