A tennis court is the perfect underpinning for the story of Wiradjuri superstar Evonne Goolagong’s rise to international fame, and in this show – produced by Sydney-based Performing Lines and presented by State Theatre Company SA – the court-side audience becomes part of the set, ready to witness a battle of skill and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds.

Seamlessly played out across this set (designed by Romanie Harper), Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai writer and director Andrea James’ inventive melding of theatre and dance brings to life the tennis player’s incredible ride from the dusty courts of Barellan in Wiradjuri Country, New South Wales, to the centre court at Wimbledon.

While Sunshine Super Girl incorporates ingenious design, visual projections and choreography, the witty and heart-warming story is told with a structure much like that of a traditional biopic.

From finding her first tennis ball in the back seat of her family’s broken-down car, Goolagong’s love of tennis was immediate and profound. Evonne (played by the delightful and mesmerising Ella Ferris) honed her skills alongside brother Larry (Kirk Page) and sister Barbara (Katina Olsen), with the unwavering love and support of her Dad (Lincoln Elliott) and Mum (Jax Compton), who fashioned her first tennis dress from a bedsheet.

The young player’s talent was quickly discovered and, after winning every tournament in the state, she found herself on the first step towards superstardom, flying to Sydney to train under the eye of her initially supportive but ultimately sleazy coach, Vic Edwards.

Ella Ferris is mesmerising as Evonne Goolagong. Photo: Paz Tassone

All the significant figures in Goolagong’s life are performed by the ensemble cast: Page, Olsen, Compton and Elliott superbly embody a dizzying array of family, friends, Evonne’s husband Roger Cawley, and her tennis contemporaries such as Margaret Court, John Newcombe, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd.

While the crux of the story is Goolagong’s tennis career, the adversity against which her phenomenal rise to superstardom plays out gives much-needed context to her achievements. The Freedom Rides in 1965, the 1967 Referendum to grant Indigenous people voting rights, and the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972 serve as essential reminders of the social, political and economic obstacles confronting First Nations people. In the light of the racial adversity she faced, Goolagong’s success is highlighted as even more remarkable.

Milestone moments in her tennis career are matched with dramatic moments from her life, cracking open the fairytale of her rise to world-number-one status to reveal the grit and resilience needed to overcome the racism and sexism of the era. Dealing with the n-word on court, sexual harassment, misogyny and the elitism of a tennis world that fetishised her heritage – this is the underbelly of the legend that needed to be exposed to truly appreciate Goolagong’s greatness.

Clever stage design, lighting and choreography help bring Evonne Goolagong’s story to life in Sunshine Super Girl. Photo: Jessica Zeng

Based on Evonne Goolagong’s memoir and biographies of her life, and approved by both Evonne and her husband, Andrea James’ writing and direction has produced a piece of remarkable biographical storytelling. Framed by scenes of Goolagong relishing her connection to Country, this is as much a tribute to the family and community that nourished her talent and supported her dreams as it is to her achievements.

Evonne Goolagong retired with more than 80 singles titles, including seven Grand Slam titles, and she won Wimbledon twice (once at 19 and again as a mother in 1980). This is a play about an extraordinary and inspiring life – a woman who stands tall in history as not only one of Australia’s greatest sportspeople, but also as one of the first Indigenous women to achieve national and international prominence.

Sunshine Super Girl is an uplifting portrait of an icon whose story of strength and resilience deserves to be held up to the light.

Sunshine Super Girl is playing at the Dunstan Playhouse until September 17.

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