The fraught question of who can and can’t call themselves Aboriginal forms the focus of the confronting and powerful play At What Cost?.

Produced by Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre and being presented by State Theatre Company SA at the Odeon Theatre this month, At What Cost? was written by Nathan Maynard, a Trawlwoolway man from Larapuna country, in north-east Tasmania.

The writer’s impetus to tackle this complex issue occurred when, in 2016, the Tasmanian Government relaxed the rules around determining Aboriginality. This sparked concerns there would be a rise in people falsely claiming to be Palawa/Pakana (Tasmanian Aboriginal), a cohort who came to be known as the “tick-a-boxes”.

Actor Luke Carroll, a Wiradjuri man who plays protagonist Boyd Mansell in the play, explains: “Down in Tasmania, to claim Aboriginality all you had to do was tick a box on a form and then you are classed Aboriginal, so the proud people down there who had fought the fight, and Nathan’s one of them, he thought, ‘Bugger this’.

“Nathan was sort of, not sick of fighting, but he thought there’s got to be another way around this to highlight the problem and the issue, and he thought the pen was mightier than the sword. So he put pen to paper and wrote this extraordinary play and it pulls no punches. It’s pretty confronting but it has a beauty to it, as well. You can’t go any harder than what he does in this play.”

Luke Carroll with Alex Malone in rehearsals for At What Cost?. Photo: Joseph Mayers

Maynard has described the play as “dirty and juicy” and has been quoted saying, “it has that feel that you shouldn’t be watching it, but you should”.

The action is set in Tasmania, where Palawa couple Boyd and Nala are looking after a parcel of land just south of Hobart called Putalina – significant land that is used for ceremony. However, the Government has recently transferred the title of Putalina to a new group called Hidden Aboriginals of Tasmania.

Boyd and Nala must not only guard the land from this new group but also oversee the repatriation and returning to Country of the skull of William Lanne, the last full-blooded Aboriginal man in Tasmania, who died in 1869.

“It’s a story about the repatriation of his remains back to Country, and the cremation process and returning the remains to what the Palawa people call the ‘Sky Mob’,” says Carroll, who got his start in acting as a nine-year-old on The Flying Doctors.

it does give people the power and the strength… it gives them a voice

He says At What Cost? – which brings together other First Nations artists including director Isaac Drandic and designers Chloe Ogilvie and Jacob Nash – tackles an issue that has been “bubbling away” in Australia for years; spoken about in whispers, but never out loud. This play now gives people permission to open the public dialogue.

“That’s what Nathan’s done,” Caroll says. “You go away feeling like you’re able to go out there and maybe start asking some questions to certain people in the community. So it does give people the power and the strength… it gives them a voice.

“Even in my communities in New South Wales, in Sydney, I know people who I grew up with and now suddenly [they] are Aboriginal. I don’t know how they’ve come to be Aboriginal. I do know that people, through the Stolen Generation process, find out that they are Aboriginal or they may do DNA testing nowadays – you can do that and find out you have Aboriginal blood, which is fair enough – but it can be a sore point within our Aboriginal communities that have been established for years and years and people who have grown up Aboriginal, who practise culture and they are connected to the community.”

A scene from the play with Luke Carroll and Sandy Greenwood. Photo: Brett Boardman

Amid this discussion, At What Cost? highlights the importance of respecting and connecting to culture, and protecting community and cultural identity.

Carroll says he grew up with a man who has never identified as Indigenous, but whose children now attend a private school on Aboriginal scholarships.

“That’s just one story of many, and when we have Aboriginal audiences come in, I go down in the foyer after the show and chat with them and they all have their own separate story. Each and every person – it’s quite amazing.”

He describes his role as “fierce and heart-breaking”, and one of the biggest challenges of his 35-year career.

“I’ve always wanted a role like this. I worked with Nathan on his first show called The Season, about mutton-birding… this is a whole other level and it’s a great role to sink my teeth into. I hope I can do it justice.

“This is one of the issues that has been around for a long time but hasn’t been brought to the forefront yet with such gusto and strength. It’s an experience that stays with you for days. I’ve had people message me days later, saying: ‘I’m still processing this show. It’s stuck with me and I’m still thinking. There are still questions I need to ask.’

“It’s a theatre piece that will stay with you for a while and get everybody asking questions, thinking and starting a dialogue.”

At What Cost? plays at the Odeon Theatre, Norwood, from June 16 to July 1, after which it will tour to Hobart.

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