If I think about it for a moment too long, I feel a red flash of shame on the back of my neck. The shame I felt as a child if I was caught lying. It is a primal shudder of horror, a blinding light of humiliation, on our failure. I am not ashamed to be an Australian, because what happened on the 14th of October 2023 had nothing to do with this country or its first inhabitants. The referendum was an invitation, in the most polite and careful of ways, for White Australia to listen.
We resoundingly refused. Again.
I only see No voters in Facebook and Instagram comment sections. I have never met an out-loud one in real life. I’m sure most of them are nice. I’m sure they have lots of friends and loving families and care about people, broadly speaking. I am not convinced that they went into that ballot box on the 14th of October 2023 and wrote down the word NO and felt good about it. I’m sure they think they were protecting the Australian public from racism or fascism or bad policy. I believe, truly, that 60% of this country didn’t know the kind of damage they were doing.
They acted out of ignorance or cowardice. Most racist acts stem from those two states. The No voters aren’t special. None of this is. Indigenous Australians asked for us to listen, we said no, and the world became worse. It’s a travesty.
It was a long drive to the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre on the 26th of October. I had missed the most recent STC run of The Visitors when it was in town, so made the choice to drive down to Wollongong alone to see it. Jane Harrison’s writing and Wesley Enoch’s directing is a combination that has created some of the most significant theatre in this country’s history, so I’d be foolish to not make the effort. My mind was a little full as I drove past the swaying gum trees lining the Princes Highway into that pink spring twilight. The furious running monologue had grown more quiet as the weeks had rolled by, but I felt the weight of the referendum heavily as I walked into the foyer of IPAC. I saw one of my students as I entered the theatre. We talked briefly. It was their first referendum, just as it was mine. Had I encouraged them enough to go out and vote? Had I taught them well enough in their Australian theatre history class so that they understood why we needed to vote Yes?
I took my seat at the back of the theatre and looked over the crowd. Lots of heads of white hair in a not-sold-out auditorium. The familiar excitement that dances in the dusty glow of the house lights before the show begins. Older ladies, drinking white wine and laughing brightly. Groups of chittering school children and their teachers whispering orders at them. A good spread of ages. A feeling of joy, not shame. I looked over the set - a large flat rock in the middle of the space, surrounded on all sides by swathes of towering brown fabric draped from high above. I’ve read that some reviewers saw it as the sandstone of Sydney’s coastline- I felt more like we were all sitting in the bottom of a hessian sack, like trapped animals.
Before I go on, I should be clear - this isn’t a review of The Visitors at IPAC. If you want reviews, read what Larissa Behrendt and Priscilla Issa had to say about the show. This is a documentation of what it felt like to have my world transfigured by The Visitors. The play began and it was as if Enoch and his cast had put a spell on me - I was instantly laughing, my morose attitude evaporated. The costuming - business attire with accents of traditional Aboriginal clothing and accessories - used the visual language of modern capitalist power to evoke the social strata of the world’s oldest culture. The humour was bright and the performances were dynamic and joyful. Friendly conversations, entirely spoken in the Bidjigal dialect, left room for me to watch the faces and hear the cadences of the performers in a way that English language dialogue does not. Soon, the conversations became understandable, but the First Nations language remained throughout the work, an aural tether to the sound of a world that most are strangers to.
The premise of this work - six elders and one younger initiate discussing what’s to be done about the steadily approaching boats of the First Fleet - could have easily devolved into an ungainly socratic dialogue about the evils of colonisation were it not handled by some of the most skilled theatre makers in Australian history. The problem of that January day unfolds slowly, like an approaching cyclone. The time for prevention lapses as the characters talk, weigh their options, catch up after months apart. The good and the bad are laid out and voted upon in the style of a local council meeting as the boats move closer. Moments of horror cause the decision making process to speed up, panic spreading quickly as the rain starts and the white men make landfall.
There is so much richness and beauty in this work, but I want to focus on the character of Gordon, portrayed by Aaron Pedersen on the night I attended the show. Gordon is positioned early on as a manifestation of a baby-boomeresque fear of change. While the younger, more curious characters discuss the potential merits of inviting the strangers onto country to exchange tools and knowledge, Gordon remains the steadfast holdout as the group tries to come to a unanimous agreement. He even spouts the racial rhetoric of conservatism at times, arguing that the visitors are savages, brutal in their customs, and should go back to where they come from. His warnings are based in observable fact, after all. Near the end of the play, the elders watch in horror from the shore as a man is hanged aboard one of the boats. Soon the elders change their votes in favour of welcoming the strangers, in order to help them and teach them more civilised ways of being, but Gordon is not easily swayed. His voice is not shunned, however- as the elder upon whose land the visitors will be welcomed, Gordon will have the final word according to the law.
In a stunning monologue, Gordon reveals that his father was murdered by colonists many years earlier. It is clear that the pain of watching his brave father die a pointless death at the hands of white men is proof of ill-intent that Gordon cannot move past. As Pedersen delivered his performance, I sat in awe. The overflow of emotion, sobbing and choking on the words as a child might, was one of the most breathtaking dramatic performances I have ever seen. Enoch’s direction did not tread the easy path of male anger - this was not a grief comprised of shouting, breaking things, or throwing punches. It was an open expression of love and loss, a flood of feeling that left me in tears.
And from here, it would be easy to imagine the rest of the elders reversing their course and deciding to refuse the visitor’s entry. But they didn’t. Instead, Gordon votes to welcome the visitors. Why?
As he begins his welcoming to country, the elders removed their business jackets to reveal delicately embroidered tribal symbols inside the lining of their clothes. They turned their jackets inside out, draping them over and around their bodies like capes. The backdrop then began to glow, those same symbols revealed to be etched into the fabric itself. At once it felt as if the land were illuminated, the world’s saturation turned up, as Gordon delivered his powerful welcoming message. He ended his speech with a smile. It was the face of horror and bravery. It was a powerful statement of Gordon’s right to enforce the laws of his land, despite the fear of violence that he knows is coming.
In that moment, the carefully rendered narratives of colonisation unwound themselves.
It is awful to say, and it has always been untrue, but there has persisted this notion in Australian society that Indigenous Australians did something wrong on the 26th of January 1788. A feeling that, if only they had done something different, things could have gone better. If they had slaughtered the white men who came to greet them. If they had done more to establish a treaty. If they had done anything, instead of letting us in, then it would have been better.
Why did they let the white men in?
This play gives an explanation of that decision that makes more sense than any history book I have ever read.
They did it because it was the most strategic and compassionate thing to do. The custodians of Sydney Cove understood responsibility, ownership, and the sanctity of knowledge more than any settler, convict, or soldier that day ever could. Because the men, women, and children on those boats would have died of disease and malnutrition if they were denied entry. Because it is easier to combat a foe if you meet them head on. Because you can’t know for sure that someone is a threat from afar.
I know it is a fictional text, based on the past and never claiming to be an historical account, but The Visitors throws the stories of history into sharp relief. I came into that theatre thinking about the Voice, mulling over the shame of it all, and I walked away understanding that the referendum was only another failure on the part of White Australia. White folks in this country have caused harm once again, as we have done in a hundred sickening ways for 200 years, all while the traditional custodians of this land have continued to lead, teach, and live. Because they believe in compassion in a way that White Australia doesn’t.
That strength is inspiring.
The No voters on Facebook don’t inherently understand why you would choose to listen and learn instead of acting on gut instinct. As a society built on white supremacy, along with other devastating power structures, White Australia is convinced that our worldview is the only one of importance. It is the only one that should be considered when making choices for all of society, because this is the method by which all colonial violence has been enacted and been successful. White Australia will never, of its own accord, attempt to untangle the emotions of letting people in when you have so much to lose.
It seems so obvious. I’m certain that it is to others. But The Visitors conveys these ideas not through pointed political commentary but through the theatrical language of tragedy. It gave me space to reflect on where I sit in modern Australia. The monologue in my head as I drove home through the darkness that night was a different shape to the one I had been listening to since the 14th of October.
My family arrived on the First Fleet, and it is uncomfortable to recognise that I had not considered the landing of those ships to be an act of courageous charity on the part of those First Nations people. I would not be alive if it were not for that act of welcoming. And I am privileged to have grown up and lived on the lands of the Eora and Dharawal nations. To exist here, to enjoy the benefits of the waterways and plantlife and fauna and climate, is such a peaceful thing that it is easy to forget that it is a privilege. But my ancestors should not have stayed. We should not have come here.
It is now my job to atone for their wrongdoing. The White Australians who voted Yes must now help repair the damage caused by the ones who voted No. The Voice was struck down, but that does not give us permission to ignore. We can still listen. We must listen. I am not responsible for saving Indigenous Australia - but I am responsible for correcting the Silent Majority.
I hope the rest of the audience that night learnt a similar lesson- judging by the standing ovation, I suspect that they did.
The Visitors production still © Daniel Boud and Sydney Theatre Company
The Founding of Australia by Algernon Talmadge © Tate