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The Cherry Pickers (1968) by Kevin Gilbert, is often framed as a transformative moment, the first time an Aboriginal artist created a play. He was billed, at the time of the first production/rehearsed reading of The Cherry Pickers in 1971, as the ‘first Aboriginal playwright to have his work performed'. Gilbert's plays certainly appear to be the first theatre texts by an Indigenous Australian to be performed within the Euro-Australian theatrical context. In 1968 Gilbert wrote The Cherry Pickers that, according to one story in the tradition of Genet and Gramsci, was smuggled out of gaol on sheets of toilet paper. Gilbert described the play as a story about ‘seasonal workers', focusing on ‘spiritual searching and loss, my people pushed into refugee situations, desocialised if you like'. Based on the experiences of itinerant rural workers, the play explores issues of family, spirituality and dispossession. The narrative combines creation myths, tribal ritual, political oratory, dirty jokes, songs and interminable waiting. It is the waiting that forms the heart of the play. Gilbert structures the work around a group of indigenous Australians condemned to wander the margins of their own continent in pursuit of whatever work they can find. They have set up camp to wait for the commencement of the cherry-picking season, traditionally marked by the largest cherry tree bearing fruit, and the arrival of Johnollo, a talismanic figure who evidently shares Godot's sense of punctuality. In the meantime, they tell stories, sing songs and keep the audience royally entertained for the play's 90-minute duration.

Through its humour, The Cherry Pickers is brutally honest about alcoholism, violence and the desperation that can lead to cultural and spiritual dead ends. The text presented non-Indigenous Australians with one of the first examples of Aboriginal Englishes written by an Aboriginal person as standard language use. In the late 1960s and early 1970s The Cherry Pickers and the publicity Gilbert generated around it was a major step in building bridges of communication between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Katharine Brisbane describes her response after viewing an early performed reading of The Cherry Pickers as being ‘overawed with a sense of privilege at being allowed into the domestic life of a people whose privacy had, for so long and for such good reason, been guarded from white eyes'. There was an initial reading of the play in 1968 ‘in the open air'. In 1970 the play was nominated for the Captain Cook Memorial Award and was highly commended. There were two rehearsed readings/productions of The Cherry Pickers in 1971 in Sydney. The full play of The Cherry Pickers was performed in 1973 by Nindethana Theatre Company in Melbourne. The text was not published until 1988 when Barrambinga Books published a revised edition coinciding with the increasing protests by Indigenous Australians against the nature of the Bicentennial celebrations of European colonisation. The play has since been produced by a range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous companies.



Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National