A young romance set during world-changing times. Lovers standing against the broad sweep of history. No, I’m not talking about Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor, or just about everyone in From Here To Eternity, but the gay love story at the centre of Dylan Van Den Berg’s captivating Whitefella Yella Tree. Currently in its world premiere run in Sydney, it’s a tale of innocence lost during Australia’s colonial invasion. Sure, it might be a challenge to do ‘sweeping’ in the confines of the Griffin’s S,B&W Stables Theatre, but the emotional and historical scope are all there for the taking.
Two Indigenous teens from different tribes meet up under an unusual tree, a nonindigenous lemon tree, to swap information about the ‘Whitefellas’ who have landed on the shore. What starts as a simple trading of facts and stories grows deeper as Ty of the River Mob (Callan Purcell) and Neddy of the Mountain Mob (Guy Simon) get to know and admire each other as they discover their mutual desire. But like this new and different tree, the effects of British colonization produce bitter fruit.
Whitefella Yella Tree starts with a charming high-school rom-com vibe. The two boys (in modern dress, speaking like contemporary teens) awkwardly banter, brag and eventually flirt. Things change as the Whitefellas get closer and closer to their land and their sexual and emotional awakening is brought to an abrupt halt. Their little oasis under the lemon tree loses its innocence as they face the real world changes happening around them. Ned’s people are captured. Ty’s people are getting sick. Both boys have to make some life-changing decisions.
Writer Dylan Van Den Berg charts a clear line between the queer-friendly environment of Indigenous life with the repressed and shame-filled society of the invading British. There is no judgement of their sexuality among their own people. Their loved ones are merely happy for them to have found each other. But when Neddy becomes enamored with the Whitefella’s ways, he picks up on their social cues and starts to reject his own sexuality. It strikes a chord to see smallpox ravage the Indigenous population—brought to Australia with the British—especially in the long shadow of the heights of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the current emergence of Monkeypox.
Purcell and Simon are engaging as Ty and Neddy, transitioning from their childish meetings to the drama of the play’s finale with ease. The production really packs a punch thanks to the work of design trio Mason Browne’s set, Kelsey Lee’s lighting and Steve Toulmin’s sound. They manage to fill the small simple space with grand sunrises, frightening night visions and magical blooms that really sell the tale convincingly.
Whitefella Yella Tree is exceptional work all-round; a uniquely Australian story told by a largely Indigenous cast and crew. I wanted it to be both longer and more expansive, and somehow at the time time smaller and more intimate. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I left the theatre.
By Chad Armstrong
Whitefella Yella Tree plays at the Griffin Theatre until September 23rd 2022. Click here for tickets and more information.