The Bungalow Song is sung: are we listening?

I’ve read stories of the Stolen Generation, I’ve heard the story sung… but this was something else.

The Bungalow Song, part of the Mbantua Festival in Alice Springs 9-13 October, brought together people who had been stolen from their families and incarcerated in the Bungalow institution with 30 local children related to survivors to sing and tell their traumatic story in a rich and incredibly moving mix of testimony, song and visual theatre.

Set at the site of the Bungalow, just north of Alice Springs, in the open air on a warm and windy desert night, the production acknowledged the grief and trauma caused by the policy of stealing Indigenous children from the freedom and love of their families, communities and land and their life giving culture.

Using the outdoor location and darkness of night, the production projected black and white images onto the roof above the performance space – photographs of the children and communities then, of the men who enacted the policy, and letters and documents describing the inhuman legislation.

It lit up in the dark a child running away from the truck chasing him; a mother waiting at the fence in the hope of seeing her child (‘we weren’t allowed to talk to them’) and the sinister silhouette of the superintendent on the verandah beckoning a young girl.

Squeezed close on bleachers, we heard testimonies told by those who had been incarcerated there, or whose parents or grandparents were. And we heard songs in language as well as English of what happened and how the children lived and survived at this institution, also known as the Half-cast home, set up in 1932 at the site of Alice Springs’ original telegraph station.

Hearing the direct testimonies, I was poleaxed by simple statements that conveyed, with such understatement and dignity, a mountain of suffering and indignity.

Harold Furber saying: ‘I never saw my mother again’ after the Bungalow was closed down and he and the other children were moved to other parts of the country or Bobbie Randall another former ‘Bungalow kid’ who as a child was forced to walk in neck chains for hundreds of kilometres in the November heat when his family was accused of stealing cattle. On arriving in Alice Springs, he was taken to the Bungalow which he simply described as ‘not easy’.

Photo: James Henry Photography

Testimonies told of how children were slapped across the mouth for speaking in language – one way that ‘culture was beaten out of us’. And of their continual hunger, loneliness and the cruel treatment.

With courage and integrity, teenage girls sang of the abuse that girls had suffered at the hands of the superintendant, and read a letter one wrote pleading for help from the Chief Protector of Aboriginals. In a landmark case, five girls resident at the Bungalow testified in a trial in which the superintendent, GK Freedman was convicted and imprisoned for sexually abusing the girls.

Amidst this story’s incredible sadness, for me, the production was uplifting – it gave hope and dignity (‘The shame is not ours, you should be ashamed’ they sang) as did the strength and sheer enthusiasm of the 5-19 year old cast none of whom had been in a ‘professional’ production like this before (and only three of whom were more than 15 years old). Seeing them perform and remember these stories with such integrity, I felt that their strength and pride would banish any vestiges of shame.

Surviving residents from the Bungalow were invited from around the country and attended the dress rehearsal. Many came for every show.

I don’t know about reconciliation. But it was clear that there was some measure of healing for this community to hear these stories in Alice Springs, in Central Australia, told by those who had experienced it and by the generations who have inherited the fallout.

For me, there has been a deeper understanding and sadness for what these stolen children and their families have undergone.

The Bungalow Song was a joint production between Central Australian Stolen Generations and Families Aboriginal Corporation, Opera Australia and Mbantua Festival – Awakening the Desert.

The Festival co-directed by Rachel Perkins and Nigel Jamieson (who directed the Bungalow Song) promoted traditions, language, dance and art to celebrate the culture and heritage of the desert communities of Central Australia.

For more about the Bungalow and the residents’ stories, visit the ABC website.

(Photo credit on main blog page: James Henry Photography)