Twenty-six years after it was written, Australian classic The 7 Stages of Grieving is receiving a contemporary update under the guidance of Sydney Theatre Company's Resident Director Shari Sebbens.
This vibrant and insightful Indigenous story - which opens at STC in late May - became an early triumph for acclaimed playwrights Deborah Mailman and Wesley Enoch on its premiere in 1995. But with this contemporary revival, which also doubles as her directing debut for STC, Sebbens wants to reflect on how the world has changed in the 26 years since the play first opened and also address how far we still have to go.
"Black theatre is an excellent way to track the changes this country has made," Sebbens - a proud Bardi, Jabirr-Jabirr woman - said.
"I think when people come to this script they see a need to keep saying what Deb and Wesley were saying all those years ago. The sad and immediate reason this play is still relevant is because nothing has really changed. It came out of a desire to be heard, a call to arms, a Black woman using a theatrical space to make her demands for a better country for her people – that is still so immediate."
The 7 Stages of Grieving features one female performer who, over the course of one hour, traces seven phases of Aboriginal history – Dreaming, Invasion, Genocide, Protection, Assimilation, Self-Determination and Reconciliation. Helpmann Award-winning Yankunytjatjara woman Elaine Crombie (pictured) steps into this pivotal role for STC's production.
Sebbens said Crombie was one of the "funniest people you'll meet" who was also incredibly adept at tapping into truth and pathos through her performances.
"Her energy is infectious, her warmth radiates and she’s not afraid to challenge the people around her," Sebbens said. "I reckon if The 7 Stages of Grieving was a person it’d be Elaine. This play demands a certain dexterity of its actor, it demands you to show off, to show us why you’re up there. It’s a great play for great actors. I think that’s why it’ll never go away, it’s an open, warm way to say “look how phenomenal Black women are.”
Crombie will perform on a set designed by STC's Resident Designer Elizabeth Gadsby in consultation and collaboration with Quandamooka artist Megan Cope, whose site-specific installations investigate identity, the environment and mapping practices. The middens - or mounds of shells, bones and other materials - that scatter the stage in this production were inspired by Cope's works.
Crombie said, while the creative team were updating some of the text and songs in the show, the underlying story of grief and perseverance remained the same.
"The 7 Stages of Grieving is a timeless text - there are new perspectives and contextual information that we are adding but the story of grief is still the same, that's timeless," Crombie said.
Sebbens said she was excited to bring her production of this classic work to the stage for a whole new generation.
"As for the last 26 years, I think it will be a real filtering process for Elaine and I," Sebbens said. "What are the biggest things that have happened? What do Elaine and I feel strongly about? What is it we want to say with this piece, having been given Deb and Wesley's permission to hit the refresh button while honouring their original text? We can’t possibly as two women speak for the whole of Aboriginal Australia, but we can hope that people relate to our experiences and find the inspiration for change in our humanity."
The 7 Stages of Grieving opens at STC's Wharf 1 Theatre on May 21.
Previews: 21 - 24 May. Opening Night: 25 May. Season: 26 May - 19 June
The set of The 7 Stages of Grieving was designed in consultation and collaboration with Megan Cope and is inspired by her Reformation series of works.
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