Knowing where we came from and understanding what shaped the lives of our descendants can be confronting. In the context of Indigenous Australians, whose history stretches back eons, understanding is even more complex as it involves the disturbing events of post-European settlement. One woman’s story of discovery and understanding is told in A Letter for Molly. Written by Brittany Shipway, it focuses on four generations of Indigenous women from the one family.
Renee is a fun-loving girl of our times. A party animal, it is not unusual to find her bent over a lavatory at the end of the night. But on one particular New Year’s Eve, with her gay friend Nick in tow, a pregnancy test confirms her suspicion that this illness is not drink-related.
With her usual lifestyle now interrupted by the impending birth of “Molly” and the father showing no interest in her welfare, Renee explores her options, one being abortion. As time ticks by, she finds new meaning in the relationship with her own mother, grandmother and great-grandmother whilst uncovering greater depth in her Indigenous heritage.
The storytelling by Brittany Shipway is ingenious. Her characters are reflections of the attitudes of their eras. As opinions have changed over the last 80 years, what the characters say and do run parallel with the shifting mood of the broader Australian community. Each generation is ear-marked with a major breakthrough in Indigenous affairs (1967 referendum, Mabo 1992, “Sorry’” statement 2008). By doing so, Brittany keeps the audience focused on her desired messages: enlightenment, understanding, empathy and cooperation.
The five actors portray their roles perfectly. In order of the Elder status of each character, they are Miimi (Liza Maza), Darlene (Paula Nazarski), Linda (Nazaree Dickerson), Renee (Brittany Shipway) and Nick (Joel Granger). Their experience and passion drive their performances, with opportunity to deliver dramatic and comedic scenes.
A telling example occurs when Miimi throws an iron at her daughter Darlene in anger at Darlene’s suggestion of Aboriginal autonomy. A recurring source of humour is when characters attempt to explain where their people (the Gumbaynggirr) come from.
Ursula Yovich ably directs the creative team and cast. They reinforce the words from Brittany Shipway through targeted sound effects, sombre mood lighting and backdrops, along with the use of past news grabs of major events. An onstage smoking ceremony for expectant mothers gives a hint of traditional “secret women’s business”.
The Ensemble production of A Letter for Molly gives a lot to the audience. With themes of motherhood, loss of identity, country and forgiveness, there is much to take home. It is not a soapbox rant about Australia’s past misdeeds, rather an inclusive, generational story that most families can identify with. This is excellent Australian storytelling.
It is playing at Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli until 4th June, 2022.