Jandamarra ... Steve Hawke PDF Print E-mail


Jandamarra is a play about the frontier, set between the mid 1880s and 1902. As such it portrays four distinct linguistic worlds:

• The white pastoralists and police, talking English amongst themselves; • The Bunuba people in their own camps, speaking the Bunuba language;

• The overlap, where Bunuba people and whites talk to each other in Pidgin English;

• The other overlap, where Bunuba people talk to other Aboriginal people who are non-Bunuba speakers in Kriol, which is a complex language in its own right, quite distinct from Pidgin.

I wrote the play in English. Whilst some attempt – conscious and unconscious – was made to adapt the dialogue to each of these situations, I was always aware of the inherent shortcomings and discrepancies. Quite apart from the challenges of language, there is the enormous, and enormously daunting matter of imagining yourself into the camps and daily lives and mindsets of nineteenth century Bunuba people living a
bush life. Despite the input from my Bunuba speaking colleagues over the years, there was always a degree of discomfort, an awareness that the fit will never be perfect; that words and concepts I put in the mouths and minds of my Bunuba characters are unlikely to be
entirely authentic.

And so we come to the first reading in the Black Swan rehearsal room in May 2006. Danny Marr and Selina Middleton had come down from Fitzroy Crossing to represent the Bunuba mob. We were a couple of actors short, and Danny read the part of Marralum with aplomb.

I can’t remember which scene it was that provided the trigger during our discussions, but it was one set in the Bunuba world. All of a sudden there was this big, big conversation happening about the best way to do the scene. Without me quite realising, Tom Gutteridge and Zoe Atkinson from Black Swan were talking to Danny and Selina about doing the scene in Bunuba, and soon a consensus emerged that we should use Bunuba and Kriol in all the appropriate scenes.

I was momentarily stunned. I had always just assumed that it would not work to do Bunuba on stage. How on earth would the audience get it? But Tom assured us it could and would work using surtitles like at the opera, and that it would enhance the play.

At that moment my excitement and enthusiasm – already high – doubled.

Three months later I was sitting down in Fitzroy Crossing with a copy of the script with all the Bunuba elements marked in yellow and all the Kriol elements marked in blue, a tape recorder, and three amazing women.

Mona Oscar is in her sixties; a woman of the station era, and a fluent Bunuba speaker. Patsy Bedford is in her fifties. She works for the Kimberley Language Resource Centre; recording, teaching and promoting the Bunuba language is her great passion. Selina Middleton, in her
forties, is one of the directors of Bunuba Films, and has often worked with Patsy on Bunuba language projects.

Over the course of three intense days we rendered the “yellow bits” of the script into Bunuba on tape. It was an amazing experience, for all of us. For me, as the fourth cog in the wheel, it was as intellectually challenging as anything I have done.

I am no linguist, to put it mildly. But as I expected, as I knew, the two languages are completely different; not just in terms of structure, grammar and vocabulary, but more importantly, in terms of their complexities and the world views and attitudes that they have evolved to
represent and depict. It was a line by line, phrase by phrase exercise, full of unexpected twists and turns. A three line sentence of
English dialogue could be precisely rendered in three Bunuba words laden with suffixes. Occasionally the reverse would apply, a perfect translation of a concise English phrase might require a much longer burst of Bunuba dialogue.

At times the limits of my cultural understanding were exposed. “A mother can’t talk to her son like that,” I would be told; and an alternative way of conveying the information or the dramatic point would have to be found.

On a very few occasions my analogies or verbal flights of fancy defeated us, and lines of dialogue would have to be dropped as unrealiable in Bunuba. But nothing intrinsic, and as a writer so often finds, on examination the script happily survives the loss of a gem he has laboured over.

And time and again I would be delighted when the three women laboured and debated over a line, until one of them – usually Mona – produced a phrase, at which the other two would grin and say yes, then provide me with the “back translation” from the Bunuba to English; and I would have a phrase more apt, more dramatic than my original.

 I had written an exchange between Jandamarra and his mother Jinny, in which she is pleading with him to leave the white man’s sheep station and return to the camp of the Bunuba living in the bush, free, but on the run.

“Men are born to be hunters, not the hunted,” he says.

“The Bunuba were born to be free in this land, not white men’s slaves,” she throws back.

“I’m no white man’s slave,” he declares.

Bunuba has no word for ‘slave;’ no remotely matching concept.
 
It was an amazing, and very stimulating hour, as we discussed this back and forth, until we came up with a completely different exchange, with alternative declarations and analogies that ring much truer, and will also provide a neat dramatic reflection on a later exchange in English between Jinny and the white missus, Mary Bligh, enhancing that subsequent scene.

On the fourth day, before she had to take off for Broome, Patsy and I got two scenes down on paper in the Bunuba version, in the hope that we might be able to record a reading of these. The recording didn’t happen this time round; but it turned out to be just the start.

Mona’s daughter, June Oscar, who amongst her many responsibilities is the chair of the Kimberley Language Resource Centre, got to work with Patsy, and then with me, on the written version.

June has a fine eye for detail, and the spellings and grammar were tweaked and refined, and the text analysed word by word. But what became apparent with June and the others was that the process of rendering and then analysing the Bunuba freed them to contribute and comment on the content in a way they could never do – or at least feel free and able to do – with my English text.

This was not just a matter of cultural niceties and protocols. We found ourselves engaged in a critical and dramaturgical discussion of the content, which was about ensuring a genuine portrayal of the Bunuba world and characters, whilst also serving the purposes of the
drama.

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much. And it was just fantastic to see the thrill my Bunuba colleagues were getting out of working with their language in a written form at such a complex and demanding level.

 There is a sense that the Bunuba characters in the play are becoming true, and that that part of the play is taking on a substance, a solidity, a reality far greater than before. That, and a sense that we are venturing into new dramatic territory, where an Aboriginal language will stand as a major, indeed an integral part of a large scale dramatic play on the Australian main stage, in all its complexity and richness.

SCENE EIGHTEEN

JANDAMARRA enters. He walks over to the white cross at front of stage. After a few moments’ contemplation, he squats, scoops up a handful of earth, and scatters it over the grave. He stands there, not seeing RICHARDSON and MAYANNIE enter.

RICHARDSON draws a revolver from his belt. He grins at MAYANNIE’s alarm. He aims over Jandamarra’s head, and fires!

JANDAMARRA stifles his shock, and turns calmly.

RICHARDSON: Joe told me to shoot any blackfeller that comes near the grave.

JANDAMARRA: Nobody told me.

RICHARDSON: [laughs] Well now you know.

He gives MAYANNIE an affectionate pat on the bum as he heads inside, calling back to JANDAMARRA.

See you down at the horseyards in half an hour hey. See if you’re as good as you say.

MAYANNIE and JANDAMARRA exchange a look.

JANDAMARRA: Ee brobu funeewun thud bugu. Wud kien im?
[English: Funny bugger isn’t he. What’s he like?]

MAYANNIE: Ee ried ... jumdiem.
[English: He’s all right ... sometimes.]

She doesn’t want to talk about Richardson.

Hou long yoo gurru jiddoun iyar?
[English: How long are you staying?]

JANDAMARRA: Rijidsin bin gibim mee horsbraigin job. Ul jis doo thurrun birs, den jinggubud.
[English: Richardson’s given me the horsebreaking job. I’ll just do that first, then think
about it.]

He too wants to change the subject, and switches to Bunuba.

Ay wiyi. Ngarragima bulba wurrgaya mayaruyuwa?
[English: [shifting uncomfortably] That’s not my fault.]

JINI: Dibinarra.way yathayirrantha. ...
[English: I’m living with Tibinarra now ...]

JANDAMARRA nods, he has heard.

Ban.gawurali ngirranthawu. Ngawungu bagaway nganggi.
[English: Come back, to us two. He can be your father.]

More silence.

Yilimarra-ingga ngayabari nganggu.
[English: Yilimarra asks how you are.]

JANDAMARRA: Bumanhi jalungurru yatha ngira.
[English: Tell him I’m good.]

JINI: Ngayima ban.ganggurangi-yali?
[English: Why won’t you come back to us?]

JANDAMARRA: [fiercely] Ngayini milhalba. Ngayi girrgarawulimi wanyjirri-jangi – malngarrinhi.
[English: [fiercely] I am a hunter. I won’t run away from the white man like a hunted kangaroo.]

JINI: [equally fierce] Yathanggira ngirrinyi jangi, bani-ingga munbawunggunu.

Ngindaji muwayi ngayi malngarriu. Ngindaji Bunubawu muwayi.
[English: [equally fierce] You’re sitting here like a fly the spider grabbed. This is not the white man’s country. It’s Bunuba country.]
JANDAMARRA: Ngayni ngayi ngirrinyi malngarri.u.
[English: I’m not a white man’s fly.]

For a moment they glare at each other. JINI seems to be about to say something, but holds back. She shakes her head and stalks away. JANDAMARRA holds up a hand, he also seems about to speak, but does not.