Content Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains the names of people who have died
I have engaged with far fewer creative Indigenous works than I should. Sure, I watched Redfern Now, Mabo, and Black Comedy several years ago but my complacency of late has left a gap in knowledge and therefore empathy. A work like At What Cost, written by Nathan Maynard and directed by Isaac Drandric, shakes you from that place.
Taking my seat in Belvoir St Theatre’s Upstairs auditorium I am presented with an empty table, scattered logs, a fireplace and an inscrutable pattern on the ground. The intimacy of the set and stage would later serve an important role in engaging a mostly white audience with the subject matter.
At What Cost follows the story of Boyd (Luke Carroll), his partner Nala (Sandy Greenwood), and his cousin (Ari Maza Long) as they prepare for the return of stolen ancestral remains. As Palawa people, they have official entitlement to the remains of Aboriginal man King William Lanne. However, tensions arise when so-called “tick-a-boxers” claim similar entitlement. Tick-a-boxers are what Boyd calls Aboriginal people who do not have verifiably Palawa surnames but claim Aboriginal heritage on government forms. This question over who can claim Indigeneity is the central discussion of the play.
Major plot beats are broken up by a montage of Boyd preparing the fire for the ritual burning of Lenny’s remains. During these interludes, viewers are given background information on the contemporary debate between ‘certified’ Palawa people and the Hidden Aboriginals of Tasmania.
At What Cost is a tragedy. Before building up to its heartbreaking conclusion, considerable time is spent observing the cast as everyday human beings. Carroll and Greenwood’s portrayal of a couple excitedly expecting a baby is endearing; their sexual chemistry is relentless, albeit occasionally overdone. Meanwhile, Maza Long convincingly plays a young man who has endless admiration for his uncle but is uneasy with his somewhat antiquated views. The final character Gracie (Alex Malone) is a PhD student studying the history of the land struggle of Putalina, where the story is set. Due to the authenticity of Malone’s performance, at almost any point I was convinced Gracie could be one of my friends doing postgrad.
The simplicity of the set worked in the show’s favour. While the tiny lights resembling the night sky or the floor-lit patterns previously mentioned were impressive, I believe the show would have been as compelling without. The costumes, on the other hand, were essential. Critical cultural practices were performed in traditional outfits, reminding audience members that they are not a part of this process. At all other times, the cast wore casual clothes, facilitating a sense of familiarity and inviting viewers to consider the discussion at hand.
Intuitively, every Australian should understand that the struggle for Indigenous justice is far from complete. But for many of us, the shape those struggles and the consequences of historic and ongoing violence take are hard to conceptualise. For this reason, we need works like At What Cost. While the show has been archived since my viewing, I would encourage engagement with other creative works by Indigenous people. While you might not get the nuanced discussion of Palawa identity presented here, you might get insight just as valuable.