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  • Fiona Prior

Natives Go Wild

Updated: May 1, 2020

Natives Go Wild

Conceived and Written by Rhoda Roberts AO

Director Chelsea McGuffin

'Step right up into a wild world of mystery. A mistold tale of circus and wonder. A twisted history unleashed, and a famous freak show unmasked. Be enraptured by the dark truth of P.T. Barnum, the greatest showman, and his mob of circus ‘delights’...

At ‘Natives Go Wild’ I had a similar revelation to that experienced when I saw Bangarra’s ballet based on the story of David Unaipon, an extraordinary Indigenous inventor and scholar of whom I had never heard (Unaipon’s portrait graces our fifty dollar note). ‘Natives Go Wild’ similarly brings us the story of a group of amazing but unknown indigenous people, some best in their fields on the world stage. And that is the second objective of ‘Natives Go Wild’, bringing these remarkable individuals to our attention.

The cabaret’s first objective is to highlight the crimes against humanity committed by well-known travelling sideshows and circuses of the 19th Century.

Ring-mistress/master, Maori artist Mika Haka, brings us this tale of exploitation. Seemingly a combination of Drag Queen and Maori Warrior, Mika Haka reveals the story of how the world’s Indigenous peoples were ‘recruited’ to be displayed like exotic animals in a zoo. Often misrepresented as ‘cannibals’ and ‘savages’, the unfortunate women and men on display were frequently sexualised or brutalised in line with the particular fantasy they were choreographed to portray to a paying audience. And if they died ‘on the road’ (as many reportedly did), their bodies were opportunistically embalmed so that their use-value would continue …

I’d like to focus on the performance's more uplifting second theme, those individuals who may have been completely forgotten had there remarkable lives and situations not been highlighted by ‘Natives Go Wild’.

One of the most famous circus performers of the 1920s, Con (Cornelius) Colleano performed for the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Dubbed ‘The Wizard of the High Wire’ Colleano was the first performer to perfect the forward somersault on a tightrope … As one of the highest paid circus performers of his generation, Colleano’s Aboriginal heritage was concealed, performing instead under the guise of an exotic Spaniard. (In 'Natives Go Wild', The Wizard of the High Wire is performed by Waangenga Blanco.)

Another success story was the most recognised Aboriginal identity in Australian circus, William ‘Billy’ Jones, otherwise known as ‘Little Nugget’, of Burton’s Circus. He rose to fame by appearing in almost every official Australian circus in the 1850s, performing as an equestrian, juggler, acrobat, ropewalker and ringmaster. (William Jones (Little Nugget) is performed by Beau James.)

Natives Go Wild’ commemorates the above success stories but also honours the lives of those who were lured to be used as freaks and oddities, part of the sadder psychology of the side-show tradition.

For the second time this month I have been part of a room where an act has received a standing ovation, not for the performance itself but for its inherent political stance. (See *Hair.)


Mer Island dancer Waangenga Blanco

NZ Maori Artist Mika Haka

Mununjali circus artist Beau James

Niuean acrobat and aerial contortionist Josephine Mailisi

Tongan performance artist 'SistaNative' Seini Taumoepeau

Rotuman musician and performer Samuela Taukave aka Skillz

Natives Go Wild

The Studio

Sydney Opera House

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