The festival of indigenous film and performance which opens this weekend at the Sydney Opera House involves two special contributors, both men black and gay -“ and together.
Message Sticks for them is a reunion of sorts. David Page, composer for the Bangarra Dance Theatre, is performing his successful solo show, Page 8, about his family and childhood in Brisbane. And his partner, film producer Darren Dale, is co-curating the indigenous short film program for the third year.
They met at the Opera House back in 2002, at the Deadly Awards. David was getting yet another award, for his evocative fusion of traditional Aboriginal and contemporary music, and a special Deadly Ring to go with it. Darren asked a mutual friend to introduce him.
He wanted to see if my ring was really that deadly, David says. And we’ve been together ever since.
David’s ring aside, the story of this gay couple is a good one for the Women’s Weekly. What powers both men is the role of family in their lives.
Their place in their own and each other’s families seems to drive them even more than the pursuit of their Aboriginal identity.
Or perhaps it’s the same thing.
My last boyfriend was beautiful in accepting my family but it’s more like really understanding the relationships, the time it takes and the need to go if my family needs me, David says.
After that Deadly night David went back to his boyfriend of eight years on the Central Coast and finished the relationship.
Six months later he and Darren bought an Elizabeth Bay flat together, just opposite the grand house Boomerang. On the day Sydney Star Observer visits, Mrs Page is staying over.
Page 8 is David’s homage to his family, growing up one of 12 children in Brisbane, along with his younger brothers, Stephen, founding artistic director of Bangarra, and the celebrated dancer, the late Russell Page.
David’s claim to fame started early when as a boy he sang on Countdown and The Paul Hogan Show and scored two Top Ten Hits -“ including Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen. But then his voice broke.
However, stardom resumed later when he did regular drag shows for his extended family and cousins, but the coming-out part of David’s story, of course, had a few hiccups.
His family were fine but to appease his Dad he joined him doing concreting for four years.
It was hard balancing the concreting with playing in a punk band, having a girlfriend, having a boyfriend, going to the pub with the blokes, going to clubs with the guys and doing drag.
And David, looking more conspicuously Aboriginal than Darren, had his share of problems on the streets of Brisbane. Music gave him direction and he went to the new Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music at Adelaide University.
A lot of gay people don’t give a shit about what the world thinks but they do about what their family thinks, he says. But my parents taught me to be honest, to be true to myself, so I used that to my advantage. Editing the play made me realise it was a story about recognising opportunities.
One of the most moving and hilarious parts of Page 8 is David’s decision to return to Brisbane and look after the uncle and aunt who had helped raise him. George and Tessa had by now slipped into dementia and their once immaculate house had gone the same way.
It’s an episode that Darren, working with Page 8 co-writer Louis Nowra, is now developing into a film, to be directed by Stephen Page. So it’s another family affair, and it was Darren who encouraged David to work with Louis Nowra in the first place.
David is also the star of one of the short films to be shown in Darren’s program this weekend. In Green Bush, he plays a late-night announcer on an indigenous radio station in Alice Springs, faced with a parade of issues raised by a night of visits from the traditional community.
Interestingly both these gay men are ambiguous about indigenous stories that only underline the displacement and dispossession of traditional Aborigines.
David doesn’t even mention it in his play. Darren also believes it is impossible for urban Aborigines to move forward if they carry all that cultural baggage of loss.
Next month Darren, working again with Louis Nowra and co-producer Rachel Perkins, will finish the scripts on what will be a nine-part SBS series telling the history of Aboriginal Australia.
The $4.5 million series, which he says is about a shared history deliberately targeted to both white and black audiences, is due to screen in 2007.
When we were researching the series we found that a lot people, once they had recovered from being separated from their family, found new strength in the cities in forming new types of families, Darren says.
My grandmother was forced to leave her family in Grafton but she still talks with fondness about coming to Redfern and forming a new network. And there was a big sense that black kids need to do well, to get what she didn’t have.
Coming out in a middle-class family in western Sydney was not such a big deal for Darren.
When I was about 14, my much older sister called out in the house, -˜You’re a fucking drama queen of Oxford Street’, he remembers. And I thought, what’s she talking about? But everybody else seemed to know.
This is Darren’s first relationship with a fellow Aboriginal man. It’s something, David says, you don’t see too often, even though he has had two others himself. Those relationships, he adds, became more like counselling, helping others envious of his own happiness.
And Darren and I are both in the arts, David says. When we met we just talked and talked and talked -“ sex then didn’t even come into it.
I just love him, he adds. He’s understanding and he helps me look at things a lot more clearly. He can be a bit closed sometimes -“ but he’s younger.
And Darren on David: David’s got the most generous, warm heart and he’s hopeful, he’s infectious.
He’s got a temper but it’s good -“ like in that mood he cleans up, and yesterday morning did five loads of washing.
The Message Sticks film program is free and runs 27-29 May at the Opera House. Page 8 runs there from 1-11 June.