For years, playwright Dylan van der Berg wondered whether he really had a right to his family’s stories.
A light-skinned Palawa man from Tasmania, he’d grown up with the stories of his family’s eviction across Bass Strait, their struggles and choices around whether to conceal their heritage.
“I’d ask myself whether the stories of my ancestors belonged to me, do I have a right to them?” he told Region Media as his play, Milk, began its season at the Street Theatre from 4 June.
“My life isn’t at all like theirs and there was a period of time when I wasn’t sure I could take ownership of that side of my heritage.”
Van den Berg came to Canberra for university and has stayed. He began to write when he was unable to find roles that described what it felt like to sit uneasily between worlds, unsure of where he belonged.
“Milk began five or six years ago as a fleeting idea,” he explains. “I was still working as an actor, and I thought, how about I write a story about myself?”
Originally conceived as a one-man show, he began researching and talking to family members, realising as he did so that several stories could be told across the generations.
Instead of disparate, siloed narratives, he decided to combine three voices speaking across time. Although impossible in real life, Van der Berg says the structure enabled him to show similarities around the impact of colonisation and how each generation has responded and coped.
Each character is a composite of several different people, including his family members. None are named and they meet on a fictionalised Flinders Island, attempting to reconcile the past and present.
Character A is a Palawa woman from first contact Tasmania. Van Den Berg says the narrative thread through her story is her trying to hold onto culture.
“That’s a strong family story, that an ancestor would not give up her dance, her culture, even when she was taken away from her home,” he says.
Character B is a middle-aged woman in 1960s Tasmania. She can pass as white and has integrated into mainstream Tasmanian life by denying her identity and heritage.
Character C is a fair-skinned young Aboriginal man, a writer, inspired by Van den Berg, but also capturing a broader Tasmanian Aboriginal experience of questioning self and identity.
Palawa woman Aunty Gay Doolan was a cultural consultant and Van den Berg also workshopped the play extensively with actors, including Roxanne McDonald and Katie Bennett, who appear in the premiere cast along with him.
He says weaving the three stories together across time was a major challenge but rewarding. As a result, a structure evolved that linked and gave weight to their different experiences.
After a year of COVID-19, he’s pinching himself that Milk came to the stage during Reconciliation Week as the Street Theatre’s first live performance. Later this year he will produce a commission for the Belconnen Arts Centre and work for the National Theatre of Parramatta.
But for the playwright, the significance of Milk goes well beyond its staging this week.
“We’re contributing to the body of Aboriginal Tasmanian art and literature”, he says.
“We survived. In the 70s Tasmanian Aboriginal people were widely described as extinct, but society is now starting to accept that we are still here.
“We have to stand up and own that heritage”.
Milk is at the Street Theatre until 12 June. Bookings at thestreet.org.au.