The Mullagh Medal will be awarded to the best player in the next Boxing Day Test and now a new play from Geoffrey Atherden (Grass Roots, Mother and Son) is set to receive its world premiere at Kirribilli’s Ensemble Theatre.

Directed by Wesley Enoch, who is somehow finding time for this project while also directing the Sydney Festival, Black Cockatoo examines Mullagh’s life and legacy while at the same time framing the story in a modern context.

In cricketing terms, at least, the tour – the first from the new colony – was a huge achievement: the Indigenous team won 14, lost 14 and drew 19 matches, an incredible amount of cricket for just six months. Mullagh’s personal contribution was an outstanding 1698 runs and 245 wickets.

“But although the tour in a lot of ways was a success it’s surrounded by tragedy,” Atherden says. “When they got back the colonial authorities changed the law and made it illegal for Aboriginal people to be on their own land, moving everyone onto reserves and missions. It was like the end of the tour was the final moment of displacement for Aboriginal people in Victoria.”

Atherden was also captivated by Mullagh’s story because of his dignity and his refusal to accept the racism he encountered while touring.

“There was a moment in York where they are playing the gentlemen of York,” he says. “Mullagh walked off the field because they wouldn’t let him in the luncheon tent. He said, ‘I’m not going to play cricket with someone who won’t eat lunch with me’.”

Despite confessing he knows little or nothing about cricket, Enoch has also been captured by the figure of Johnny Mullagh and his determination, literally, to beat the colonists at their own game.

“He learned the rules of the colonial enterprise and then said, ‘I’m going to be good at it, I’m going to better at it and I want to beat you,” he says. “What Geoffrey has written in a really beautiful way is this idea of saying he wants to feel pride in his own abilities but also to be a role model that his whole people could feel proud of.”

All six cast members are indigenous, many playing white characters. The casting, says Enoch has been a deliberate choice.

“When you want to express, if not racism, but cultural, racial tensions, if you put those words into the mouth of a black actor playing a white character suddenly you get the irony and other layers are revealed.”

Aaron McGrath (Redfern Now, Glitch) plays Mullagh. He says he knew little about him and the tour before studying for the role, his first in theatre.

“He is the perfect role model,” he says. “He’s an icon for all young Indigenous people. They don’t teach us about him in school but they should.”

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