Canadian Stage presents Jack Charles’ powerful show in Toronto as part of Spotlight Australia
I had never hear of Jack Charles before seeing Canadian Stage Company’s production of Jack Charles V. the Crown. Now, I will never forget him. Charles is a 74-year old famous and infamous Australian Aboriginal actor. He is famous for his award-winning film and television career that has spanned over four decades. He is infamous for an almost equally lengthy career of thievery in support of a severe heroin addiction.
Jack Charles V. the Crown is a one man, multimedia performance that tells the moving, tragic, and uplifting story of Charles’ life. Charles was taken from his mother as an infant and is a survivor of Australia’s forced assimilation program – their version of the residential school system. He grew up in a Salvation Army home for boys where he suffered total isolation from his culture, and experienced sexual abuse. Sound familiar?
It is no small wonder that he turned to drugs and crime. What is miraculous is his journey to come back from that. The piece opens with stills and clips from Charles’ life and acting career, and some particularly gritty footage from a documentary made about him while he was still using.
The performance also featured a live jazz band that accompanied Charles’ storytelling and songs. Charles is an engaging speaker, managing to keep the tone personable and funny despite the strangeness and brutality of his tale. The music did a fine job of creating an atmosphere that was furtive and morose, but also resilient and inspirational.
Charles was sentenced to serve time on 22 separate occasion and ended up spending a total of 20 years incarcerated. A true renaissance man, Charles became a potter while in prison. One of the most arresting and compelling aspects of the show is that Charles makes pottery while having what feels more like an intimate rap session with his audience, rather than a performance.
While on the whole, the inclusion of live music in the performance was evocative and engaging, there were times when the volume of the music made Charles’ powerful words hard to hear or inaudible. This was frustrating and unfortunate because Charles’ words are important, needed, and timely. You don’t want to miss a syllable.
The sound design issues notwithstanding, this is a profoundly personal show that is not to be missed. The piece succeeds at being heavy but not draining, due in large part to Charles’ excellent sense of humour and facility and ability to tell a good joke.
This award-winning play has received international acclaim, and it is fitting that it is being performed here on Turtle Island. By shining a light on Australia’s shameful history of mistreating Indigenous people, he holds up a mirror to one of the saddest chapters of our nation’s past, and it could not have come at a more relevant time.
Posted on March 23, 2017 by Darryl Reilly in Off-Broadway, Plays, solo
Harrowing and redemptive, Jack Charles V The Crown is a fascinating and dynamic autobiographical performance art piece.
With a mane of white hair and a long white beard, the charismatic, athletic and 73- year-old Jack Charles tells his life story in the course of 75 minutes.
The Aboriginal Mr. Charles was born in Australia in 1943, to an unwed mother who got pregnant 13 times. According to government legislation he was taken away as an infant and raised in a boys’ home and then taken in by foster parents. He was an apprentice glass blower and after getting into arguments with his foster parents, he was sent to reform school. There were many traumas during this era including sexual abuse.
Charles became an actor after getting a part in a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in The Sun, founded notable theater companies, and appeared in such films as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
His innate charm, joy of performing and theatrical grandeur is always on display in this show. All of those qualities combined with his resonant, Australian accented vocal delivery makes it easy to imagine him being commanding in Shakespearean and any number of roles in the classics of dramatic literature, as well as a screen actor. Sadly, environmental circumstances did not as of yet make this possible.
After getting hooked on heroin, he began a life of petty crime, committing robberies to pay for his habit. He was arrested 22 times and served about 20 years altogether in prison. A 2008 film documentary about him garnered attention and led him to stop taking heroin.
Co-writer and dramaturge John Romeril collaborated with Charles in shaping this raw material into a compelling narrative. Racism, classism, the criminal justice system, and grappling with self-destructiveness are all fiercely explored with often gallows humor.
A highly skilled musical trio is onstage throughout, and frequently performs. Musical director Nigel Maclean is on guitar and violin, Phil Collings is on percussion and Malcolm Beveridge is on bass. They play a lot of jazzy instrumentals and accompany Charles on an eclectic selection of songs that include blues, originals, and even something by Pat Boone.
A flaw of the presentation is an overly elaborate production design and a reliance on multi-media elements that at times undercuts the show’s impact. However, Charles’ magnetic, lovable rogue persona transcends these mostly accomplished but extraneous conceptual aspects.
Scenic designer Emily Barrie has the stage segmented into areas that indicate a living room with some furniture, a visible backstage dressing room, and a raised platform that serves as Charles’ pottery studio. It’s all very well rendered, though not really necessary. Ms. Barrie’s costume design is as lively as her subject.
Peter Worland’s audio-visual design is technically proficient with its recurrent photographs and film clips that are abundantly projected onto a jagged screen that’s center stage.
The musical portions are well modulated by the sound design, but sometimes dull Charles’ booming voice with too much amplification.
The lighting design by Danny Pettingill is as intrusive as the other features with too frequent variances.
Director Rachael Maza’s staging overall adds visual depth and a compelling pace. Less successful is integrating all of the components into a fluid and totally unified event.
Ultimately these production defects do not deter from the entertaining power of Jack Charles V The Crown. It is produced by the Australian, the ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, and since its 2013 premiere, has toured internationally.
Jack Charles V The Crown (March 22-25, 2017)
ILBIJERRI Theatre Company
Performance Space 122 and New York Live Arts
New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street, in Manhattan
CANADA National Arts Centre Ottawa 2016
Theatre review: Jack Charles' Australian story uncomfortably true for Canadians
Published on: January 15, 2016 | Last Updated: January 15, 2016 11:16 AM EST
Jack Charles V The Crown NAC Studio
At one point in this remarkable show about his own life as a damaged Indigenous person in Australia and the collective experience of colonized Aboriginal people almost anywhere, Jack Charles sings the 1957 Connie Francis hit Who’s Sorry Now?
It seems an odd choice, this very white song by a very white singer from a very white time in America. Charles, backed by the tight, three-piece band that plays on and off through the show, sings the song in a jaunty, absolutely straight fashion, so while you know it’s meant to be ironic (after all, how sorry are we really about our treatment of Indigenous peoples?), his delivery leaves the import entirely up to us. Heck, he may even be singing the song, one of several in the show, just because he likes it.
It’s a sly bit of performing, the kind of thing the 72-year-old Charles slips now and then into his compelling account of being a member of the Stolen Generation who was torn from his mother as an infant to become a ward of the state, spent years as the sole Indigenous person in a boys’ school, wound up as an adult who ricocheted between a career on stage and in film and a life as a junkie, cat burglar and repeat prisoner, and finally broke free of drugs and crime to live a fulfilling life.
Charles’ show, which he co-wrote with John Romeril, opens with a video from Bastardy, the 2009 documentary about him, playing on a raised surface. As we watch the filmed Charles nonchalantly shoot up heroin – the clip is followed by mug shots and a list of his offences including the theft of a pair of Gucci sunglasses — the present-day Charles, an accomplished potter, bends over a wheel fashioning a small pot.
The juxtaposition of a life badly off-course and the physical presence of a man serenely creating something beautiful is powerful. It also embodies the many juxtapositions of the show and his life: an Indigenous man who’s an outcast in his own land; the attempt to banish existential pain by damaging oneself with drugs (“If this is harmful, bring on the hurt, please,” he says after shooting up in the film clip); the conversational, sometimes very funny manner in which Charles delivers his story and the fact that he suffered so badly from abuse as a child that he was later diagnosed with PTSD.
Much of Charles’ story rings uncomfortably true for us in Canada and the show is part of the NAC’s focus on Indigenous storytelling and reconciliation during January and February. In fact, Charles briefly but pointedly makes the Canadian link in his line, apparently adjusted for his tour to Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver, “like your Residential schools, I grew up ignorant of my Aboriginal heritage.” It’s a stinging moment for Canadian audiences.
Directed by Rachael Maza, Charles packs a lot into his 75-minute show including a sketch of the history of Australian Aboriginal theatre and film performance of which he was a prime mover. A man with a self-deprecating but proud sense of himself, he shifts toward the end of the show from addressing us to addressing an off-stage court as he appeals to the judges that his criminal record be expunged. Like the rest of the show, his appeal is delivered in a spirit of reconciliation rooted in an awareness of reality: “I live in hope we are works in progress,” he tells the judges at one point, “hope” being the operative word.
One’s fingers remain crossed.
DUBLIN THEATRE FESTIVAL: Jack Charles V The Crown – Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin Oct 12 2014
Writers: Jack Charles and John Romeril
Director: Rachael Maza
Musical Director: Nigel Maclean
Reviewer: Sophie Everton Ryan
Australian Theatre Company ILBIJERRI brings Jack Charles’ life to its rightful place, the stage. This seventy-five minute performance combines the past and present to showcase Charles’ life from being placed in a boys’ home for his entire youth to his illustrious career as a burglar. Never truly fitting in anywhere, one witnesses an honest navigation of Charles’ checkered past ultimately addressing, as Charles describes, his state as a free man in theory but in reality he is hostage to his history.
The show itself is a visually gratifying performance that encompasses all the senses onstage. There is a beautiful calming atmosphere as for the first few minutes Charles perches over a kiln, slowly and deliberately creating a piece of pottery. Emily Barrie’s expansive space is captivating as one’s eye is drawn to every corner throughout. The use of multimedia, projected texts and footage of Charles works successfully to engage the audience and assault their senses. Nigel Maclean’s musical direction is superb. Fantastic performances by talented musicians greatly accompany Charles’ exuberance without overpowering the show.
Charles himself is an abundance of characteristics onstage. He is charming, mischievous, spritely, (even though he is in his seventies) talented, verbose, manipulative and engaging. Bright and alluring with a dark past that hangs like a shadow throughout the show, Charles is ultimately a performer. He has a magnificent speaking voice that bodes well to his career as a storyteller. He works hard for his showmanship and to keep the audience’s attention yet it translates as effortless to watch. The show’s pace does not falter. Jack Charles V The Crown is a raw, honest and self-aware glimpse into his colourful life and his dealings with the festering guilt and shame left in his society.
This show frankly examines the determined consequences of one’s past and whether or not you embrace or reject them. The show’s ending is quite moving with Charles having addressed the audience as the judges to whom he pleas in a heartfelt speech for a chance at independence. At the beginning of the performance Charles asks do you believe in miracles? For him, in his later years in life, he now has the chance to have his childhood back. This, for Charles and now his audience, is a miracle.
BARBICAN THEATRE LONDON
Jack Charles and John Romeril
Ilbijerri Theatre Company
Barbican, The Pit
From 11 February 2014 to 15 February 2014
Review by Belle Lupton
The name Jack Charles may not be familiar to a British audience, but his kind of story is.
On the play’s second night Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledges to spend a week in an Outback Aboriginal settlement to show once again his commitment to improving the bleak plight of indigenous people. So far good timing for Australia’s longest-running Aboriginal theatre company.
For the story of Jack Charles v The Crown reflects the stories of so many Aboriginal peoples.
But then Jack Charles has been banging this same drum for more than 40 years. Now 71, the aboriginal actor has brought his story to a new audience on the other side of the world, an audience whose familiarity with his mugshots can’t be taken for granted.
And as a piece of theatre Jack Charles v The Crown actually works better coming to it with no prior knowledge. Gradually piecing together Charles’ past from his eclectic monologue, interspersed as it is with live singing, a three-piece band and a courtroom recreation, is a more engaging exercise than rehearsing newspaper headlines that would be already familiar to an Australian audience.
The opening scene is confronting: Charles shooting up in the video played on the back wall of the set while the band strikes up, haunting, and a dimly-lit figure hunches over a potter’s wheel. The video is clips from Bastardy, the 2008 award-winning documentary by Amiel Courtin-Wilson about Jack Charles; the figure in the foreground is that film’s protagonist, throwing pots as the shadow of his former self dances behind him.
Any fears (justified) that this will be a self-indulgent performance are soon dissolved in the gregarious warmth of the storyteller. Charles’ mellifluous voice and age-defying sprightliness with director Rachael Maza’s easygoing blocking create the air of the campfire – Charles even settles down for a cuppa as he gets into his tale. Bursts of music break up the narrative, with moving performances from Nigel Maclean, Phil Collings and Malcolm Beveridge. The music is as much part of the performance as the projected images and actor, electric violin emitting strains not dissimilar to those of the didgeridoo before breaking into blues when Charles throws on his blue sequined jacket.
Basterdy, also showing at the Barbican, shows the audience what happened to Jack Charles. Jack Charles v The Crown shows the audience what he’d like to happen from now, with only poetic hints at the abuse and sexuality difficulties in his past. The fabricated court appearance, in which Charles puts forward to the audience (his courtroom) the argument that he should be separated from his prisoner number, works as a vehicle for him to talk about the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia without sounding preachy. What he says about “black man justice” (you may get a club to the head but once exile is over you’re fully accepted back into the fold) compared to “white man justice” (you’ll be crippled by your prisoner number long after you’ve finished serving your time) travels beyond its Australian origin.
In the end the credit for this fantastic piece of theatre must go to its performers, for it was a gift to the director and co-writer. The story was already there, already documented, performed by a natural performer. But, as we’re reminded by the macabre sight of Charles standing by own his homemade gravestone, thank goodness they put it onstage before his truth was buried with him.
CANBERRA THEATRE 2013
Jack Charles v The Crown
By Jack Charles and John Romeril. Ilbijerri Theatre Company, with Uncle Jack Charles, directed by Rachael Maza. The Playhouse, Canberra, 17–19 July 2013, and touring
Advance publicity, billing Jack Charles as a recently reformed heroin addict and cat burglar, made me ponder what kind of tale he was going to spin; cautious lest, albeit subtly, it excuse, even glorify, social destructiveness.
Despite a frank introduction to the actor's former heroin habit, I needn't have been concerned. Strangely, the performance, though dealing much with them and offering subtle insights into their genesis, was not about Charles's former bad habits. Rather, it featured the life within which they occurred: a childhood of the Stolen Generation; a career littered with performance success; repetitive punitive action; and the merest hints at sustained systemic abuse and violence toward him.
Yet what Charles chose to focus his audience on was not even these sustained features of his life, but rather the freedom he had, even in harsh prison conditions, in his spirit.
What is this freedom that keeps a man so advanced in years and experience so obviously young in motion and attitude? Evidently, whatever it is, it keeps him creative and appreciative, and this is what shines through his work. Jack Charles is a veteran film, television, and stage performer, and his ability to hold us with a sprinkling of songs merely knocks up one more talent. But he can hardly be bettered in his ability to mesmerise with an overtly simple tale.
Charles's approach to his own story is fascinating in explicating the inexplicable: failure in success, success from failure, and, above all, the return to himself of a man who, having been stolen, was lost and now is found.
Charles's mixture of humility and pride might have evoked distaste had it subtly excused, even glorified, poor judgement; but his openhearted honesty, his ability to connect with others, and his preparedness to put himself aside in entertaining us very obviously evoked a great deal of fellow feeling even in those of us whose life paths have had nothing, or at least nothing obvious, in common with his. Supported by interesting but unobtrusive stage design, very effective lighting, and great audio, the performance succeeded in keeping audience focus where it was meant to: on a well-told story.
As if this journey weren't enjoyable enough, the act is accompanied by a trio of musicians whose performance was utterly virtuosic. Led by musical director – guitarist – violinist Nigel Maclean, with Phil Collings on drums and percussion and Mal Beveridge on electric bass, and with Gary Dryza's audio engineering evidently providing solid support, this trio rescues modern jazz from doo-wop and sends it mainstream, making it music you can hear as song and feel as dance. Come for the music alone, and you'll leave feeling that you've gotten your money's worth. The musical performance that allows me to speak of impeccable timing is a rarity to the point of near extinction. That alone delineates this trio from the majority. Its timing is not merely impeccable, but exquisite: as exquisite as its blend of vocal and instrumental harmonies and its sound design.
With such talent accompanying the show, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jack Charles and co-author John Romeril's creativity has fruited so sweetly in Charles's remarkable performance.
John P Harvey