The Cake Man
By Robert J Merritt
Yirra Yaakin and Belvoir
State Theatre Centre Studio
REVIEW David Zampatti
It's tempting to think of The Cake Man primarily as a political milestone rather than art but that would be doing it an injustice.
Written by Robert J. Merritt in Bathurst Prison in 1974 and smuggled out of jail to the newly formed Black Theatre in Redfern, it was the first professional, full-length drama to arise from the growing Aboriginal performing arts community in inner-city Sydney.
The following year, Merritt was taken to its opening night by prison guards and the cast refused to perform until his handcuffs were removed.
Merritt's story of the tribulations of the little Aboriginal family of Sweet William (Luke Carroll), his wife Ruby (Irma Woods) and son Pumpkinhead (James Slee) is touching and life affirming, even if it is sometimes oversimplified and disjointed.
While it may be hard to reconcile the sudden conversion of the struggling family's white neighbour, Mr Peterson (Oscar Redding), from vengeful vigilante to a contrite benefactor, the hungry glee with which young Pumpkinhead tucks the present of a tin of Milo under his arm is irresistible, even if the logic behind the gift is a bit hard to swallow.
On another level, the William family seems happy to prefer the kindly paternalism of Peterson, the mission manager (Tim Solly) and the inspector (George Shevtsov) to the cruelty we see in the savage vignette that opens the play, when a murderous crew of priests, soldiers and civilians descends on an unsuspecting tribal Aboriginal family to the saccharine tune of Bing Crosby's Just a Prayer Away.
The whole idea of the Cake Man, a messianic figure - Pumpkinhead imagines he might be Mr Peterson - showering gifts on the family has more than a little of a cargo cult about it.
Whether these comfortable views were shared by the wider Aboriginal community then, or now, is debatable. Despite William's final statement that there are two realities and he chooses "not yours - mine", I'm not sure the play develops an argument that supports his claim.
There are powerful performances - I thought Woods was extraordinary as the sweet, indomitable Ruby - and director Kyle J. Morrison and designer Stephen Curtis combine to deliver a handsome, smoothly managed production.
For Yirra Yaakin, this co-production with Sydney's Belvoir is an important step for an important company and the result is an impressive revival of an equally important landmark in this country's theatrical history.The Cake Man runs from October 30 to November 9