Big Name, No Blankets with Andrea James

by | Dec 13, 2023

Big Name, No Blankets is an epic new rock’n’roll theatre show celebrating the legacy and impact of Australian music icons, Warumpi Band, told from the perspective of founding members, the Butcher Brothers. From Papunya (a small town in the Northern Territory) to global stages, they sent Aboriginal culture worldwide in the 80s and 90s.

Read on as playwright Andrea James talks the show, culture and legacy.

 What was the inspiration for the show and what is it about this show that you consider to be enduring?

This show is driven by Sammy Butcher and the extended Butcher family, who want to celebrate and tell the story of the Warumpi band through Sammy’s eyes. Sammy was the lead guitarist of the band and is the sole surviving member of his brothers, along with Neil Murray. The family want to re-tell and celebrate the story of this great Aboriginal Rock Band that rose out of the Central Desert in Papunya and left an everlasting footprint in Australia’s rock music landscape.

How would you describe the show to someone who knew very little about it?

The show returns the iconic rock sound of the Warumpi band to the stage through live music and storytelling that vividly recounts the life and times of the band – from growing up and forming a band of brothers in outback Papunya, to touring the world, to the genesis of their music informed by culture and the band’s enduring legacy. There’s much laughter, a few tears and a cultural pulse that informs the play. You cannot help but fall in love with this band of brothers. It’s a rock concert with heart.

What are some of the themes involved and why are these important?

Sammy always wanted this project to offer hope and joy and to inspire and encourage young people. The Warumpi band brought Black and White people together and for years Sammy watched audiences from the stage, arm in arm, dancing and listening intently to their words and music. The show celebrates a joyful time in these men’s lives where they transcended racial divides and showed Australia and the world the strength of their culture and politics through the unstoppable beat of their music and songs. The mid to late 80’s in the lead up to the bicentenary was a heady time and there was a strength, unity and optimism to Aboriginal politics that really comes through in the Warumpi band’s music. There’s also an overarching theme of cultural responsibility and homesickness, and the challenges of living and working in two worlds far away from home.

What do you love the most about the festival performance and what is particularly great about the Sydney Festival?

It’s fantastic that this story and this band will be celebrated again on a big main festival stage. The show is being performed by a generation of young First Nations performers who grew up listening to the Warumpi band and intrinsically know of the men’s day to day experiences through their own lives and artistic practice as young Aboriginal people in Australia. Having Anyupa, Crystal, Jerimiah and Jason, (children of the Butcher brothers) involved in the show is a vital part of the project. It gives me great heart to see the transmission of culture and creativity flowing from one generation to the other in the way that our distinct cultures have travelled and adapted for millennia. It’s this beating heart that transcends a mere stage and will undoubtedly flow into the hearts and minds of the audiences from all backgrounds who will be privileged to experience this show.

What sort of artist do you consider yourself – how would you describe yourself as a creative?

I’m a theatremaker and collaborator at heart who is always informed by my culture and politics. Sometimes I write plays, sometimes I co-write plays, sometimes I direct, sometimes I produce and sometimes I do all of the above. Most artists in this country have to adapt and flex and I believe that Aboriginal artists, in particular, have shown the theatre industry that you don’t always have to place yourself in a box. Ultimately, we make ourselves available to be of service to our people and we shapeshift into whatever form that requires. With respect.

Who inspires you and why?

My dad was a Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai man who had five brothers. Growing up I was surrounded by charismatic and very good looking men. My dad’s cousin, Ozzie James, was a country and western singer and we used to watch him play concerts when I was a kid. I loved that the whole family was watching on, or listening to his records with pride. I also listened a lot to Kev Carmody and Archie Roach – the exquisite storytelling and deep felt heart and politics of their work demonstrated how we could share our experiences and literally change the rhythm of an audience’s heartbeat. You can’t help but be affected by their art. Patricia Cornelius and Suzie Dee, are life long collaborators who constantly inspire and impress. Despite being invited very lately in their careers onto main stages, Patricia and Suzie never wavered in their pursuit to put real, downtrodden and politically driven stories on stage. There’s a great wisdom, courage and endurance to their creative relationship and practice that’s wonderful to watch.

What is next for you?

I am preparing to direct Munanjali poet Ellen Van Neervan’s glorious Blak Queer long form performance poem called ‘swim’ for Griffin Theatre. As Ellen says its “…fluid as f’k….” and I can’t wait to dive into that one. I’ll also travel to my grandmother’s Gunaikurnai country to put the finishing touches on a play “The Black Woman of Gippsland” that I’ve been writing for several years now. It looks to debunk the disastrous myth and events of the ‘White Woman of Gippsland’ on Gunaikurnai country in the 1820’s.

 And finally, what would you say to encourage audiences to attend?

Rock on!

Packed with humour, iconic songs and rockstar performances, Big Name, No Blankets features hits and showcases Luritja, Warlpiri and Gumatj/Yolngu Matha languages, and culture from Central Australia and Northeast Arnhem Land. Created in collaboration with founding band member Sammy Butcher and the families of Warumpi Band members, this epic new work is co-directed by theatre icon Dr Rachael Maza AM and Anyupa Butcher, this new work sees a joyful show about how music can influence massive change, presenting a story of hope – hope for an Australia in which white and black can come together as one. 

Writer, Yorta Yorta/Kurnai woman Andrea James is a trained theatre maker and Creative Producer specialising in Aboriginal performance and contemporary arts as both a practitioner and producer. Andrea’s play Sunshine Super Girl, about Wiradjuri tennis star Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, premiered at Griffith in 2020 and 2021 Sydney Festival and underwent an extensive national tour in 2022 and was nominated for four Greenroom Awards. Recently, she was awarded the Mona Brand Award for Women Stage and Screen Writers, Australia’s most prestigious writing prize for women.

January 10 -14

https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/big-name-no-blankets

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