April 2, 2017
Jack Charles v The Crown — at Canadian Stage until April 8th — opens with the veteran actor creating two bowls, one after the other, on a potter’s wheel. His spare and expert movements are spellbinding to watch. Above his head, we see footage of Charles in earlier days, injecting himself with a shot of heroin, immediately followed by another clip of him doing the same thing. In a matter-of-fact tone, he says he’s been using the drug since the seventies; its effects don’t show on the outside.
When the live actor finally speaks, it is about the cycle of life, the powder that is used to make clay and the dust to which we all return. The screen shows the white powder of his art covering his hands and white powder being dissolved to shoot into his veins. He talks about his spiral of drug use and imprisonment as we watch him mold pots with elegant consistency. His hands are as deft inserting the needle as they are shaping the clay.
Then Charles puts on a suit and starts making his case against the crown. He wants his criminal record expunged. After many years of drug-motivated robberies, his prison number is as familiar as his name. He’s drug-free now, and wants to create programs to help Indigenous people in his native Australia, wants to give a home to his brother, wants to travel freely, yet the criminal record stands in his way.
He cites the many crimes that have been committed against him and his people by the state. Accompanied by three musicians in his songs and stories, he tells of being stolen from his mother at birth as part of Australia’s assimilation policy. Having spent his early years in an institution, he was criminally charged for the first time as a teenager, for trying to find his family.
Who gets to tell this man’s story? Projected are film clips of the prodigiously talented Charles playing roles on stage and on TV. A founding member of the first Indigenous Theatre in Australia, he also starred in the Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith among many other films. I am not familiar with most of them, but the clips left me wondering whose had written these stories? And what narrative residue did they leave for the people who saw them? Or acted in them.
Charles quips that the judicial system has a whole biography of him, a thick file, complete with photographs. Mug shots are projected above, taking the place of family photos in recording the story of a life. Charles ends with a song, “Son of Mine” in which a father tells his son of his own narrative choice. He could tell of rape and destruction, but instead, chooses to tell a story of hope.
Charles takes charge of his own narrative in his play, and it’s a gentler one than we see in the documentary Bastardy, that inspired it. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of Charles at the height of his addiction, ricocheting from homelessness to prison. If the play tells the story of a survivor, the film shows what he survived. I was lucky enough to see the film straight after the play, and came away wondering if it was necessary to see the film, in order to appreciate it. His quick remark about his life in care being “similar to the residential schools” said a lot. Yet the film makes one point resoundingly. After years of sleeping in laundromats and public toilets, what finally broke Charles’s downward spiral was getting a home of his own.
Jack Charles is a brilliant man. At 73 he’s a masterful performer, as well as a teacher and respected elder, brimming with wisdom and full of potential for still more growth. He wants nothing more than to help other people. Because he’s housed, he has an opportunity to do that. His show serves as a reminder of what a whole society loses when so many are eking out an existence under bridges, or locked away in group homes and prisons. That’s a story we in Canada need to hear.