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Passing time with Uncle Jack Charles

Nov 7, 2019 | Features, People

Uncle Jack Charles is often acknowledged as the ‘grandfather of Aboriginal theatre in Australia’, and co-founded the first Aboriginal theatre company, Nindethana Theatre, with Bob Maza, in 1972.  This is just a snippet, however, of the prolific work and rich life story, a man it was a joy to share time with during the recent Obi Art Prize weekend in Maleny.

By Victoria McGuin

In May 2019, I had the pleasure of interviewing Colin ‘Spida’ Dixon, who was in the process of making a feature film in Maleny. He brought along his good friend and artist, Satya Demasson, and I soon found out this was the measure of the man. He liked to celebrate the talents of his friends, not just himself. I also quickly realised that once you are a friend of Spida’s, he looks out for you.

It therefore came as no surprise that when respected elder, activist and actor/musician/potter/writer Uncle Jack Charles, was coming to guest talk at the recent Obi Art Prize (organised by Satya), Spida kindly asked me if I would like to meet him.

His body of work is impressive, an acting career spanning six decades, and his life story is full of struggle, addiction, variety and resilience. I was, therefore, very interested in meeting him and took my friend and photographer, Candice Herne, with me to the Maleny Hotel.

Uncle Jack Charles appeared with a warm smile, strong voice and solid handshake – I immediately liked him.

The four of us sat around a low table, with the late afternoon sun streaming across us in shards of light, and so began a long and varied conversation. 

Uncle Jack Charles pondering on moments in his life as we talked at the Maleny Hotel – image Candice Herne

“Spida invited me to come and talk at the Obi Art Prize,” Uncle Jack explained, “and I like to support creative projects like this.”

I asked how this friendship came about, and Spida told me, “I was making my first film, and I wanted Uncle Jack in it, so I contacted him on Facebook, and he replied. Then I asked for his number and he gave it to me!

“We started talking, and I soon went to visit him in Melbourne. When we met, we found out we have so much in common. We’re very similar in many ways, and we’ve become great mates.”

Uncle Jack can command large appearance fees for his talks, but he didn’t want anything from Spida to come to Maleny. “I paid for the flight and accommodation, of course, but Uncle Jack is doing this for me,” Spida said.

The conversation between them continued with plenty of laughter for a few minutes, and then Spida said his goodbyes and left us to talk. “Don’t let him go walkabout afterwards,” was his joking parting shot. “He has a dinner to go to later!”

Uncle Jack Charles was born in 1943 at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne, but became a victim of the Australian Government’s forced assimilation program. “My mother managed to keep me for four months,” he said.

The location was rough, and Uncle Jack shared how during a visit by the Queen, a hessian fence was put up to hide “the third world conditions” of the area they all lived in as she drove by.

“I was taken and raised in the Salvation Army Boys’ Home in Box Hill. I was the only Indigenous child, as they thought I would be properly assimilated without other Indigenous kids to influence me.” However, during this time, Uncle Jack was sexually abused. 

Throughout this period of his life, Uncle Jack “took great sustenance in the bible stories” as Christianity had been instilled in him as part of his education.

“Now I am no longer a Christian,” he said. “Aboriginality is my religion. I am the Godhead within myself. I use the power of my Indigeneity to guide me.”

In his 40s, Uncle Jack Charles found out he was born to a Boon Wurrung mother and Wiradjuri father, “I have 13 siblings, two died at birth, and I’ve found five so far,” he shared. 

Charles’ great-great-grandfather was a Dja Dja Wurrung man, among the activists who resisted government policy at Victoria’s Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve in 1881.

Uncle Jack’s years have been peppered with stays in jail for petty theft and drug offences, and it wasn’t until 2008 (after seeing himself in the documentary Bastardy) that he stopped for good.

“I outed myself,” he explained. “I owned everything I had done. Apologised to the people whose homes I’d robbed, admitted my drug addiction, everything.” 

Many years before, Uncle Jack had joked that robbing from the rich homes in Melbourne was him taking ‘rent’ from those on Aboriginal land.

“Now I am keeping a black watch in the neighbourhood,” Uncle Jack explained. “I’m an urban black and I see a lot of the struggles here, so I am a stalwart. I try to keep ICE at bay.

“I can never regress. I have no cause to go back to smack. I’m an open book with nothing to hide.”

Uncle Jack is keen to impress upon young Indigenous people that if they open themselves to their truth, “their blackness”, there is no need for drugs and alcohol. 

Even during his prison stays, he liked to steer others from negative patterns, to encourage positive enterprise and creative expression amongst his fellow inmates.

“I got into pottery, on the wheel, and I created ‘Psycho Ceramica’ in Castlemaine Jail. I made crockery, art pieces, pots, bone china. Other people painted them, and I glazed. We made a profit there in open camp.

“I was regularly back in jail, and every time I got my old room back, the only one with a toilet rather than a bucket and would run the pottery group again.” he smiled.

Uncle Jack Charles shows immense strength of character, resilience and humour, but at times also carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, with a deep frustration and sadness for what he sees as inherent, continuous racism.

“Australia is uniquely racist to its First Nation People,” he said, with fire in his eyes.

An example was given from his time working with the Sydney Theatre Company on Secret River, where he was asked to prove his Aboriginality when given a part. “I went in and said, ‘why do I have to prove my Aboriginality?’, why is the finger being wagged at us and we are being racially vilified?”

He was told there were no exceptions. “So, I stopped work, went and had to beer to mull it over, and pulled the plug.

“Cate Blanchett, who was Managing Director with the Sydney Theatre Company at that time, said she completely understood and supported my decision, and after that I decided to go to court over the whole thing. About eight months later they changed their policy, so no actor now has to prove their Aboriginality. I’m very proud to have left that legacy.”

Nowadays, Uncle Jack visits prisons, fighting against recidivism, shares his life stories across the country, and supports other artists, such a Spida and Satya with the Obi Art Prize.

His sojourn to the hinterland saw him in demand with many people in the area, and at the Obi Art Prize event, I witnessed a large audience relishing every moment of his entertaining guest talk. 

I asked him what he thought of his visit. “I just love Maleny,” he grinned, “and it seems Maleny loves me!”

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