Revisiting ‘The First Garden’

by Christopher Raja

Photo session The First Garden
Murruwarri actor, Eshua Bolton played Tasman in ‘The First Garden’. Photo Credit line Juno Gemes @ Juno Gemes Archive

‘A true and original gift for the rest of Australia’. – Stephen Armstrong, Chair of the Theatre Board, Australia Council, May 2012.

‘The most that you could want out of a show. It makes you go out of the theatre and want to know more’.  John Baylis – Producer, Performing Lines, September 2011.

‘Utterly moved’. Angela O’Donnell – Artback NT, September 2011

‘Brilliantly conceived, beautifully acted and directed, and written with love and care, The First Garden was arguably the stand-out feature of this year’s Alice Desert Festival’. Dave Richards – Alice Online, September, 2011

Recently, while rummaging through my papers, I came across a draft, photos and press clippings from the first production of the play, ‘The First Garden‘.

‘The First Garden’ tells the story of Olive Pink—a trailblazing Aboriginal land rights activist and environmentalist. Ridiculed by her peers and shunned by the Alice Springs community for espousing ideals that were considered to be outlandish she was viewed as a public nuisance, to be barely tolerated. However, due to her vigour and vision the Olive Pink Botanical Garden was established in Alice Springs. She was a no nonsense woman, tough as an ironwood tree, who told it like she saw it and what she saw made her livid. She was wordy and passionate and her ideas and views resonate now, some forty years after her death, more than ever, as these are desperate times for senior Arrernte custodians like Doris Stuart, who wrote an introduction to our play. This play, which in many ways stands as a tribute to Olive Pink’s and Aunty Doris’ legacy, reminds us, we need to respect the traditional custodians of this ancient land, and their ‘sacred’ sites, as our collective heritage, through them we will better understand this unique continent that we share. Aunty Doris reminds us, in her gentle way that we must tread lightly but what happens when a custodian loses faith in the statutory body that is supposed to protect sacred sites? Consider this article by Kieran Finnane in Alice Springs News Online.

Importantly, however, I must add, most times I speak to custodians, especially male elders, about ‘sacred’ places they often refer to them as ‘secret place’ rather than ‘sacred’ place. The reasons for this are complex.

If you are interested in reading Aunty Doris’s introduction, an extract of the play, putting on the play, or buying a copy of ‘The First Garden’ here is the link to the publisher, Currency Press.

I blogged about it for Southerly in July, 2011 but after coming across some photos by one of Australia’s most celebrated photographers, Juno Gemes, who has spent years of her life documenting contemporary Australia,  I decided to revisit that time. Here is a link to Juno’s website.

Coincidentally, Juno Gemes was in Alice Springs and I heard she was staying with writer and Jungian therapist, Craig San Roque. We approached Juno, knowing she has been photographing the Australian aboriginal movement for the last forty years and was an early supporter of Olive Pink, and invited her to a rehearsal of our play. She met the cast and crew and very kindly collaborated with us and so we have these wonderful photographs to share with you.

Below are photos taken by Juno Gemes during a rehearsal at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, in 2013, Alice Springs, before we toured the play in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. These photos have never been published before but Juno kindly allowed me to share them for the purpose of this blog.

Eshua Bolton also played Johnny, with actor and co-writer of ‘The First Garden’, Natasha Raja. Natasha played Olive.

Photo session The First Garden
Photo Credit line Juno Gemes @ Juno Gemes Archive

In this photo, Scott Fraser is playing the ghost of Captain Harold, who died in Gallipoli. He is watching over Olive and Johnny closely. Scott also played Henry. Amazingly, and to our delight, we all got to meet the ‘real’ Henry who presented Olive Pink with a typewriter. He came with his family to a performance in Sydney.

Photo session The First Garden
Photo Credit line Juno Gemes @ Juno Gemes Archive

This photo of the cast and crew of, ‘The First Garden’ means a lot to me. In the front row: Aunty Elaine Peckham, Aunty Doris Stuart, Scott Fraser, Natasha Raja, Eshua Bolton, Kristina Kidd, Isabelle Kirkbride and Christopher Brocklebank. In the second row: Benjamin Convery, Christopher Raja, Jala Raja, Bill Peachy, Steve Kidd, Kieran Wilkinson, Kallum Wilkinson. Missing are Roger Hammond and Pamela Usher. I am eternally grateful for these people entering my life.

Photo session The First Garden
Photo Credit line Juno Gemes @ Juno Gemes Archive

Here is an interview we did for Radio National when we took the play to the Darwin Festival.

SBS World News Australia did this report when the play toured in Sydney.

You can view ‘The First Garden’s’ AusStage record here.

The play was short listed for the Northern Territory Chief Minister’s Book of the Year Award in 2014.

Around this period, I was awarded a New Works grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council to complete the latest draft of my novel. It was an exciting time.

The novel is called ‘The Burning Elephant’ and it was launched in September, 2015 at Olive Pink Botanic Garden as part of the Northern Territory writer’s festival, Eye of the Storm.