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TJAPUKAI ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN THEATRE

Story and photos by

Willie Brim belongs to the Tjapukai Aboriginal tribe, the rainforest people of tropical North Queensland, Australia. He proudly shows us the symbolic platypus "totem" painted on his body with charcoal and orange earth.

Tjapukai dancers hold boomerangs and clap sticks. (Willie Brim is on the right.)
Tjapukai dancers hold boomerangs and clap sticks. (Willie Brim is on the right.)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Willie's father lost his totem, his language and his Aboriginal name when he went to a mission school. By the late 1980s, there were only two Tjapukai-speakers left in the community. The 40,000-year-old culture was nearly extinct. Today, Willie and his family speak Tjapukai. What happened?

In 1987, Don and Judy Freeman, theatre artists from New York, encouraged the tribe to open a dance theatre in the basement of a shopping centre, in Kuranda, near Cairns. The tiny enterprise grew until 1996, when it expanded into a $9 million Tjapukai Cultural Park, on 25 acres of land, 15 minutes north of Cairns.

In the open-air Tjapukai Dance Theatre, actors introduce their tribal totems, ancient cultural dress, celebration dances, corroborees (sacred gatherings) and survival skills, like setting grass ablaze with two fire sticks.

The original dance theatre is joined by seven arenas, which interpret Aboriginal civilization from the beginning of time into the future. They include the History Theatre and the Camp Village, where visitors learn about fire-making, boomerang and spear-throwing, didgeridoo-playing, bush foods and medicine.

Three Tjapukai dancers hold a didgeridoo, traditional spears and shield.
Three Tjapukai dancers hold a didgeridoo, traditional spears and shield.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tjapukai dreamtime legends

The Creation Theatre dramatizes the legends of the Storywaters, the origins of the Tjapukai. Live performances merge with modern technology to tell the spiritual and cultural stories of the Tjapukai people in their own language. (In one scene, a 20-foot holographic crocodile swallows a didgeridoo player.) Dreamtime legends are simultaneously translated into eight languages on headsets.

Magic Space is a museum with authentic Stone Age artifacts, once used by Tjapukai people, and a gallery of large murals by Tjapukai artists. Boomerang Restaurant serves Continental, Asian and food with indigenous mountain pepper, lilli pilli, quandongs and other bush ingredients. A retail shop sells didgeridoos.

Willie Brim has a leading role in the new Tjapukai by Night show, where viewers take part in an ancient ritual that introduces them to Dreamtime. Traditional dances merge with music, comedy and modern theatre techniques in the presentation.

Tjapukai holds the Guinness Book of Records' entry as the longest running show in the country. It's also the most awarded Aboriginal cultural attraction in Australia.

More importantly, the venture has revived the dying Aboriginal culture. The cultural revival, created by the theatre, has revived the language. Local primary schools now teach Tjapukai. Tjapukai is the largest private employer of Aboriginal Australians. Formerly unemployed people now make good salaries, so they can buy homes. The park's majority shareholders are the Aboriginal tribal councils, the area's original landholders, so the benefits of cultural tourism go back to the people of the rainforest.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park: www.tjapukai.com.au

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