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The Visitors: A First Nations play that speaks volumes

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The last time Elaine Crombie graced The Playhouse she stood alone on stage in The 7 Stages of Grieving, delivering a rousing and heart-wrenching performance in this powerful one-woman show.

Written by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, The 7 Stages charted a First Nations woman’s exploration of the reality of Indigenous inequality in modern Australia while celebrating her enduring and joyous connection to Country and family. Elaine will return to Canberra Theatre Centre from 8-11 November for The Visitors, transporting the audience to the most pivotal moment in First Nations’ history – the day European ships appeared on the horizon of Sydney Harbour in 1788.

The Visitors, written by Jane Harrison and directed by Wesley Enoch, takes the audience to the cliffs above Sydney Harbour, where seven First Nations leaders have gathered to discuss what should be done about the nawi (boats) that have begun to arrive, and the visitors they carry.

Speaking from her home in Sydney, Elaine says it’s a full circle moment to work with Wesley Enoch once more.

“I started working with [Wesley] when I was 19 and my first Sydney show [Sunshine Club] was on the same stage that we’re on now,” explains Elaine. “And we’ve both grown in very different ways but we’re still on the same trajectory, still in the theatre together.”

As for The Visitors’ much-celebrated opening run at Sydney Opera House, Elaine describes it as “wow”.

“We’ve had standing [ovations] every night…we’ve had people just look really gobsmacked and some people are mouthing the word ‘Thank you’ to us from the front rows. You can see that it just really moved people.”

Having worked with many of her six co-stars before, Elaine describes the cast as “very tight-knit”, especially given recent events. In a twist of fate that Elaine herself says “couldn’t be written”, The Visitors’ final show at Sydney Opera House fell on Saturday 14 October, the date of the Indigenous Voice referendum.

“Over these last six weeks, we’ve really banded together and bonded. Especially for this show, in this climate…”

Despite the subject matter, levity can be found in The Visitors, specifically in Elaine’s character of Jackie of Manly Cove of the North Shore.

“Thank God Wesley chose me for that role,” laughs Elaine. “I think the thing with Jackie’s comedy in the way that Jane has written it is it’s really true to who we are as black fellas. When telling yarns and having serious conversations or in moments of grief or getting through a tough spot, the levity is always there. It’s always innate in us.”

“It’s a part that gets us through to the next hook, the next point of the conversation. It’s about always still remembering to be like that at heart, through these kinds of situations.”

Set against a backdrop of rolling sandstone, one of the most striking elements of the play is the modern corporate dress the actors wear, a clever reminder that many of the conversations taking place on that cliff are still unfolding today, and connection to Country remains unbroken.

“Having us all in suits kind of smashes people’s ideas,” reflects Elaine. “You know, they’re expecting us to come out in lap laps, I suppose – they don’t expect us to come out in suits. So challenging people starts before we even say our first line.”

Elaine likens the sacred rock the leaders are gathered at to a boardroom table, with ancient and modern timelines “running next to each other”.

“You’re watching a meeting take place that has debate, consideration, difference of opinion, different points of view. Sometimes people are arguing over the same opinion from different angles and it’s about unpacking what [the leaders] should do. Should we welcome these visitors or repel them?”

Post-referendum, the play’s tagline of “Visitors leave, right?” feels especially poignant. For those Australians focused on truth-telling, The Visitors is waiting for you.


What: The Visitors
When: 8-11 November
Where: The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

All photography: Daniel Boud, courtesy of Canberra Theatre Centre and Sydney Theatre Company

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