Little Black Bastard deals with horrific Australian childhood
Noel Tovey puts disturbing past of poverty and crime on stage
This article is from 2010.
Actor and choreographer Noel Tovey tells Mark Fisher the story he kept quiet for decades
It is the ultimate rags to riches story. Yet the tale Noel Tovey tells about himself is more distressing than any version of Cinderella. It is a narrative that shocked even his closest friends when he chose to tell it to the world in Little Black Bastard, his 2004 autobiography, and some of them found it too much to deal with.
They knew him as a successful dancer, actor and choreographer, the man responsible for orchestrating the indigenous opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and an energetic campaigner for Aboriginal rights. Little did they suspect he had achieved his career highs – including directing at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, co-founding the London Theatre for Children and teaching at RADA – in spite of a horrific childhood that he was lucky to survive.
In conversation, the 75-year-old is charming and intelligent, but scarcely a sentence passes without him revealing some other cruel detail of a past he kept secret for decades. ‘I have the most horrific memories of Melbourne,’ says Tovey who was born in the slums to a cocaine-addicted African-English father and an alcoholic Scottish-Aboriginal mother. ‘My elder sister and I were abandoned in the house and had to fend for ourselves. The nuns found out how we were living and they locked us in a shed in the back yard because we stank – I think – we must have done. That evening, we were taken to the Royal Park Welfare Depot for Children.’
It was here, Tovey woke up one morning to find the 11-year-old in the next bed had hanged himself. Things only got worse when he and his sister were adopted by a white man whom he describes as a ‘paedophile and a maniac’. ‘For the next five years in a small country town, he proceeded to rape my sister and I on a daily basis. Eventually my sister told a little girl at school whose father was a policeman. He came down to report the rumour that was going round and when he walked onto the veranda he saw the man raping my sister.’
That was the end of one period of misery, but it was immediately replaced by another. The children were sent without food or money on the 1000-mile journey back to their mother who was still an alcoholic. Tovey became a street kid and a petty criminal. At 17, he was arrested for buggery at a time when the offence still carried the death penalty in Australia and he came close to suicide. By a miracle, after his release from prison, he fell in with a bohemian crowd and discovered a talent for dance. By the time he set off for London in 1960, he had gone into denial about his Aboriginality and his unhappy past.
To revisit this material in a play is as traumatic for Tovey as it is moving for his audience. ‘When I tell it on stage, mentally I have to go right back to that day,’ he says. ‘Unless I really go back there, I can’t do it and once I start going back there, I start having nightmares again. The first draft I did was the draft I thought everyone expected – I had this glittering career in London and Paris – and I woke up at 2am and thought that’s absolute rubbish. If you’re going to tell this story, you have to tell the whole lot. That’s why it’s called Little Black Bastard – they’re the first words I ever remember hearing.’
Little Black Bastard, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 7–30 Aug (not 16, 23), noon, £8.50–£9.50 (£7.50–£8.50). Previews until 6 Aug, £5.