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Fire Fire Burning Bright: Oral history from Paddy Bedford and Timmy Timms. Stage adaptation written and directed by Andrish Sain

Fire, Fire Burning Bright (Marnem, Marnem Dililb Benuwarrenji), a production of the Neminuwarlin Performance Group of the East Kimberley in Western Australia, is a contemporary rendition of a traditional Joonba, or corroboree, created for the stage. Weaving together song and dance, story-telling, historical footage, and stunning masks, Fire, Fire Burning Bright brings to light the long suppressed truth about the incarceration and murder of the Gija and Worla peoples by non-Aboriginal cattlemen in the early years of the 20th century.

In a stark setting of ghostly gums and bush sounds, the all-indigenous cast (many of them descendants of the massacred) from the Bow River and Crocodile Hole communities recounts how its countrymen killed a bullock, were put in jail, poisoned by station-hands, and finally burnt on a funeral pyre they themselves had constructed.

The Joonba describes in eerie detail the mythical journey, following the slaying, of the spirits of the dead: up a mountain and to the sea, making connections with Europeans, Chinese, and Afghans along the way. The Joonba ends with a series of traditional dances performed with the richly adorned woorranggoo decorations held high above the dancers’ heads.

Writer and artistic director Andrish Saint Clare and creative director and Miriwoong/Gija elder Peggy Patrick have created an important milestone in Aboriginal theater. It is a tragic story but, as Neminuwarlin Patron Sir William Deane says, one that must be told in the interests of setting the record straight: “Performances of the Joonba will not only showcase the abilities of the Gija dancers, they will provide all who attend with the opportunity of participating in an unforgettable experience of grass-roots reconciliation.”

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