It’s been 10 years since it was first published, but Craig Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones still has a lot to teach Australians about our relationship with racism.
“Jasper Jones is really about how we have a lot of growing up to do,” says Nescha Jelk. She’s directing the latest adaptation of the bestselling book, a new interpretation of award-winning playwright Kate Mulvany’s original stage adaptation.
“There are a lot of big things in our history, including the white invasion of our First Nations People,” Jelk continues. “We haven’t really reconciled with that past and kind of prefer to just sweep it under the rug. There hasn’t been a lot of acknowledgement that there’s this big hurt in the country that we haven’t recovered from.”
The play is set in 1960s Australia in a small, rural WA town. But in 2019 its themes still resonate, highlighting ongoing problematic attitudes to race in our society. The coming-of-age story follows 13-year-old protagonists Charlie Bucktin and Jasper Jones, who uncovers the shocking death of Charlie’s girlfriend one night. As an Indigenous teenager, Jones suspects the conservative local residents will place the blame on him, and enlists Charlie’s help to solve the case.
The novel is part of school curricula nationwide, and is often cited as Australia’s To Kill A Mockingbird. In 2017, Silvey’s novel was turned into a film starring Toni Collette and Hugo Weaving. Mulvany’s adaptation has been staged in Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne to sell-out seasons. It opens in Adelaide tomorrow.
In the State Theatre’s iteration adult actors take on the roles of the young protagonists, with 20-year-old Elijah Valadian-Wilson in the titular role. “The themes in this play are quite heavy, so it’s safer for older adults to depict them,” says Jelk. “It’s quite fun, watching it, because I’m not really aware about the ages of the actors playing these kids.”
Valadian-Wilson agrees. He says bringing 13-year-old Jasper to the stage has been nothing short of natural to him. “It’s pretty fascinating going back to that headspace because the show is set in a completely different time and era.
“The story shows audiences the blatant racism that was around in the '60s, while at the same time highlighting the way it is in our society now.”
The audience watches the events of the play unfold through Charlie and Jasper’s eyes, and, like them, are powerless against the injustices suffered by Jasper and the other minority characters. By framing the play like this, Jelk says, the audience must confront those racist attitudes without the desensitised lens of adulthood.
“It’s useful to see through a kid’s eyes when you see violence or injustice occurring. Kids are really smart and see this as a horrible thing, whereas adults become seriously desensitised to it all. Kids have a really helpful view on the world and have these innate human reactions where they see how it can be really horrible to hurt another human.”
Valadian-Wilson adds that, although kids grow into adults, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have grown up. “What [author] Craig is trying to say is that just because you’re older and have become an adult, it doesn’t mean you’re mature to the situations around you and the way you react to things,” he says. “We see a lot of examples of this in some of the play’s adult characters, including Mad Jack Lionel and Charlie’s mother, Ruth.”
The friendship between Charlie (played by James Smith) and Jasper highlights the importance of connection, and the need to “be kinder to each other”, says Jelk.
“People love Jasper Jones so much ... because audiences can see these kids navigate their way through a terrible situation. Working through all the tragedy and drama, Charlie and Jasper are able to become connected. This story is so attractive ... because people are able to work together and make the best out of a horrible situation. There’s a beautiful possibility that things can be a whole lot better with connections and kindness towards other people.”
Valadian-Wilson says the relationship between Jasper and Charlie is an extremely important element of the play and provides a light contrast to some of the darker moments presented on stage. “The character of Charlie only has his own perspective of the way he sees everything. He’s a 13-year old kid who likes to read books while Jasper is living his own life. When the incident does occur, Jasper brings Charlie into his own [life] and opens his life to see things differently.”
Jelk and Valadian-Wilson hope the play can inform and inspire audiences. “I think there’s been a slow progress, but there’s further we have to go in moving forward,” says Jelk. “In terms of this play, that it started from a novel, then [was] adapted for the stage, it’s nice to continue this conversation to different audiences. It’s creating conversation through Jasper’s story and hoping that we can keep people talking about these issues.”
“There are many light-hearted moments in the show, but the main tone is that the world isn’t sunshine and rainbows,” adds Valadian-Wilson. “Jasper Jones is still a story that needs to be told because there’s still a huge problem with racism today.”
Jasper Jones opens on August 16 at The Dunstan Playhouse and runs till September 7.