Content warning: this article discusses suicide.
The rate of suicide among young Indigenous Australian men is the highest in the world, according to a 2016 report by the Australian Youth Development Index.
It’s a sobering reality. But for most Indigenous people, including playwright Jada Alberts, it’s much more than just a statistic.
“My cousin lost a very dear friend of hers,” Alberts tells us, “and she was in the house when it happened, when he took his life.” She pauses. “That scared the shit out of me, to be honest. I realised I didn’t know how to talk to her about it. So we sat down one day and I asked her if I could write about it.” Her story became Brothers Wreck.
Set against the backdrop of Alberts’s hometown of Darwin, Ruben (played by Nelson Baker) wakes to the news his cousin has taken his own life. Grief-stricken, Ruben spirals out of control. His family rallies to bring him back from the brink.
The play premiered in 2014 at Sydney’s Belvoir before being picked up for a co-production by Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre and the State Theatre Company of South Australia this year.
“I don’t think there is anything more important than having conversations that are difficult,” Alberts says. “Society teaches us – particularly with men – to man up, to have a cup of concrete. Those things are so destructive.
“The difficulty I felt talking to [my cousin] about it lit something in me. I thought: ‘If this is how we’re dealing with it – we’re so close and we’re struggling to talk about it – I can’t imagine how other families in more difficult situations are’.”
Alberts’s message is clear. “The only thing that can bring us out of those places is if we lean into each other and ask for help … It’s about being bold and courageous when you’re stuck.”
Brothers Wreck is as much a story of trauma as the family spirit that endures in spite of it. “Something wonderful about Indigenous families is grief and laughter are always quite close,” Alberts says. “When we share these traumatic experiences we naturally seek to lift each other up, and that’s where the humour comes from.”
“I also wanted to put families like mine on stage,” she says. “[Characters] sprung from me and people I know.”
Indigenous stories remain dangerously underrepresented. “The culture of storytelling is dominated by white Australia, and that needs to change. When people of colour don’t see themselves reflected in the media they consume … you feel invisible.
“I look to black America and the kinds of stories coming out of there – Black Panther, Get Out, Atlanta … People want to see these stories. We want to learn about each other.”
In 2014 Alberts recruited Leah Purcell to direct Brothers Wreck’s premiere season. This time around she’s taken on the challenge herself, armed with a new directorial vision.
The original version used naturalism to create an illusion of reality. “This version relies much more on a space that’s not real,” says Alberts. A prominent audio component makes it “a lot more dreamlike.”
It’s a different mode of storytelling: “The difference between seeing somebody in front of you get hit by a car, and dreaming [it],” Alberts explains. “If there’s a connection to that person or that moment it still has an impact, it’s just from a different perspective.”
Alberts doesn’t shy away from the truth, and neither should you, she says. “There will be people who look at the blurb of this play and feel like the story’s too hard or too difficult to deal with, or too negative. But we’re choosing to look away too much.
“After 9/11 there was this iconic image of a man falling from one of the buildings. They put it on [page seven] of the New York Times the next day and there was a massive backlash. People were saying, ‘You shouldn’t show these horrible things’. I want to have conversations that are the opposite of that.”