Jack Charles, grandfather of Aboriginal theater, dies at 79
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Jack Charles, grandfather of Aboriginal theater, dies at 79
One of Australia’s leading Indigenous actors, he had a resonant voice, a charismatic personality and a troubled personal life that often landed him in jail. Photo: Nichollas Harrison

by Natasha Frost

MELBOURNE.- Jack Charles, one of Australia’s leading Indigenous actors, who has been called the “grandfather of Aboriginal theater” but whose heroin addiction and penchant for burglary landed him in and out of jail throughout his life, died Sept. 13 in Melbourne. He was 79.

He died in a hospital after having a stroke, according to his publicist, Patrice Capogreco.

Charles had a voice that made people stop and listen.

Gravelly and majestic, with rounded vowels honed by elocution lessons in a rough-and-tumble boys’ home, it assured him an audience even over the scrum of the Australian prisons where he spent much of his life.

“It’s very unusual for a crim or a screw to listen to a prisoner talk for very long,” he wrote in a memoir, using slang for fellow inmates and prison officers. “But for whatever reason, they’d let me run with whatever I was talking about and actually listen.”

That voice catapulted Charles onto the stage, where he captivated Melbourne theatergoers, and helped make him one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal screen actors.

He ascribed his talents to his Indigenous heritage. “We’re great orators,” he wrote in his memoir. “That is merely one element of our culture that white people never saw in our development.”

Charles co-founded Australia’s first Indigenous theater company, Nindethana Theater, with actor Bob Maza in 1971. He was known in Australia as Uncle Jack, an Aboriginal honorific denoting his status as an elder.

His life was chronicled in an unsparing 2008 documentary, “Bastardy”; his memoir, “Born-again Blakfella”; and the 2010 one-man play “Jack Charles vs. the Crown,” which he co-wrote and performed around the world, despite multiple convictions that would ordinarily have limited his ability to travel.

“Mr. (Donald) Trump gave me a waiver to go to New York and perform ‘Jack Charles vs. the Crown,’” he said of the former president in an interview last year with Australian news outlet The Saturday Paper. “That’s the ultimate for an old thief like me. I’m still thieving, stealing things. I’m stealing hearts and minds nowadays.”

His road to stardom was a rocky one. Charles wrestled with heroin addiction, homelessness and an almost lifelong flirtation with burglary, for which he was incarcerated numerous times. He spent his 20th, 30th, 40th and 50th birthdays behind bars.

It was also a journey of self-discovery: of who he really was, where he had come from, his homosexuality and what it meant to be an Aboriginal Australian and a member of the so-called Stolen Generation, Aboriginal people who for decades as children were removed from their families by the government and forcibly assimilated into white society.

Raised in an almost entirely white home for boys, Charles had no knowledge of Aboriginal culture and did not even know he was Indigenous until other children bullied him for it.

He would later use that self-knowledge to educate others about Australia’s history and race relations, whether from the back of a taxicab or on the set of the 2015 Warner Bros. movie “Pan,” where he draped the Aboriginal flag over the back of his trailer. (He played a tribal chief in the film, alongside his fellow Australian Hugh Jackman.)

“It became a talking point to discuss the social and political hopes for Aboriginal Australians,” Charles wrote, “as well as teaching people about the Dreaming,” an Aboriginal concept for the beginning of time.

In his final years, after he had kicked his heroin addiction, he was a familiar and striking figure plying the streets of Melbourne atop a mobility scooter, an Aboriginal flag fluttering on the back.

“He was someone that embraced everything, even the bad things,” said Wesley Enoch, an Australian theater director who had worked with Charles. “He embraced them so that he could understand them and incorporate them in who he was.”

He added that to be embraced by Charles himself, who stood less than 5 feet tall and whose luxuriant white Afro and beard were perfumed with patchouli oil, was a memorable experience.

Jack Charles was born in Melbourne on Sept. 5, 1943. He was one of 13 children born to Blanchie Muriel Charles, two of whom died at birth. The 11 survivors were seized from their mother in infancy. Charles was the only one of his siblings to meet her again.

He was placed in his first children’s home at 4 months old. At his second, the Box Hill Boys’ Home in suburban Melbourne, he endured physical and sexual abuse, he said. The few Indigenous children there were forbidden to speak to one another.

“I was whitewashed, if you will, by the system,” Charles told a state commission.

At 14, he moved into a foster home and began a glass beveling apprenticeship. But after a disagreement with his foster mother over a night out — when he met with other Indigenous Australians and learned his birth mother’s identity — he was removed from the home at 17 and taken into police custody.

So began a troubled relationship with the law. Charles spent 22 years in prison, often on burglary charges. He favored homes in the wealthy Melbourne suburb of Kew, where his forebears had originated.

Raised as a Christian, he had been taught that stealing was wrong, he told The Saturday Paper. But committing break-ins on his ancestral homeland “felt great,” he said. “Very, very satisfying.”

Incarceration was, for him, as productive as it was frequent: On behalf of fellow inmates, he wrote love letters to their wives in exchange for chocolate and tobacco. He read extensively, completed his high school education and learned and taught pottery.

“You only lose your freedom in the nick,” he said in the documentary “Bastardy,” using a slang term for a jail. “You can’t go anywhere, but your mind can go wandering all over the place when you’re incarcerated. I might be locked up, but I’m free, still. Free inside.”

Charles found his way onto the stage almost by accident. In 1964, representatives of Melbourne’s New Theater came to the Aboriginal youth hostel where he was living to cast an all-Indigenous production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” He was given a role as an understudy.

It was a revelation. In the theater, Charles had found his people. “They threw great parties, and they didn’t seem to care about my sexuality or my Aboriginality,” he wrote in his memoir.

For the next seven years he beveled glass in a factory by day and acted with the New Theater by night.

But he slid deeper into addiction and ended up on the street. Stints in prison, he wrote, were a relief, as they offered stable housing and regular meals.

From 1971 to 1974, he ran the Aboriginal theater group Nindenthana, whose first hit show, “Jack Charles Is Up and Fighting,” explored whether Indigenous Australians should assimilate or stand apart from the country’s white majority.

He starred in plays across Australia, including “Cradle of Hercules,” “No Sugar” and, in 2020, “Black Ties,” at Melbourne’s largest theater, the Arts Center. He appeared in several Australian television series, including “Cleverman,” “Women of the Sun” and “Preppers,” and movies, including “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” “Blackfellas” and “Wolf Creek.”

He was eventually reunited with four of his siblings: his brother Archie, and his sisters Esme, Eva-Jo and Christine. He did not learn the identity of his father, Hilton Hamilton Walsh, until last year, when he appeared on the reality genealogy television show “Who Do You Think You Are.”

He is survived by Christine Zenip Charles, the only one of his 11 siblings he knew to be still alive.

In his last years, Charles was able to look back at his life with magnanimity, moving from a place of deep anger to one of conciliation.

“It’s important to keep in mind my story is also about healing,” he wrote in his memoir. “That’s how I’ve been able to keep going.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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