Richard Frankland says 2002 play about deaths in custody is sadly still relevant

Richard Frankland's Conversations with the Dead was written as a response to the 1987-1991 Royal Commission into deaths in custody.
Richard Frankland's Conversations with the Dead was written as a response to the 1987-1991 Royal Commission into deaths in custody.

Richard Frankland is not surprised his 2002 play about deaths in custody, Conversations with the Dead, is being restaged or that the story is still topical.

More than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since the end of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991 – when Dr Frankland was investigating some of those deaths as a young Koori man working for the justice system.

Dr Frankland’s work is this week being restaged by ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, in association with Arts Centre Melbourne, as part of Future Echoes, a festival of performance made by and with young artists.

The Koori musician, poet, activist and University of Melbourne Associate Professor said Conversations with the Dead is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it in response to his role as an investigator for the Royal Commission 1987-1991.

“First Nations deaths in custody remain a blight on this country’s soul,” said Dr Frankland. “These people that continue to die in custody are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, nieces and nephews. They are loved by someone somewhere.

Conversations with the Dead is a work that is sadly still relevant today,” he said. “One day perhaps it will be seen as an historical piece and ‘Deaths in Custody’ will be a thing of the past. Sadly, we are still a long way from that day."

Daniel Riley, the producer of the show, said the decision by young First Nations artists in ILBIJERRI to perform Dr Frankland’s work ahead of others they were reviewing, was ‘pretty unanimous’.

He said the young artists, aged between 17 and 26, felt strongly that deaths in custody was an issue that needed to be highlighted.

“These are young people who are aware of current issues, who are willing to speak up about the lack of action,” he said. “This is a new generation who are unafraid to make change, demand change.

“This generation of First Nations is speaking out on deaths in custody, the land, climate change and answering the call to take action as we’ve seen with the protests in recent weeks.”

While a number of Indigenous men and women have died in custody since the Royal Commission, including Tanya Day in 2017,  over half of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who died in custody or during arrest were yet to be found guilty of any crime and the recommendations of the Royal Commission have never been implemented.

The artistic director of the show, Rachael Maza, said not only did ILBIJERRI chose Richard Frankland’s ‘beautifully poetic and brutally honest’ work but “The team do not flinch away from this reality.”

Dr Frankland’s play will also be performed by seven University of Melbourne students studying at the Victorian College of the Arts to an international audience in Taipei in November.

Conversations with the Dead is playing at the Fairfax Studio 23–26 October 2019.

This article was first published on the University of Melbourne Newsroom.