A new play gives voice to an important but forgotten Aboriginal sporting hero, Johnny Mullagh.

Over 150 years ago, 13 Aboriginal men in western Victoria picked up their cricket bats and embarked on a treacherous voyage to England and into the unknown – all in the name of sport.

Australia’s first sporting team to go on international tour, they played at legendary cricket ground Lord’s and toured the UK in 1868. Emerging as our first sporting hero, Johnny Mullagh wowed the English crowds with his talent, personality and grit.

What should have been a triumphant return to Australia, instead became a tale of obscurity and tragedy.

This little-known story is the subject of a new artistic collaboration between iconic Australian writer Geoffrey Atherden (Mother and Son, Grass Roots) and Sydney Festival Artistic Director Wesley Enoch.

Black Cockatoo will have its premiere in January at the Ensemble Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival.

Helping to make that happen, has been the support of The Balnaves Foundation.

CEO Hamish Balnaves is thrilled the Foundation can contribute to Sydney audiences discovering such an important story.

“This is a story that must be told particularly as we venture into 2020, the year of the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing. We need to hear stories that will advance truth telling and reconciliation. We also know that philanthropy can make a significant contribution by funding new Australian work from creative development through to presentation. This kind of funding for new work that is brave and bold is hard to find in the current funding landscape,” says Hamish.

The Balnaves Foundation is a private philanthropic organisation established in 2006 by Neil Balnaves AO. At the heart of Neil’s philanthropic vision are values of family and the social good (with a good dose of advocacy).

The Foundation disperses $3 million annually to eligible organisations that aim to create a better Australia through education, medicine and the arts, with a focus on young people, the disadvantaged and Indigenous Australia.

Motivated by a desire to give back to the community, Neil says creating change requires innovation and taking risks, two characteristics that distinguishes philanthropy from government’s capacity to drive change. Yet Neil acknowledges that there’s a danger that government may grow lazy; thinking that philanthropy can pick up the responsibility for funding social and cultural institutions.

Neil has a dynamic philosophy of giving and an interactive approach to granting. All members of the Balnaves family act as Foundation trustees and are involved in the selection and execution of grants. Neil’s son, Hamish, left a teaching position in 2009 to join the Foundation.

Black Cockatoo Johnny Mullagh

Australia’s first sporting team to go on international tour, pictured here at the MCG in 1867.

The Ensemble Theatre was brought to Neil’s attention in 2016. Neil was impressed that the longest continuously running professional theatre company in Australia was entirely self-funded.

Since then the two organisations have developed a strong partnership. To date The Balnaves Foundation has provided $300,000 of funding to Ensemble Theatre and committed another $300,000 over the next three years. Hamish Balnaves and Diane Balnaves also sit on the Ensemble Theatre Board.

The Foundation is committed to the arts and supporting new work in Australian theatre, but Black Cockatoo is a work that really stuck a chord with the Balnaves. The play firmly aligns with their interest in supporting projects that shed light on untold stories and give voice to the underrepresented to create a more engaged, empowered and representative society.

When writer Geoffrey Atherden approached Ensemble Theatre some years ago, Artistic Director Mark Kilmurry immediately shared his interest with The Balnaves Foundation. The Foundation has been involved since the very early stages of development and committed $100,000 to ensure that this story would reach a wide audience on Sydney.

Black Cockatoo begins in the present day with a group of young activists breaking into a museum to expose the truth of what happened to Johnny and his mates. A story of triumph and tragedy unfolds, spanning from the wild frontiers of western Victoria to the upper-class home of cricket, Lord’s.

Funny and moving, the play stars Luke Carroll, Joseph Althouse, Chenoa Deemal, Aaron McGrath, Colin Smith and Dubs Yunupiŋgu.

Black Cockatoo will open at the Ensemble Theatre on January 4 as part of the 2020 Sydney Festival.

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