In Louis Nowra’s play "Radiance", males are absent and the characters are all Aboriginal
women. Set on the central Queensland coast at Kinka Beach near Yeppoon, the play was
written with the actresses , Rachael Maza, Lydia Miller and Rhoda Roberts in mind (Nowra,
v). Three half-sisters come together for their mother’s funeral.
The three characters, Mae, Cressy and Nona are initially symbolically constructed according
to the clothes they are wearing. Mae wears a ‘dowdy black dress’ (Nowra, 1), Nona ‘made up
for a party’ wears a ‘little black dress’ (1), "looking like a streetwalker" (6) and Cressy is
dressed in a ‘stylish and expensive black dress’ (6). Their depictions centre on ‘sin-based’
Western stereotypes – those of a ‘good, respectable woman’ , a ‘sinner’ or ‘fallen woman’,
and a ‘modern woman’.
The theme of secrets and lies dominates the play as each woman reveals a secret that she has
kept all her life and in the process uncovers the lies that have been told to conceal these
secrets. By the end of the play we learn that Mae is not all she seems, that beneath her facade
of respectability lies an obsessiveness that expresses itself in secret drinking and an affair
with a married doctor that resulted in criminal action. "I showered him with presents ...
nicking the money from the nurses fund". (Nowra, 39). After she was caught, she ended up
with a good behaviour bond and had to pay back the money she stole.
Nona reveals her obsession with her unknown father, the ‘Black Prince’ and expresses her
secret desire to have a sexual relationship with him (Nowra, 51). Cressy, ‘angry and
anguished’ by Nona’s fantasy reveals her secret. She is not Nona’s half-sister but her mother.
One of her mother’s boyfriends raped her when she was twelve and Nona was the result.
Each female character in the play is constructed as consisting of contradictions and moral
dichotomies. The character, Mae, revels irreconcilable contradictions as she shifts between
respectability, where she chides Nona for her choice of dress, to the description of her
obsessive love and her secret drinking habits. Her obsession with burning down the house
they no longer have a right to, is realized at the end of the play (Nowra, 49).
Cressy, ostensibly a successful Opera singer, reveals that she too, is dysfunctional in her own
way. While on tour, she developed a habit of stacking all the furniture in her sleep. (Nowra,
25).. She explains her aberration in terms of ‘overwork and strain’ (25). Both Cressy and Mae
were removed from their mother at an early age and placed in the care of Nuns. Their
‘successful’ careers as a nurse and an opera singer, respectively, may be inferred to be a
result of this removal (especially when compared with the child who stayed with her mother,
Nona, and her lack of ‘achievements’). In this way, Nowra is reinforcing a popular traditional
assumption that Aboriginal people can only achieve the white Australian concept of ‘success’
if they are removed from their Aboriginal parents.
Nona switches between sentimentality and sensuous sexuality. Her fantasy surrounding her
father represents one of the more obvious moral dichotomies. She sentimentalises the burning
of cane on the Weller’s plantation and interprets it as a sign of love for her mother. "Maybe
he’s burning it off in Mum’s honour" (Nowra, 37). Nona enjoys arousing the priest at her
mother’s funeral with her short dress and lack of undergarments (10).
In his interview with Candida Baker, Nowra described his family as "a unit that existed in
silences, secrets and not touching" (Baker, 243). Nowra also revealed his theory that
‘madness is something that happens when a person can’t reconcile the opposites or
contradictions within themselves". According to Louis Nowra, recovery from madness entails
the reconciliation of opposites (254).
By interpreting the representations in the play within the framework of Louis Nowra’s
theories on madness, I have to come to the conclusion that each female character is a
representation of "irreconcilable differences" or "madness". Therefore, the play "Radiance" is
in my opinion, primarily a representation of the theme of madness. The characters
represented in the play are superimposed on this theme and could have been portrayed by
In Von Sturmer’s words, "every act of representation involves a positioning of self: each act
of representation is an act of self-representation." (Von Sturmer qtd Langton , 57). Both the
play, "Radiance" and the movie, "Blackfellas" contain a representation of the viewpoints and
backgrounds of the respective writers, Louis Nowra and Archie Weller and contain each
artist’s version of their perceptions of Aboriginality. Whereas there are aspects of
"Blackfellas" which may be considered to accord with Nyungar attitudes and viewpoints
there are also themes of violence, crime and cultural disintegration that misrepresent the
majority of Black Australians in south-western Australia. As for Bran Nue Dae, it appears to
me, to be a refreshingly authentic representation of some of the Aboriginal people in Broome.