You’ve said before, “I’ve employed my Aboriginality as my religion now. Instead of God, I found that the godhead is within me.” What do you mean by that?
Well, I am “JC” – and brown like the original! [Laughs] I’m walking by my community, full of it,
but with a sense of my Indigeneity, of being the elder statesperson.
In the early 1970s, you auditioned to play the Indigenous title character in the Australian TV show Boney. They gave the role to a white actor in blackface. What did that teach you?
I was really disappointed. They occasionally use Aboriginal people in advertising, but I still believe we’re behind the eight ball. It’s white Australians in the arts telling Indigenous people, “We’re still not totally ready to accept you.” That’s why Bob [Maza], others and I developed the National Black Theatre in Sydney’s Redfern and Nindethana Theatre in Melbourne – the black arts, as it were.
How confident and comfortable do you feel as an Indigenous man today?
I feel comfortable and confident, because I’m a known article. I have felt animosity, and I do get occasionally screams from people crying out “abo” from the back of the car. Australia is particularly – oddly still in this modern day and age – racist against its First Nations people. Truth in history needs to be taught. It’s as though they’re still paranoid – successive Australian governments – that we’re going to take the land back.
You’re in your 70s now. How are you finding ageing?
Well, I can’t do the things that I used to do. I run like a girl nowadays. I’m short of breath … well, because I’m still smoking cigarettes. I gave up everything else: heroin, all the drugs. I’m suffering from emphysema now. That comes with being a smoker. I’m still able as a professional to perform on stage. My time’s nearly up, but I often reflect on where I’ve been and what I’ve done, where I’ve come from and where I’m still going.
How many near-death experiences have you had?
Believe it or not, every time I came out of jail, I always OD’d on that first whack [of heroin], at a very good mate’s place. He would put me over his shoulder and carry me down to the front door to the waiting ambulance and I would be given the shot of naloxone. I’ve died several times, as a matter of fact.
You mean medically died?
Medically died, then been brought back to life. I’ve also attempted suicide … but it just hurt too much. I said, “Bugger this.”
What’s your advice for people feeling vulnerable and having suicidal thoughts?
Don’t do anything that puts you in this insidious position. You’ve got to find a safe spot for yourself. Be truthful. Be honest with yourself. Express yourself clearly. It’s difficult. Many of us don’t know how to. We’ve never been able to talk about deep-rooted problems confronting us. And take yourself seriously. We don’t know our full potential unless we take ourselves more seriously.
What’s kept you alive during all this?
I like to believe it’s Bundjil, the great wedge-tailed eagle [ancestor spirit and creator of the Kulin land and its people]. He returns every now and then to check how our handiwork has fared, and has kept an eye on me, keeping me from slipping down into the deep doldrums.
You said you’ve technically died. Is there anything on the other side?
I never saw anything.
Does that worry you?
No, it doesn’t worry me. I only worry about what’s gonna happen in the body after. I want to donate certain parts of it, then I want the rest burned. I don’t want to be buried in the cold, old ground. I’m going to be judged by the fire! That’s how I’m going, mate.
Any special requests for your funeral?
I’d like it to be in the theatre in Spring Street [Melbourne]. And no religion!
Uncle Jack Charles performs in Black Ties as part of the Perth Festival from February 13 to 16, and at the Arts Centre Melbourne from February 20 to 29.
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Writer, author of The Family Law and Gaysia.