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Othello in archipelago: Spotlight on our only Indigenous battalion

Culture

Drawing from Jimi Bani’s own family story, Queensland Theatre’s Othello reveals the little-known history of the Torres Strait during World War II, bombed 500 times and defended by the only Indigenous Battalion in the history of the Australian Army.

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In a world premiere production set to debut at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF), Bani and Klarwein adapt Shakespeare’s story of manipulation and revenge to illuminate a wartime history unknown to many.

The production uses three languages (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok, and English) to tell the story of the 880 members of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion who defended the archipelago from the Japanese.

The men, including Jimi Bani’s grandfather and great-grandfather, were not recognised in the Commonwealth census and prevented from enlisting in the Army.

Following the outbreak of the war, 880 men volunteered with only 10 eligible men staying behind to protect their communities, and the Battalion served until 1946.

The production will mark the first time a Torres Strait Islander has played Othello.

“It’s fitting that we set this version in wartime 1942 in the Torres Strait. My grandfather, the late Soloman Gela and my great grandfather, the late Ephraim Bani Snr both enlisted – as did all able-bodied Torres Strait Islander men,” said Bani.

“I grew up on Thursday Island and had the privilege of hearing their war stories, and I continue to carry all these men and women in my heart,” he said.

Klarwein said he was grateful to be able to work with Bani to promote and preserve the languages and culture distinct to Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“Many people know about the bombings of Darwin during the war, but not many know the story of Horn Island and the straits, which were bombed more than 500 times.

Historic image of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion (Image: Supplied)

“This had a huge cultural impact on Far North Queensland, for not only First Nations peoples, but all people living there,” he said.

“This era of change and danger makes a perfect platform from which to begin the tragic twists and turns of Othello.”

Othello will be the first Queensland Theatre production in four years to debut outside of Brisbane, showing at the Cairns Indigenous Art Festival on November 12 and 13.

“Premiering work in centres other than Brisbane is essential for us as the state theatre company, and we are so pleased that our partnership with CIAF allows us to do just that,” said Lee Lewis, Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director.

Artistic Director of Cairns Indigenous Art Festival Janina Harding said that programming Othello into CIAF this year adds an important and thought-provoking perspective.

“For CIAF to premiere this provocative interpretation of Othello is a perfect fit for today’s social climate, as it addresses issues of ‘othering’ and racism,” said Harding.

“I look forward to CIAF audiences gaining new insights whilst being entertained by a brilliant Torres Strait Islander-led cast.”

The production will then move to Brisbane in September for Queensland Theatre’s 2022 Season.

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