Exit the king: remembering Uncle Jack Charles

In Jack Charles v The Crown, Uncle Jack stood on stage and called for the crown to take responsibility for the years of abuse and oppression he had experienced throughout his life. He demanded there be reparations for the pain and sacrifice our people had endured at the hands of the British monarchy and their colonial project. Like the consummate actor and storyteller he was, Uncle Jack has left us with his trademark impeccable timing, a final exit that can be read as yet another call to put things into perspective, to understand the importance of First Nations stories and people and to truly value our elders’ voices.

It is hard to imagine a time when only a handful of people were involved in First Nations theatre and film, such is the vibrancy of our modern community that encompasses all ages, genders, geographies and forms. When you think about the future of a voice to parliament and the debate we are conducting it is hard to imagine a time when those who had no voice, and were hardly recognised as full citizens, went out and made their voice be heard. When you think about all the firsts in this country that First Nations people have achieved, it is hard to imagine the passion and determination it took to make the first Black theatres.

Uncle Jack was a giant in so many ways. His voice boomed and commanded respect, his heart was huge and all embracing, and he had a way of teaching you a lesson without making you feel lesser. As he had known the depths of despair and overcome adversity, he was able to lift your spirits and lift you up.

He was such a huggable height so you always felt a face full of grey hair whenever he came in for an embrace, and his cheeky smile and glinting eyes could disarm you and alarm you with the skill of a true professional.

I have an enduring memory of Uncle Jack playing Bennelong in the Sydney festival production I Am Eora, sitting alone on this vast stage with his guitar, “busking” to an attentive audience. This legendary storyteller was playing a legendary interlocutor who had met the King, befriended the powerful and hit hard times. Backstage, Uncle Jack, still in character, would hold court regaling the young cast with stories of the early days of Black theatre, cat burglary and prison life, switching effortlessly from cautionary tale to celebration.

Today, social media is alive with images of Uncle Jack stopping to take a selfie at a show, on the street, at a book launch, at an award ceremony, after rehearsals. A quick survey of images show his appeal and respect across the community.

Uncle Jack was a working artist who found renewed success in later life touring the world and being a global theatre elder. He had known his share of hardship from drug abuse and crime to being denied a taxi due to his race. He always triumphed through telling his story to all who would listen.

Being part of the stolen generations and surviving an institutionalised childhood, being told he was an orphan with no family, Uncle Jack spent his life finding family. Whether it was his extended theatre family, the community who embraced him or his blood family, he pieced together the things that had been denied him, replacing pain with purpose.

He was everyone’s Uncle. Royalty, political leaders, school kids and other elders all called him Uncle out of respect for his skills and his ability to overcome a life full of disappointments, to make a life of loving care.

He was a king among men in his nobility and charm and dedication to his community.

I will miss seeing Uncle Jack flying along the streets of Fitzroy on his Ecat mobility scooter with the Aboriginal flag fluttering in the breeze, stopping to receive a cuppa from a friendly cafe owner, or having a yarn with a young person who needed some help, or getting a selfie with a book-toting hipster.

The last few months have marked the passing of some very important Australians in the arts – Judith Durham, Olivia Newton-John, Uncle Archie and now our dearest Uncle Jack Charles. But actors like Uncle Jack have fewer recordings of their career outside the rare film or TV gig. In the theatre, figures like Uncle Jack live on in the stories shared and in the many careers of those who have benefited from his enduring contribution. A pioneer, a leader, a survivor, an influencer, an elder, a friend.

As the world mourns the passing of a queen and the entry of King Charles, today I am mourning the exit of a king Jack Charles who was not high born and whose inheritance was oft denied, but who wore a crown, created an inspiring legacy and whose life acts as both cautionary tale and celebration.

  • Wesley Enoch AM is a playwright and artistic director, Indigenous chair in the creative industries with the Queensland University of Technology and a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man

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