Theater Review: 7 Stages of Grieving, an Aboriginal Classic

Chenoa Deemal in the set she creates during 7 States of Grieving. Photo by Justin Harrison.

Where does a reviewer begin to talk about 7 Stages of Grieving? This remarkable Australian theater experience is celebrating its 25th year with a Los Angeles premiere at the Skylight Theater in Los Feliz and it’s a reviewer’s challenge.

Despite a running time of just one hour, the single-performer show is a wide-scope historical documentary indicting a government that persecuted its natives into partial extinction. It’s also the personal tale of a specific Aboriginal family’s struggles and losses. It’s a cultural rite. It’s performance art. It’s depressing and informative and uplifting. It’s the ultimate all-of-the-above.

7 Stages provides an insightful, if sometimes difficult-to-follow, look at the 125-plus-year history of colonial rule in Australia and the devastating impact it had on the continent’s Aboriginal peoples. It presents 50,000 years of Aboriginal history and more recent personal details of discrimination and its consequences, all while building out a set and examining artifacts.

This is a heavy load for a cast, even more so on a single performer. Yet Chenoa Deemal owns the Skylight’s stage, whether creating concentric circles of pebbles, rifling through the contents of a box and a suitcase, or just speaking directly to the audience. This feels like her story, a tribute to her performance and the timelessness of the script by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, written when Deemal was likely a small child.

The Aboriginal peoples of Australia are diverse. In 1788, when British colonists arrived, more than 250 native languages were spoken. Today, only about half are still in use and all but 13 of those are considered endangered. The writers had different tribal backgrounds than Deemal and translated the brief native-language phrases used in the show into Deemal’s native language. (She is from the Thitharr Warra clan that is part of the Gugu Yimithirr tribe, which resides in and around Hopevale, north of Cooktown in the Cape York Peninsula of Australia.)

Acclaimed director Jason Klarwein works in Australia and around the world. Along with Lighting Designer Dan Anderson and Sound & Audiovisual Designer Justin Harrison, Klarwein provides context and support for a single individual building and inhabiting an entire world.

7 Stages beautifully represents the Aboriginal tradition of storytelling and, in a larger context,  First Nation peoples finding their voices. There is grieving, yes, but also healing. As Deemal notes in 7 Stages, “Everything has its time.” Now is the time for this show.

This limited engagement runs through Nov. 24, 2019 at the Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont (next to Skylight Books), Thursdays at 8:00pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Additional information and tickets are available here. Don’t circle the block in an unrewarding quest for street parking, just head to the lot behind the Dresden and pay a bargain $4 fee.


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About Laura Foti Cohen

Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Neo Ensemble Theatre in Hollywood.

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