'The actor’s latest work, The Shadow King, subtly illustrates the destructive forces of mining royalties on Aboriginal families
Actor Tom E Lewis doesn’t give straight answers. In conversation he mines his own life, wanders - with a leisurely aimlessness - down hidden warren holes, at his own pleasure.
The result is often improvised prose, such as when describing the years spent touring the world’s jazz festivals with his woodwind duo, Lewis & Young: “I’ve been travelling around doing music and learning from other cultures, how they love their own culture. Being with the Russians, with the gypsies, this whole world of tonalities. Music and tones - sometimes they’re sharper and sometimes they’re flatter, sometimes they’re sadder.”
Lewis, 56, has a pleasantly rich voice - wonderful for singing - and is built stocky and square, like a bulldog. “The world is full of these spiritual people. And they taught me you can’t do anything without your spirits. You have to tune yourself up to your spirits, to do your stories.”
“When you do a show, you can’t go there with a half pocket. You have to be full of your cultural world,” says Lewis. This is particularly true of The Shadow King, an ambitious project that transforms the mad king into an Aboriginal elder whose family is torn apart by warring children, drunk on power bestowed by mining royalties.
The all-Aboriginal cast, including a live band, hail from many different nations, and were heavily involved in discussions of how best to represent such a diversity of cultures. The end result is a contemporary Aboriginal tale that uses the heavy beats of Shakespeare, told with the instruments of traditional Aboriginal culture: song, dance and language.
Lewis was particularly excited to take the play to his country and says the production received two standing ovations in Katherine. “All my people, both white [and] black families that love the theatre, turned up and had a great night.” Multiple Aboriginal languages and English are weaved artfully into the production (reminding me of how children of immigrants speak with their parents in a mix of languages), and Lewis tells me that in Katherine “people would laugh in these particular interesting spots where the white fellas wouldn’t laugh”.
I ask how the play came about, and it seems to take Lewis back in time. “Kind of developed over the years, yeah? But one of the most gracious things now is that I put down the drink. And I can do things and put back into the community.” As a touring musician, Lewis mimes a tabletop to describe his nightly consumption of alcohol. He’s been off “the drink” for 16 years now. “I didn’t understand it was my poison. I was a party boy,” he says, chuckling gleefully.
I ask Lewis exactly which country he hails from, and he tells me he was born in Ngukurr country (Roper River), about 300km from Katherine, in the Gulf of Carpenteria. His mother worked on a cattle station, before falling pregnant to the manager, a white fella. “My mum was used and all that sort of stuff. Made her bitter. My mum got angry for a while,” says Lewis.
After falling pregnant, Lewis’s mother fled the property to a mission to give birth to her son, which is where he’d spend the first seven years of his life. Lewis is still struck by the fact that he managed to escape becoming part of the Stolen Generation. “I couldn’t believe other people were taken away. And I’d go ‘why wasn’t I taken away?’ You know? There are families that have been taken away and people would come and tell me their stories, yeah? Amazing, horrific stories.”
Lewis says his mother is now 80 years old. “Nothing’s too big for my mum. I’ve learned from her hard love.” Tough love? “Yeah that’s the one. My mum, you wouldn’t fuck with her,” he grins. “Mum would put me in a canoe and paddle down the river, to get me away from the welfare people.” When Lewis acquired a stepfather, a man he greatly admired and called “dad”, the three relocated to a cattle station. “I was his son from the word go.”
At 12, Lewis slipped off to Borroloola, to meet his birth father for the first time. He says, with some pride, he’d always had one of the few absent fathers that supported his child with money and clothing. “He looked at me - I had hair like yours, long hair - and said ‘you look like a fucking girl’,” says Lewis with another chuckle. “When I met him, [everything] became chaotic. To understand this paradigm I was living in: there’s a black world and there’s a white world.”
It would also be the year his stepfather sadly passed away, and consequently Lewis, still at the tender age of 12, was sent out by his mother - who, by then, had four other kids to feed. A feeling of rejection plagued Lewis. “In learning you pick up fruit as you go, from the bush into the city, you know? As you go you try and eat some things, some bitter, so learning from the bush just to get to Darwin was a big introduction, yeah? And life’s been full of these. But at the same time I felt sorry for myself because my mum sent me away - ‘go to work, don’t sit around here’.”
Certain figures seem to have left a lasting impact on Lewis’s life. It was from Spence who Lewis says he learned respect. “That old Ken got speared in the leg in a community, at Groot [Island]. And I said to him, ‘old man, shouldn’t you hate black fellas, after they speared you?’ And you know what his words were? He said to me like this, ‘it’s just a piece of wood, son’. Nothing killed his heart, nothing.”
At 17, with Spence’s encouragement, Lewis applied to study motor mechanics at Melbourne’s Swinburne College. He arrived by plane, with $20 in his pocket, and says he felt like “a kid in a candy shop”. But Lewis’s skills proved far too advanced for the course (“they were teaching me how to put water in a radiator, you with me?”) and so he prepared to return home.
Then something happened at Melbourne airport that would change the rest of his life: he was talent-spotted by Fred and Rhonda Schepisi, and cast in Fred’s film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
It has also given him a voice to speak out against perceived injustices. He has strong words against ANKAAA, a peak body for northern Aboriginal artists and centres, which he feels unfairly concentrates its arts funding on major centres, where “people are like crocodiles”. He rails against mining companies that he says raze through sacred Aboriginal sites and that “royalties are the poisoned chalice of any culture”.
Nor is he a fan of the Northern Land Council and a “bureaucracy run by clever black fellas”. Lewis says heatedly, “we suffer from our own kind of people. People are taking other people’s land with no manners. Nobody is listening! I’m not sitting here inventing this stuff, but I’m sick to death from it.”
In many ways, Lewis’s life has turned full circle. He has returned to his home country, the land which he defends so passionately, and where he lives with his wife, Fleur Parry, a former theatre manager, and their children. He has walked inside the two split halves of Australia - the black fella, white fella divide – and never ended there, travelling the world, collecting experiences. It has left him with a generosity that is larger than most.
“There’s a lot of families that come on the boat and they struggle, but now they’re doing well, you know? It’s the same notion, keep going, the boat keeps going. I didn’t have any plans or anything, but here I am in Brisbane with a crowd. So it’s an amazing journey.”'
Tom’s mother Angelina George sadly passed away last year. Here is an obituary which describes her great talent as an artist.