home Tennis More than a tennis story: Sunshine Super Girl is challenging inequities and enabling inclusive possibilities

More than a tennis story: Sunshine Super Girl is challenging inequities and enabling inclusive possibilities

Sunshine Super Girl, a performance piece by Andrea James about Evonne Goolagong Cawley, is important. Michelle O’Shea, Megan Stronach and Hazel Maxwell share why.

Sunshine Super Girl is a new play by Andrea James documenting the life of Evonne Goolagong Cawley. Supplied: Sunshine Super Girl
Sunshine Super Girl is a new play by Andrea James documenting the life of Evonne Goolagong Cawley. Supplied: Sunshine Super Girl

Last month as part of the Yarruwala Wiradjuri Cultural Festival, in the regional town of Griffith, Sunshine Super Girl, the story of Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s life, made its world premiere

Goolagong received national and international acclaim for her sporting accomplishments which included winning four Australian Open singles titles, the Italian, French and South African Opens as well as the Wimbledon Ladies Singles in 1971 and 1980. Yet, Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai playwright and director of Sunshine Super Girl, Andrea James, describes the production as “more than a story about tennis”. 

Many of Evonne Goolagong’s accomplishments on the court occurred during periods of fractured race relations both domestically and abroad. Similarly, the theatre production’s premiere occurs against a backdrop of restless domestic and international race relations, notably the Black Lives Matter movement. Critically, through bringing Goolagong’s experiences to the stage, a powerful window into the gender inequities of the time emerges, signifying how layers of inequity have and continue to shape the lives of many Indigenous women.

While sport is commonly portrayed as a road to overcome discrimination, Sunshine Super Girl illuminates the complexities of musings from this perspective. The production is a commanding example of how when Aboriginal Australian sportswomen carve out spaces to shape their own biographies, the salience of inauthentic and manufactured veneers can be challenged. While as a public we have seen Goolagong’s experiences and accomplishments through a media lens—largely orchestrated by white men—Sunshine Super Girl dispels half-truths, signposts how these truths become taken for granted and in so doing challenges audiences to understand Evonne Goolagong’s story from her own viewpoint.

Labelling herself a “tennis tragic”, Andrea James describes how receiving a copy of Evonne Goolagong’s Memoir, Home! from her partner as a birthday gift has taken her to this “privileged place”. Culturally “talking her way through family and country,” James was able to connect with Goolagong whom she described as “didn’t know from a bar of soap” to share her creative desire to bring the machinations of her incredible life to the stage. 

“Sharing and understanding one another’s world views” enabled the production to come to life as a world premier forged through trust, care, difficulty and a pandemic, and which offers extraordinary rewards.

Sunshine Super Girl rehearsal. Supplied: Performing Lines
Sunshine Super Girl rehearsal. Supplied: Performing Lines

Absent, silenced and contested voices

One of eight children and growing up in the only Aboriginal family in the town of Barellan, near Griffith, the Goolagong family received significant support as townsfolk rallied around Evonne to enable her athletic accomplishments. Today her achievements are still celebrated. From boxes and scrapbooks of old newspaper clippings proudly kept and shared by Goolagong’s school friends to the ‘Big Tennis Racquet’ erected in the Evonne Goolagong Park in Barellan.

Unveiled in October 2009 during the Barellan Centenary celebrations the racquet is an exact 20:1 scale model of Evonne’s battered wooden signature Dunlop tennis racquet. The monument’s poignancy is further amplified as few symbols, monuments or statues mark and celebrate Aboriginal Australian women’s contributions and accomplishments. The symbolic and material prominence of white men continues to reign with many Aboriginal women’s recreational and sporting endeavours all but lost.

Returning to Evonne’s hometown and staging the premier of Sunshine Super Girl was especially nostalgic for Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Andrea James. According to James it was “an opportunity to return to where the story began by telling the very rich backstory of Evonne’s life”. While portraying her childhood as largely free from racial inequities, Sunshine Super Girl illuminates how, as an elite Indigenous Australian sportswoman, Evonne was unavoidably caught up in the politics of Aboriginality and the dilemma of identity. Underpinning the production’s strong advocacy agenda, Andrea James notes the importance of “an all first nations cast telling this story”. According to James, the production is about celebrating “black excellence”. Reflecting on writing her program notes, James describes how “there is something special about a crisp white sport uniform that makes our blackness shine”. For her, the production is a powerful platform for “Aboriginal Australians to take inspiration from a national icon, an Aunty of the sport”.  

While Goolagong’s accomplishments have been celebrated and marked in these ways, few other Indigenous Australian sportswomen’s accomplishments have been acknowledged. Indeed, until the 1970s in some parts of Australia, their ability to participate in sport was stymied by a society bent on subjugating Indigenous women to a life of servitude, with young Aboriginal women dispatched as domestic servants to pastoral properties, farms and urban households. For Andrea James, Sunshine Super Girl celebrates the “great gifts that Aboriginal people bring to this nation” and points to how inclusive possibilities can be imagined and realised both within, through and outside sport.

Related—International Women’s Day: Our Sporting Heroines

Moving through the world with the weight of domestic and international politics

Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s story reveals the profound labour and weighty expectations placed on a young Aboriginal woman to advocate for Indigenous affairs. So long as she remained outside Aboriginal affairs and politics, for most people she was the darling of Australian tennis. However, according to Andrea James, Aboriginal women “can’t move through the world without the weight of the politics around us”. 

Against this backdrop and recent celebrations commemorating 20 years since Cathy Freeman draped the Aboriginal and Australian flags on her shoulders as she celebrated her 400m Olympic victory, these weighty expectations and contested effects are further illuminated. Indeed, much of the commentary surrounding Sydney 2000 celebrations conceal the profound inequities which continue to shape the lives and opportunities of many Aboriginal Australians. It can be easy to look back at Freeman winning the 400m gold in Sydney or lighting the cauldron and forget the racism she navigated. Progress narratives can be dangerous. They can legitimise the status quo which continues to devalue and in many cases silence Indigenous ways of knowing and being.  

Goolagong always wanted her racquet to do the talking, yet racial politics weaved their way into—and in some instances took a stranglehold over—her career. Not only was she criticised in the media for competing in South Africa during the apartheid era, but she was also rebuked by members of her own community. Indigenous activist Charles Perkins was a staunch critic and reproached her for not using her prestige on behalf of Aboriginal people. Goolagong remained steadfast in her decision to compete in the South African Open and later described Perkins’ view of her as “based on total ignorance”. 

Evonne Goolagong became the uncomfortable subject of national debate, caught between the  powerful, colonial elites and those of the national and international Aboriginal communities, who continued to criticise her for doing nothing about Aboriginal affairs, failing in their eyes to speak out on land rights and racial issues and for being insulated from the problems of most Aboriginal women. Perhaps tellingly, on her return to Australia Goolagong was publicly thanked by then-Prime Minister William McMahon (in the vernacular of the time) for being an ‘ambassadress’ for all peoples of Australia. 

As this situation plays out upon the stage which includes stadium style seating and tennis court symbolism, the audience is asked to ponder the past, critically consider the present and “consider our Nation’s future and the larger collective significance of our individual actions on the next Goolagong waiting in the wings”.

While change is occurring James notes that “we are not there yet”. The Evonne Goolagong Foundation continues to draw on tennis as a vehicle to redress persistent inequities. It aims to attract Indigenous girls and boys in order to promote and help provide high quality education and better health through diet and exercise.

One of the next ‘Goolagongs waiting in the wings’ is Ash Barty, who is also using her racquet to imagine and realise excellence among young Aboriginal boys and girls. Let’s give them the space and support to do that.

Sunshine Super Girl shows us how when Indigenous sports women are heard they can be powerful role models for us all.

Sunshine Super Girl tickets are on sale for Sydney in January. Purchase tickets from Performing Lines.

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