The Pilbara region of Western Australia is renowned for its ochre earth, cobalt skies and ancient natural landscapes. Over the past four or five decades, it's also become the epicentre of Australia's mining boom, focused on towns such as Roebourne and, now, Karratha.
In 1983, Roebourne attracted national headlines for all the wrong reasons. That September, 16-year-old Aborigine John Pat died in police custody. His death prompted a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody which made more than 300 recommendations. Yet those deaths in custody remain emotive to this day.
That tragic incident, 30 years ago, inspired the theatre work Hipbone Sticking Out, a Centenary of Canberra production by Big hART, which has its world premiere season at the Playhouse on July 3.
Writer and director Scott Rankin says the work has been created over the past three years with the community of Roebourne.
''Centenary of Canberra creative director Robyn Archer has been a big supporter of ours for many years and invited us to bring the show to Canberra. We're also delighted to have been chosen as company-in-residence at the Canberra Theatre Centre,'' Rankin says.
Hipbone Sticking Out takes its name from the English translation of a cultural treasure in the Pilbara, Murujuga, or the Burrup Peninsula. This natural formation replete with Aboriginal rock carvings has been described as ''the world's largest outdoor rock art gallery''.
The production reunites Rankin with actors Trevor Jamieson and Derik Lynch, with whom he worked in Big hARTS' previous touring productions of Namatjira and Ngapartji Ngapartji.
''Roebourne is the oldest town in the Pilbara,'' Rankin says, ''and when you start to look at the history of the region and the cultural tsunami of the Western world arriving on the coast of Western Australia 400 years ago, the heartache in that community is not surprising.''
Hipbone Sticking Out takes the audience on a whirlwind journey through time and place. After scuffling with police, John Pat hits his head on the footpath and is left fatally wounded in a police cell. As he lies dying, he finds himself travelling through time from Greco/Roman civilisation through the European exploration of the Indian Ocean, the paintings of Vermeer, European popular music of the 1800s, the coming of ghost people to Ngarluma country, slavery, pearling and the mining boom of the present.
''The production begins with the creative energy of glimpses of the canon of Western civilisation and European exploration. It then strips all this away and we are left with the story, the beauty and the power of the Pilbara,'' Rankin says.
''The Ngarluma people we are working with are the people responsible for that land. The show is the story of that ancient, layered culture. As theatre practitioners, we are in the hands of that community and they have said to us, 'these are the stories we want told'.''
These stories are some of the oldest stories on earth and are being told with some of the newest technologies available, Rankin says. ''Some of the community cast members are people who are coming into the Western theatrical tradition for the first time.''
In addition to Jamieson, who takes the role of John Pat, and Lynch, the cast includes Lex Marinos, Simon Gleeson, Natalie O'Donnell and Jada Alberts.
The performance, which combines ensemble movement, digital imagery and highly creative costuming, also features music ranging from the Clash, the Stranglers and Britney Spears to sea shanties and traditional songs of the Pilbara in six-part harmony. But was there a problem with people outside the Ngarluma community wanting to tell their story.
''Big hART came to the community at their invitation,'' Rankin says. ''They also advised Woodside Petroleum [the major resource company in the region and one which invests in community projects there] that they wanted this story to be told. Woodside agreed and became a sponsor of the production. This is an inter-cultural story rather than an indigenous one. And the backgrounds of the various cast members make it very much an inter-cultural exchange.''
Big hART is a not-for-profit company which aims to take some of the issues faced by disadvantaged communities and make them visible in the public sphere by producing critically acclaimed, high-quality art.
Since 1992, the company's programs have assisted more than 7000 people experiencing severe disadvantage in 40 communities across Australia, helping them to make sustained changes in their lives. In recent years, Big hART has toured to Canberra with Namatjira and Ngapartji Ngapartji. Hipbone Sticking Out is the third work in the trilogy.
''Because of the ephemeral nature of theatre, most of the audience's experience is about forgetting,'' Rankin says. ''The role of the playwright and director, therefore, is to work against that forgetting. Audiences will remember a piece of theatre when they experience a change in themselves. And our work is in creating those authentic moments of change.''
In performing the role of John Pat, actor Trevor Jamieson says that the experience has been his most challenging on stage. ''I was only eight when John died. Meeting his family, asking permission and getting their approval to proceed has meant so much to me. These are the biggest shoes I've ever stepped into.''
At the core of Big hART's approach lies a simple idea, Rankin says: ''It's much harder to hurt someone if you know their story.'' This is a story about justice, respect and forgiveness.'' In the context of the poisonous public discourse of the past few weeks, it's a story that is sorely needed.
■ Hipbone Sticking Out is on at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, July 3-6. Tickets from $63 adult, $55 concession, to $43 adult, $35 concession. To book, call Canberra Ticketing on 6275 2700 or visit canberratheatrecentre.com.au