Leah Purcell

Laugh and cry … Leah Purcell plays Ruby Langford Ginibi. Photo: Marco Del Grande

'I'm not digging holes or skinning rabbits, but this show is hard work. It will be intense, so I need the audience to come on the journey with me - I can't do all the work by myself,'' Leah Purcell says.

''But I promise there'll be a lot of laughs in it, too. I'm an actor who chases the audience. I will never let them get bored. They will laugh and there will be a tear.''

Purcell is one of Australia's most acclaimed stage and television actors. Critically lauded in last year's sellout Belvoir production of The Dark Room, she has recently impressed again in the ABC television series Redfern Now, produced by Blackfella Films. Her one-woman autobiographical show, Box the Pony, wowed audiences at Belvoir in 1999 and later at the Sydney Opera House and the Barbican in London.

Now Purcell returns to Belvoir to direct and star in another one-woman play, Don't Take Your Love to Town, adapted from the autobiography of the same title by Ruby Langford Ginibi, an Aboriginal elder known for her soulful and frank writings and lectures on indigenous history.

Purcell will play Ruby in a two-hour monologue, with help from musician Nardi Simpson of the Stiff Gins and Lorna Munro, a 24-year-old Redfern painter who depicts Ruby's life story in eight paintings to be hung on stage.

''This is such a superwoman's story I needed more than one woman to tell it,'' Purcell says. ''Aunty Ruby was a strong woman, a big woman with a massive laugh. She was loud and proud, but it will still be a classy night in the theatre.''

Ruby Langford Ginibi, who died last year aged 77, was a Bundjalung woman, born on a mission in northern NSW. The eldest of three sisters, her mother left the family when Ruby was six, leaving her father to raise her with help from aunties and uncles. She was bright and wanted to be a writer, but she left school at 15 to earn money to care for her younger siblings.

''She went on to have an amazing life,'' Purcell says. ''She loved four men and had nine children she raised on her own. She was always back and forth between Sydney and the bush, straddling two cultures.

''In the bush, mostly near Coonabarabran, Ruby lived in tents or tin sheds working as a fencer, roo-skin pegger and scrub clearer. She lived a hard life but she always kept her tent spotless and she kept all her children with her, teaching them to read and write,'' says Purcell, who first met Ruby when she voiced the audio book of Don't Take Your Love to Town in 1998.

In her 50s, Ruby finally settled in Alexandria and bought a typewriter. She published Don't Take Your Love to Town in 1988. It won the Australian Human Rights Commission's human rights award for literature. In 2005, she won the NSW Premier's Literary Awards special award and her books are now studied in high schools and universities. ''She tried to bring about understanding of indigenous culture and she touched many students,'' Purcell says. ''This play is to honour Aunty Ruby and celebrate the national treasure that she is.''


Previews November 29 and 30. Opens December 1-January 6.

Tuesday 7pm, Wednesday to Friday 8.15pm, Saturday 2.15pm and 8.15pm, Sunday 5.15pm. Belvoir Downstairs Theatre, 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills.

TICKETS belvoir.com.au, 9699 3444, $32-$42.

TRAVEL A short walk from bus and train services at Central Station. Limited one-hour street parking is available.

SHOW The life and times of Ruby Langford Ginibi in her own words.

STARS Leah Purcell.

DIRECTOR Leah Purcell.