On the flight to Palm Island, 65 kilometres north-west of Townsville, the 11-seat Cessna seems to labour through the humid air, occasionally fluttering alarmingly. The island rises suddenly out of the heat haze like a myth.
A Dreaming story tells of a carpet snake that came down the Herbert River. Its body was broken up and the Palm Island group is all that remains of its backbone. It is easy to imagine when viewed from a few hundred metres. As we lose height I can make out a group of children walking across one of the reefs. It is breathtakingly beautiful.
Not all the stories told about this place are so poetic. Often the story that is shouted loudest and longest is the only one that gets heard and remembered. If the storyteller happens to be a police force, a government, or an entire race, then their version will likely drown out all others. Since Palm Island was set up as a place of exile for Aboriginal people, locals have had other people's versions of their story ringing in their ears. These ''official'' stories can turn a peaceful strike over wages into a ''rebellion'', slander an entire community by routinely labelling it the most violent place outside a war zone and, most recently, find that no one could be held responsible for the violent death in a police cell of local man Mulrunji Doomadgee.
In rehearsal … Kylie Doomadgee and Harry Reuben. Photo: Marco Del Grande
Who owns the many stories of Palm Island and who has the right to tell them and under what terms? This is the endlessly complex territory explored in the documentary theatre production Beautiful One Day. A collaboration between Belvoir St Theatre, Ilbijerri Theatre Company and version 1.0, the play has no director but was devised on the island by a creative team, including three local people with little theatrical experience.
At times, the process seems chaotic but the actors and devisers hope the result will give voice to the stories of Palm Island's people - not by shouting more loudly but by delivering them with the quiet voice of authenticity and the goodwill of the islanders.
Some 18 months ago, Paul Dwyer and Rachael Maza made their first trip to Palm Island. Dwyer works with Sydney-based version 1.0 (''an ensemble of artists who make performance through collaboration, investigating and also enacting democracy'') and is also an academic at the University of Sydney's department of performance studies. Maza, from Melbourne, is a founding member of Ilbijerri, Australia's longest-running indigenous theatre company.
There to investigate the creation of a performance piece, they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for.
''Of course, we were apprehensive,'' Dwyer says. ''This place has been trashed in a lot of media. I remember saying, 'Rachael, I haven't worked in an Aboriginal community before. Your antennae will be much more finely tuned than mine. If at any moment you get the sense this is not the right time and is not the right way for the community here to go, just let me know and we'll just tell Belvoir, ''Sorry, it's just not the right way to go''.'''
But, from the moment they set foot on the island, they met only acceptance and encouragement. This was helped in part by Maza's name - well known in indigenous circles - and the fact that she has a family connection to the island. Dwyer benefited by association. As one long-standing islander says, ''We knew Paul was all right because he was with Rachael.''
The two actors travelled by barge. Flying in is associated with the white people who work on the island - particularly the police - something the pair were anxious to avoid. Like everyone who arrives by water, they were confronted immediately by an unmissable symbol of the island's intimate relationship with its past. On the shore next to the wharf are seven large, white-painted rocks. Each bears a plaque commemorating the 1957 strikers whose ''crime'' was to ask for wages. The protest was labelled a rebellion and violently put down by police. The men and their families were banished from the island in chains.
''It astounded me how immediate and present the past was,'' Maza says. ''People telling their stories would very easily go from today to 1957 to 1930. The past lives very much in the present. And it's a past they are extremely proud of because it's a history time after time of fellas standing up and resisting despite the heavy-handed control that was put on Aboriginal people here.''
For the islanders, there is little of the rigid sense of then and now. Twenty-three-year-old Kylie Doomadgee is Mulrunji's niece and one of three Palm Islanders who will appear in the production. The first time we meet, she wears a shirt commemorating the 1957 strike, with the strikers' slogan, ''Go for broke!'' Similar shirts are common wear among islanders. They wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Aboriginal people from some 40 different language groups were sent to Palm Island, their ''offences'' ranging from refusing to work for no wages, having a child to a white man, practising traditional ceremonies or simply being a ''troublemaker''.
Conditions were grim. Men, women and children were separated in dormitories. Life was dictated by the tolling of a bell. Punishments were draconian and arbitrary.
But this history is largely hidden from view, obscured by media stories of deprivation and alcohol-fuelled violence (which is now much reduced after the controversial introduction of alcohol restrictions on the island).
The event most mainland Australians have heard of - the one that became the story of Palm Island in the minds of many - is the death in police custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee. At 10.20am on November 19, 2004, Doomadgee was arrested by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. By 11am Doomadgee was dead on the floor of the police station cell from massive internal injuries. When the autopsy report was released, an angry crowd of islanders burnt down the police station and Hurley's own house. After a series of coronial inquests and court cases, Hurley was cleared of any crime.
Beautiful One Day clearly cannot ignore the events of 2004, but it tries to put them into a historical context that has long been invisible to all but the few people who bother to find out.
Magdalena Blackley, a prominent Palm Island community member, was asked to join the production team as a cultural adviser and also to take a role on stage. She was quick to say yes.
''Hardly anyone knows where we are,'' she says. ''They might have heard recently that there was some sort of riot on Palms but they would have forgotten it by now. They don't know about Palms. How it developed. What happens here. What happened here.
''It's an opportunity to present to people what people have been living with in their past, and what people are living with now, and what sort of people there are on Palm Island.
''I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who think everyone is on Centrelink and that they are not achieving and learning and training Sure, unemployment is high but there is scope for training and scope for moving forward now. There is real opportunity for people. If we can present that past and look to the future in this play it will be fantastic.''
Blackley is a quietly spoken, dignified woman with a mass of curly black hair and an impish smile. We are talking on the deck of her house at Pencil Bay, one of Palm Island's many achingly beautiful beaches. She has lent the house to the actors and devisers to use as a rehearsal room, writing workshop and living space. The table is littered with scripts, notes, laptops, coffee cups, shells from the beach, sunscreen and books on the island. Sheets of butcher's paper hang on the wall, listing the scenes decided on so far. Peacocks wander around the garden.
The discussions around this table by the dozen or so members of the combined companies have been intrinsic to the show's development. So central, in fact, that the deck and table will likely feature in the set design for the final act.
The collaboration process can be fraught with stress. ''We're all making bids for ideas,'' Dwyer says. ''You might make that bid two or three times … and, if it's still not biting, you kind of go away and lick your wounds.
''We've certainly had moments where you can cut the air with a knife and, as a white performer/deviser, I've gone, 'Ah, this is what we mean by race relations right here … My indigenous colleagues are clearly upset here. We need to stop and talk it through and then try and stage those disagreements'.''
Kylie Doomadgee is closer to the story than most, and the process has at times been tough on her. ''Sometimes it's hard for me in rehearsals but I guess when I get angry it helps me get up and do it because it's a story that should be heard,'' she says.
A central part of the process has been to seek the permission of the people whose stories have been incorporated. The group has gone to unusual lengths to ensure local people are included and, for once, are comfortable with the way they are being portrayed.
''I'm very conscious that these people have had microphones and cameras stuck in their faces for years,'' Dwyer says. ''Whether that's lawyers … or police getting statements or journalists or documentary filmmakers.''
Twenty-five-year-old Harry Reuben is the third local taking part in the play. Raised on Palm Island and with family roots there that stretch back to early last century, Reuben is invigorated at the opportunity to tell the Palm Island story.
''There's a sense of excitement in the community,'' he says. ''It's given the stories their voices. It is empowering them. This is not something that has been manipulated or chopped and changed. They are empowering the people of Palm Island through theatre.''
I ask Maggie Blackley what she would like audiences at Belvoir St to take away from the play. For a long time she is quiet as she settles on the right words. The silence stretches and is broken only by the waves lapping at the beach and the sound of a peacock pecking at half a coconut shell in the nearby brush.
Finally, she deliberately and quietly articulates her thoughts: ''Palm Island people are forward-thinking people, Palm Island people are resilient and Palm Island people would welcome opportunities to develop employment for their families … It's fantastic, please come over to Palm Island.''
A proud and troubled past
1914 The Queensland government seizes the island from its traditional owners.
1918 The survivors of a cyclone that demolished the Hull River Mission on the mainland are transferred to the island, which is established as a place to punish and isolate indigenous people.
1930 Island superintendent Robert Curry shoots and wounds the island's doctor and his wife, and murders his own children. Aboriginal man Peter Prior shoots and kills Curry on the order of white residents. He is subsequently charged with murder but later acquitted.
1957 Seven Palm Islanders and their families are banished from the island after leading a strike demanding wages and improved conditions. They include Cathy Freeman's mother.
1985 The Queensland government gives jurisdiction over the island to the Palm Island Community Council.
1997 The Queensland government apologises and hands over compensation in the "stolen wages" legal campaign mounted by a group of Palm Islanders.
2004 Mulrunji Doomadgee dies in police custody.
Beautiful One Day is at Belvoir from November 17.