Jack Davis AM BEM 1917-2000

Jack Davis

Jack Davis

Author, actor and activist Jack Leonard Davis was born on 11 March 1917 in Perth, Western Australia.

Words fascinated him; he wrote his first poetry at 14 and continued to scribble verse on scraps of paper.

From 1966 until 1971 he was director of the Aboriginal Centre in Perth, and in 1971 he was the first chairman of the Western Australian Aboriginal Lands Trust.

 

Australia’s Aboriginal Poet Laureate

Katharine Brisbane, whose Currency Press published most of Jack Davis’s plays, described him as Australia's ‘most influential black playwright, although he was not the first. He inspired other Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to use the stage as a forum for communicating with white people. He understood storytelling and he was always political, whether writing poetry, articles for journals or plays – but with plays he found he could get at people's emotions.’

Jack Davis was 61 years old when his first full length play, Kullark, premiered at the tiny Titan Theatre in Perth on 21 February 1979. Kullark drew on his six decades of life experience; it also marked the evolution of Indigenous oral story-telling tradition into a new, written form. But Kullark was not the first Indigenous play staged in Australia – that was Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers in 1971 – nor was it Davis’s first experience as a writer.

Author, actor and activist Jack Leonard Davis was born on 11 March 1917 in Perth, Western Australia, the fourth child in a family of eleven. Both his parents, he recalled, were great storytellers. He spent his early childhood in the Western Australian mill town of Yarloop, where his father worked in the timber mill. After his primary schooling, Davis and his siblings were sent to the harsh Moore River Native Settlement. Its abject brutality would inform much of his later writing. His hobby was reading his only book – an English dictionary. Words fascinated him; he wrote his first poetry at 14 and continued to scribble verse on scraps of paper. He also developed an interest in the local Nyungar Aboriginal language, which he eventually mastered, along with a deep knowledge of the tribal culture.

After many years as an itinerant worker and stockman in the northwest, Davis returned to Perth, where he became involved in Aboriginal causes. From 1966 until 1971 he was director of the Aboriginal Centre in Perth, and in 1971 he was the first chairman of the Western Australian Aboriginal Lands Trust. He was also able to devote more time to his writing. His first book, an anthology of poetry called The First-Born, was published in 1970; excerpts were recorded by actor Leonard Teale and released in 1973 – the first Aboriginal poetry on record. Jagardoo: Poems from Aboriginal Australia followed in 1978. From 1972 until 1977 Davis was managing editor of the Perth-based Aboriginal Publications Foundation. Identity, its quarterly journal, became the most important and influential Aboriginal ‘voice’ in Australia.

Media Gallery

Photograph courtesy Performing Lines

Biographical references

Maryrose Casey: Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre,University of Queensland Press, 2004
Keith Chesson: Jack Davis – A Life Story, Dent, 1988
Jack Davis: A Boy’s Life, Magabala Books, 1991
Adam Shoemaker: ‘Jack Davis’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995