Actor, mentor, teacher

Born: 1967 or 1968;

Died: August 11, 2019

NINGALI Lawford-Wolf, who has died suddenly aged 52 following complications from an asthma attack, was an iconic actor, and in Australia was one of the most powerful

indigenous voices of her generation. This was clear in her performance in The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company’s staging of Kate Grenville’s 2005 novel, which cut to the heart

of Australia’s colonial past and its abuses of the indigenous Aborigine people.

While the play, which was adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell, focused on a white émigré, Lawford-Wolf’s performance as its narrator, Dhirrumbin, became its conscience, as she bore witness to how her community was effectively forced into exile at home.

Having already been a success in Australia, the run of The Secret River at Edinburgh International Festival created further waves, bringing home a piece of hidden history which put Lawford-Wolf at its centre. Onstage throughout what turned out to be her final role, she was a charismatic presence, full of a raging calm born of experience. “This play, to me, is a story of healing,” she said in 2016. “It’s trying to reconcile the atrocities of the past.”

Read Neil Cooper's interview with Kate Grenville

The hangover of colonialism in Australia still bites deep, as Lawford-Wolf experienced first-hand in 2016. One Saturday night in Sydney after she had been at work on the play, a succession of four taxi drivers refused to stop for her, despite her being the only person at the rank.

There were as many resonances here, one suspects, as there were when Lawford-Wolf appeared in Rabbit-Proof Fence, a 2002 film about three mixed-race Aboriginal girls who escape from a native settlement and embark on a 1,500-mile trek to rejoin their families.

Its depiction of the Australian government’s historical policy of removing children from their families and institutionalising them as what became known as the “stolen generations” echoed the experience of Lawford-Wolf’s father, who, aged four, had been taken to the institution depicted in the film.

All this fed into Lawford-Wolf’s work in a way that saw her artistically empowered. Not for nothing did Phillip Noyce, the director of Rabbit-Proof Fence, call her “the grand dame of female indigenous performers”.

Read Neil Cooper's review of The Secret River

While there is no official record of her birth, Ningali Josie Lawford was born in Wangkatjungka under a tree at Christmas Creek Cattle Station in the far north Kimberley region of Western Australia to her stockman father and domestic worker mother, as a member of the Walmadjari people. She grew up speaking three indigenous languages – Gooniyandi, Walmajarri and Wangkatjungka – and went to a school on the station before winning a scholarship to attend boarding school in Perth, Western Australia. An exchange trip to America saw her find common ground with the Native American community.

She trained as a dancer in Sydney with the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre and Bangarra Dance Theatre before taking up her first acting job in 1990 in the indigenous musical, Bran Nue Dae, and later appeared in the film version of the show in 2009. She also appeared in Jeremy Sims’ film, Last Cab to Darwin, as the romantic interest of a taxi driver with terminal cancer, for which she was nominated as best actress in a leading role by the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts.

Her first appearance on stage in Edinburgh was in 1995, when her autobiographical solo show, Ningali, was a hit on the Fringe.

Through song, dance and satire, it illustrated Lawford-Wolf’s ongoing struggle to maintain her Aboriginal identity in mainstream Australia.

It had been inspired by advice from a grandparent after she left Australia, who encouraged her to succeed on her own terms, but to hold on to her language as the essence of her being.

Other solo shows included Windmill Baby, about an elderly Aboriginal woman returning to the cattle station where she was born.

It won the 2003 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award and toured the world. There was also an improvised play performed with Australian-Vietnamese actor Hung Le, which saw the pair exchange race-based jokes in a taboo-busting work that at moments discomforted audiences.

Lawford-Wolf was an ambassador of the Mandalah Foundation, a charity that provides scholarships and accommodation for indigenous students. She worked as an Aboriginal and Islander Education Officer at Broome Senior High School, and became a director of the Kimberley Agriculture and Pastoral Company.

This sense of community fed into her work as an actor. She was involved in the development of The Secret River from the start, and had played in it for the last four years, touring Australia and playing at the Adelaide Festival prior to the production’s Edinburgh run.

Anyone privileged enough to have seen her on stage or screen will have been captivated by her quietly powerful presence that continued to push boundaries to the end.

Ningali Lawford-Wolf is survived by her partner Joe Edgar, children Jaden, Rosie, Alexander, William and Florence, and grand-children Zavia and Mia.