Black Swan presents Barracking for the Umpire 2024 season at Subiaco Arts Centre and regional WA tour

Tanya MacNaughtonPerthNow - Western Suburbs
Ian Wilkes and Jo Morris in Barracking for the Umpire.
Camera IconIan Wilkes and Jo Morris in Barracking for the Umpire. Credit: Daniel J Grant

Two of Ian Wilkes’ great loves collided in 2022 — theatre and footy — when he performed in Andrea Gibbs’ award winning family drama Barracking for the Umpire, inspired by the playwright’s upbringing in footy fanatical country town Donnybrook.

Much like the game’s celebration of hard knocks had forced her own father Geoff into player retirement in the early 1970s — where he went on to become an umpire — Barracking for the Umpire revolves around the Williams family, where retired local legend of the game Doug Williams is suffering from the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), sustained during his playing days.

Testament to the power and heart of Gibbs’ work, with a dash of good fortune, the entire original cast, crew and creatives have returned to “give it another crack” for Black Swan State Theatre Company’s encore season at Subiaco Arts Centre before a regional tour of WA.

Still riding high from being at the MCG with his father to see his beloved Collingwood team win the 2023 AFL Premiership — he has supported the Magpies since cousin Leon Davis played for the black and white — Wilkes needed no convincing to pull on his character Ben’s footy boots again, Doug’s rising AFL star son.

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Ian Wilkes.
Camera IconIan Wilkes. Credit: Supplied

“It’s just one of the best modern Australian plays that speaks about something we all share in Australian culture, footy,” Wilkes says, a Noongar man with connection to the Whadjuk and Ballardong people.

“It’s really close to home for a lot of mob, a lot of the actors on stage and the audience. It hits home.

“It’s a really tight knit family, and it’s a really tight knit story, and it’s truthful … Andrea’s done an incredible job to create a real family on stage so that everyone can connect.”

Wilkes grew up in Maddington, playing for the Maddington Bulls before moving to Ellenbrook, where the risk of getting injured while on the oval became too great for the Aboriginal Theatre WA Academy of Performing Arts graduate’s career as an actor, dancer, director, theatre maker and writer.

“In my junior years, I was playing colts for Maddington and I’ve actually blacked out on the footy oval myself,” the 34 year old recounts.

Ebony McGuire and Ian Wilkes in Barracking for the Umpire.
Camera IconEbony McGuire and Ian Wilkes in Barracking for the Umpire. Credit: Daniel J Grant

“I got kneed in the head by the giant ruckman on the opposing team. All I remember was his knee coming towards my vision and I woke up on the bench about five to 10 minutes later going ‘what’s going on?’

“It’s a lived experience for a lot of footy players and a lot of supporters. We’re trying to navigate it as best we can and the AFL is trying to set a standard, but I think there’s more that can be done. There’s more discussion to have, there’s more research that needs to be done and that’s what this show is speaking on.”

A father of two sons himself, five and 10 years old, Wilkes admits his concerns watching them play Auskick, with his eldest starting competition level footy.

The Williams family in Barracking for the Umpire.
Camera IconThe Williams family in Barracking for the Umpire. Credit: Daniel J Grant

“I love to be a part of shows that can create a social change, otherwise, what the hell am I doing? What are we trying to do?” he says.

“The tour is going to be great. I know that out in the country, there’s a lot of great footy that happens, but there’s this stigma around that country footy is hard footy. I’ve known since I was a kid that these country footy players, they’re a bit more rough and tough. It might be a great thing to take out to the country levels of some of those communities and go ‘yeah, it’s great to be rough and tough but you still have to look after each other’.”

Barracking for the Umpire is at Subiaco Arts Centre, April 23 to May 5.

The regional tour travels to Port Hedland, May 11; Broome, May 18; Karratha, May 23-24; Geraldton, May 29; Mandurah, June 1; Albany, June 6-7; Esperance, June 12; and Margaret River, June 15.

Ticketing information at blackswantheatre.com.au.

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