Leah Purcell - Telling Aboriginal Stories

Leah Purcell’s life is a true rags-to-riches story. The acclaimed Aboriginal actress, singer, and filmmaker rose from poverty in Australia’s outback to become a household name in her country.

Growing up in rural Queensland, Purcell wore thrift-store clothes and spent evenings watching her mother stagger home from the pub. Her father, a Caucasian boxing teacher, had a Caucasian wife and children but fathered six children with Purcell’s mother, an Aboriginal woman from the Goa Gungurri Wakka Wakka tribe. As the youngest, Purcell learned how to defend herself—and boosted the habit by boxing with her father’s students.

Soon, she was performing in plays at the Aboriginal mission where the family lived. Becoming a single mother at age 18 didn’t slow her down. At 20—fleeing a violent boyfriend and her own alcohol habit—Purcell moved with her daughter Amanda to Brisbane. In weeks, she was singing in a band, starring in the Aboriginal musical Bran Nue Dae, and hosting on Australia’s television music channel, RED.

But for Purcell, described as “a screaming ball of fire” by Queensland’s Courier Mail, that was just a start. Acting gigs in two television dramas, “Police Rescue” and “Fallen Angels,” led to a role in the acclaimed 2001 Australian film Lantana, where her bantam feistiness was pitted against the heavyweight talent of Geoffrey Rush.

Around the same time, she began performing Box the Pony, a one-woman show that examines black-white tensions in rural Australia through the lens of her own childhood. Purcell calls it her “corroborree”—an Aboriginal word for a festival of storytelling. A central theme was the relationship with her alcoholic mother. “I saw how she escaped from her sadness, and if I had to put her to bed at four in the morning, so be it,” Purcell told Queensland’s Sunday Mail. Her prizewinning book of the play is now on school curricula.

More recently, Purcell helmed a project called Black Chicks Talking, in which Aboriginal women—prompted by lively questions from Purcell—explore their cultural heritage. The project led Purcell to begin writing the life story of her grandmother, Daisy, one of Australia’s “stolen generation” of Aboriginal children kidnapped by the state and put in a foster home.

Now 33, Purcell is clearly on a roll. “The ancestors must be putting words into my mouth,” she told The Age last year. “I say good on them, keep it coming.”