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New play focuses on youth suicide

Award-winning stage and television performer Leah Purcell is turning her focus to youth suicide in her latest play 'Brothers Wreck'.
Leah Purcell is opening up a new play based on youth suicide

Leah Purcell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Leah Purcell is hustling, literally abandoning a dress rehearsal to speak to the Weekly about her latest directing gig at one of Sydney’s most prestigious theatres.

“Hustle! Hustle!” she yells. “It’s what I do best! I had last Monday off – my first day off in a year,” she says with a wide grin on her face.

She’s a woman on a mission – Leah talks fast and furiously, imbibing you with her passion for the stage, telling stories, and promoting the work of young indigenous artists. This month she is directing Brothers Wreck at Belvoir Theatre, a play that opens with a suicide, and proceeds to explore the ramifications for the family left behind.

“It’s more of a prevention play, than a suicide story,” Leah says. “It’s a universal issue… people who find loved ones who have killed themselves are left with that image for the rest of their lives.”

The plot line is close to Leah’s heart – as a young girl she developed an alcohol addiction, and later came close to a suicide attempt, explaining that “most of the cast has a connection to a suicide in their past. We had a big cry over it one day, the script is very relatable.”

Brothers Wreck is written by indigenous writer Jada Alberts, and its cast features four indigenous actors, who Leah describes as “brilliant and fabby looking”. 

“I want these guys to have a career,” Leah says. “I hope they dedicate themselves – the talent is there – but the arts industry is bloody hard work,” she adds.

Despite being regular presence on Australian screens and stages for more than two decades, Leah still feels like she needs to prove herself during every new project. ‘We are blessed to be in the entertainment industry, blessed, but it’s very very hard. Ooh, yes it is… I haven’t had any silver platters given to me, not so much as a silver egg flip!” she says.

“I am always working. If I’m not writing, I’m directing. If I’m not directing, I’m acting. If I’m not acting, I’m rehearsing, or writing grant applications. It doesn’t stop, and I don’t have a life outside what I do. But you’ve gotta push yourself… I don’t really know how to sit still.”

Leah uses her late mother and grandmother as inspiration for her work – their repression as black women sharp in her mind. “They never had voices, I figure I’m alive today, so they can be represented – it’s a crime to not do anything.

“There used to be a time when Aboriginals were expected to assimilate into the white community. I think that’s changed now. We can still embrace our ancestors, but we can capitalise on the modern world.”

Beyond the world of the arts, Leah Purcell is a mother and grandmother to two little boys – a role she clearly relishes. “We have them every second weekend – Phew! – I come back to work to get a break, you know,’ she says, ‘they’re great, I love being with them. I figure when I’m dead there will be plenty of time for rest.”

In the opening week of Brothers Wreck, Leah has been awarded the Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright Award, a grant that will help her write her next project – an adaptation of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife.

“Most non-Indigenous Australians are largely sheltered from the lives of Indigenous Australians,” says Hamish Balnaves, Director of the Balnaves Foundation. “This award is about creating the opportunity for Indigenous playwrights to tell their own stories.”   

With that definition, there’s no questioning why the grant was awarded to Leah Purcell. Actor, writer, director, Indigenous advocate… the list goes on.

“I don’t wake up and think ‘I’m Leah the Aboriginal’. But it’s my spirituality; it’s where I come from. I don’t want to piss in my pocket, but I think I can give inspiration to young Indigenous kids – I still have a young person’s spirit, I have a lot of energy to give.”

And with that, she’s off again – hustling.

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