Tiddas writer Anita Heiss

Anita Heiss. Photo supplied

'Tiddas' doesn't shy away from difficult conversations while exploring 'contemporary sisterhood'

Anita Heiss says her play looks at First Nations identity and the 'value that we place on the women in our lives'.

When Anita Heiss wrote Tiddas in 2014, she never envisioned that her novel would later be adapted for the stage. Yet, that’s exactly what has happened a decade later. After a successful season in Brisbane last year, the Wiradyuri author and activist prepares for Tiddas to make its Sydney debut at Belvoir St Theatre this week, as part of Sydney Festival’s ‘Blak Out’ series that celebrates First Nations talent and storytelling

Given Tiddas is a generic term that means 'women who are like sisters’, it's an incredibly apt name for a story that Heiss says is about “contemporary sisterhood and how we live that out in our lives today”. 

“[It’s about] the appreciation and value that we place on the women in our lives, whether they're our aunties or our sisters or our close core group of female friends,” Heiss tells Missing Perspectives

The play focuses on five women – three Wiradyuri women and two non-Indigenous women – who have been best friends for decades after going to school together in central New South Wales. They each move to Brisbane over the course of their twenties, and meet monthly to discuss books, relationships and other aspects of their lives. Not shying away from complex topics and issues, the production portrays multidimensional female characters dealing with everything from cultural identity to divorce, IVF and career. Historically, women have often been viewed simply as someone else’s wife or mother. Audiences will see one of the characters grappling with this as she learns to establish a sense of identity beyond this. 

“I use the book club as a setting to look at particular themes and issues around identity, fertility, infidelity, and relationships between husbands and wives and brothers and sisters,” says Heiss. “There are also references to Black Lives Matter, and Aboriginal identity in terms of how we define ourselves as First Nations peoples.” 

While she’s written a combination of fiction and non-fiction in the past, the former allows “more freedom in terms of what you might want to say to a broader audience”. Having said that, Heiss admits she’s taken inspiration from women she’s known throughout her life, and there’s also probably a small bit of her in each Tiddas character. 

The cast of Tiddas at Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney

The cast of Tiddas. Photo by Morgan Roberts.

Interrogating the depiction of Indigenous communities in wider society is an important element of this play. With one of the non-Indigenous characters dealing with substance abuse, Heiss says there was an opportunity to flip the narrative and combat stereotypes. 

“We're looking at issues that quite often First Nations peoples are under the microscope [for]... but this is active in middle class and white Australia as well,” she explains. “That character is a white woman and we see her with the issue as opposed to the Blak person always being portrayed to have all these issues. 

“We don’t have the monopoly on dysfunction but we are the ones under the microscope all the time. So we're just turning the tables.” 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have particularly been the focus of much political, media and social discourse over the past year in the lead up to and after the Voice to Parliament referendum. Going into 2024, the ‘No’ outcome of the referendum weighs heavily on many Indigenous people, and Heiss says the Tiddas play has also been adjusted to include a reference to the referendum. 

Having openly campaigned for the ‘Yes’ vote last year, Heiss says she was “absolutely devastated” after the majority of Australians voted no to a proposal “to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”. 

But “we have to pick ourselves and dust ourselves up and get on with it” she says, “because the world doesn't stop turning”. 

One of the ways Heiss believes non-Indigenous people can show their support towards First Nations communities is by showing up and listening. This play itself is an example.

“I know there's an enormous amount of particularly non-Indigenous people who felt the shame that was the 'No' outcome, and they continue to look for ways to support First Nations peoples and communities,” she says. “I'm sure many of them will see attending things like Tiddas as part of the Blak Out program at Sydney Festival as a way to continue to support, participate and show up for mob… because we still need people to turn up and do things.” 

While Tiddas fundamentally focuses on women and sisterhood, she hopes men equally attend and appreciate the play. She recalls a previous Q&A session from when the play ran in Brisbane, where a male audience member said, “Tonight made me want to ring my female friends and tell them that I appreciate them and value them”. 

“I thought that's a lovely thing for me as a writer to want,” reflects Heiss. 

“All I want is for them [audiences members] to walk away and feel like they want to reach out to their own tiddas and say, ‘I see you, I appreciate you and I’m so pleased you’re in my life'.” 

Tiddas runs from 12 - 28 January 2024 at Belvoir St Theatre. Co-directed by Nadine McDonald-Dowd and Roxanne McDonald, the play stars Louise Brehmer, Lara Croydon, Sean Dow, Roxanne McDonald, Anna McMahon Veronica, Perry Mooney and Kaylah Truth.