Roland Carter, from the Raukkan community in the Coorong, was the first Ngarrindjeri man to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force during WWI and fought on the Western Front before being injured and then sent to the Halbmondlager prisoner-of-war camp (known as Half Moon Camp).
In the camp he met ethnologist Leonhard Adam, whose job was to learn about the culture and customs of the ethnic prisoners, and the two struck up a friendship. Although they went their separate ways at the end of the war, an incredible turn of events saw them reconnect many years later in Australia.
Mewei 3027 – based on the pair’s friendship and named after the Ngarrindgeri word for “soul” and Carter’s service number – has been written by playwright Glenn Shea as part of Country Arts SA’s Aboriginal Diggers Project and will have its first readings at Raukkan Town Hall this Sunday and at the Dunstan Playhouse in Adelaide on ANZAC Day.
“It was really very humbling for me, because I’m Ngarrindjeri myself,” Shea says of the experience of creating the play.
“I think the story is important because of the friendship they had in really trying circumstances through World War I and the fact that these two gentlemen found the humanity in each other to go on this journey together.”
As part of the Aboriginal Diggers Project, the playwright has undertaken a residency in Raukkan, to consult with Carter’s family and members of his community, and to gain a better understanding of the country he came from.
His research has also involved talking with Melbourne University Professor Robyn Sloggett, who is writing a book about Leonhard Adam, and scouring archives, including those of the Red Cross, whose services Carter’s mother used to get information about her son during the war.
Julian Meyrick, the director/dramaturg for Mewei 3027, says the “Half Moon Camp” where Carter and Adam met was “more like a cultural camp”, with the prisoners – mainly Muslims – treated much better than those in most POW camps.
“It was a hearts and minds attempt by the Germans to persuade the Empire subjects to change their allegiance away from Britain and to basically go with them, or at least to pursue their own freedom,” he says.
“Some of the things that emerge within the play, in terms of what Leonhard says to Roland about the kind of treatment they [Aboriginal people] get from the British and what it will be like on their return, is actually kind of prophetic.”
Shea adds of the camp: “There were no fences around it … he was allowed to go to church on Sunday, he was allowed to go to the pictures … he was allowed to play soccer.
“They were really treated quite well.”
Mewei 3027 is set in a room within the camp, with the staging to feature objects that records show Carter requested while he was there – including books, such as King Solomon’s Mines, and his favourite music (ragtime and foxtrot) – as well as a gramophone used to record prisoners.
“One of the scenes in the play is where Leonhard shaves Roland – the objects involved in that, the razor and the brush, are all things that Roland actually used,” Meyrick says.
Around 15 years later, when the Nazis came to power, Leonhard Adam found himself in a very different position. Because of his Jewish heritage, he had to escape Germany and ended up in Australia where he was forced to spend time in an internment camp during World War II before being released on parole and embarking on a project at the University of Melbourne researching Aboriginal people’s use of stone.
Although the friends never managed to meet up again, Adam asked his sister-in-law to visit Carter and his family in Raukkan, after which the men corresponded by letter. Adam – who died in 1960, the same year as Carter – also brought some land which he is said to have gifted to the Ngarrindjeri people.
Shea says Carter was an active member of his community when he returned home, introducing things like dances and movies. Both men had children, and Mewei 3027 is being developed with the support of their descendants and the Raukkan community.
While the scale and horror of war is difficult to portray on stage, the intention with the play is that the friendship will act like keyhole into broader events.
“Glenn’s work is partly realistic but partly theatric as well, so how those two things will blend together we can’t say at this stage, but hopefully it will be in such a way that you will get a sense of the epic events that these men went through,” Meyrick says.
“The main focus at the moment is to make the friendship between the two men as authentic as possible.”
There will be a reading of Mewei 3027 at the Raukkan Town Hall on April 22, and at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Dunstan Playhouse at 3pm on April 25. The Adelaide reading will also be followed by a Q&A with members of the creative team. Details here.