Robert J. Merritt

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bob Merritt
Robert James Merritt

DiedMay 2011 (aged 66)

Robert James Merritt (1945 – May 2011), known as Bob Merritt or Bobby Merritt and credited as Robert J. Merritt, was an Aboriginal Australian writer and activist. He is especially known for his play The Cake Man, and for founding the Eora Centre for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Early life, family and education[edit]

Merritt was born in 1945[1] into a large Wiradjuri family, on Erambie Mission, near Cowra, New South Wales.[2][3]

He had a son named Robert.[4]


Merritt wrote the play The Cake Man in 1974,[1] when he was serving time for a minor offence in Bathurst Gaol, during the time of the riots in the prison.[3] Julian Meyrick, Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, described it as being "about the mission experience for Indigenous Australians, and the indignity, injustice and often outright exploitation that came from being 'protected' by white Australians with little knowledge and less interest in the traditional culture their arrival had near-fatally disrupted", and the style as "a beautifully nuanced realism".[5] The play was first performed at the Black Theatre Arts and Culture Centre in Redfern on 12 January 1975, directed by Bob Maza.[6] In 1977 a production directed by George Ogilvie was performed at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre in 1977, making it the first play by an Indigenous Australian person to be presented by professional actors at a mainstream Australian venue.[3] When later performed at the World Theatre Festival in Denver, Colorado in 1982, it was met with standing ovations.[7] Brian Syron, who took the lead role in the first production,[6] reprised the role for the 1977 staging, while Justine Saunders played the leading female character, Ruby.[8] Saunders again played Ruby in 1982,[9] while Syron was the director. Syron and Merritt formed the Aboriginal Theatre Company with the sole function of producing this play (although there were later attempts by Syron to create an company for Aboriginal performers).[10]

In 1983 Merritt co-wrote a film noir with director Ken Quinnell entitled The City's Edge, which never had a theatrical release in Australia,[2] although it did in the UK.[11]

In July 1984 Merritt established the Eora Centre for the Visual and Performing Arts in Chippendale, Sydney,[7] with the purpose of providing training in the arts for Aboriginal students[12] as an alternative to NIDA and the Australian Film and Television School.[2] He was consultant producer on a documentary film about the centre, Eora Corroboree (1985), the first in a series of documentaries called Black Futures,[13][14] with David Gulpilil and his Maningrida dancers contributing to the soundtrack.[15][16][7] The film earned an AWGIE nomination, and was selected as the official Australian entry in major film festivals in Scottsdale, Arizona, the Paris Film Festival, and the Cinéma du Réel.[17]

The film Short Changed, made in 1985,[18] was based on a script written by him, and the cast included Eora students.[2] The film was directed by George Ogilvie (who was a staff member at Eora, and later co-directed Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). NFSA curators described it as a depiction of "the daily struggle for dignity of a contemporary black man caught between two worlds", and called it "a successful collaboration between an Indigenous writer and a non-Indigenous director". The film had a late cinema release,[12] in November 1986,[1] and was nominated in five categories in the AFI Awards.[2]

He moved away from Redfern, but remained a grassroots activist, using his writing to promote his ideas of how dispossession has affected Aboriginal people, especially city-dwellers. In life and work he embodied a positive image of Aboriginal people.[2]

Other roles[edit]

In 1977, Merritt was working for the Aboriginal Legal Service in Sydney.[3]

In November 1986, he was appointed chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board,[2] the first Aboriginal person on the Australia Council, and occupied the role until 1989.[19]

He was chair of the Festival of Pacific Arts in 1988.[19]


Director George called Merritt "an extraordinary talent".[2]

In 1986 he won the FAW Patricia Weickhardt Award to an Aboriginal Writer.[1]

Corroboree Eora earned an AWGIE nomination,[17] while Short Changed earned five AFI nominations, one of which was for Merritt's screenplay.[2]

Later years and death[edit]

Merritt, who was known to family and friends as Bobby, lived in Erskineville, Sydney, before his death in May 2011, aged 66. His funeral service was held at St Mary's Catholic Church in Erskineville on 20 May.[4]



  1. ^ a b c d "Robert James Merritt". AustLit. 7 February 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Chipperfield, Mark. "Short Changed: About". Ozmovies. Much of the biographical information is from an article by Mark Chipperfield, "A playwright creates his 'palace of dreams" published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 November 1986, and reproduced in this source. Retrieved 9 December 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d Brisbane, Katharine (14 May 1977). "The blacker side of life in Australia". The Bulletin. John Haynes and J.F. Archibald. 099 (5057): 66. ISSN 0007-4039. Retrieved 9 December 2021 – via Trove.
  4. ^ a b "Merritt, Robert James". Weekly Times Now. Originally published in The Daily Telegraph. 18 May 2011. Retrieved 10 December 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. ^ Meyrick, Julian (1 February 2018). "The great Australian plays: The Cake Man and the Indigenous mission experience". The Conversation. Retrieved 10 December 2021.
  6. ^ a b "The Cake Man". AusStage. Retrieved 10 December 2021.
  7. ^ a b c Kruger, Debbie. "Bob Merritt's message of understanding". The Weekend Australian. Retrieved 9 December 2021 – via Debbie Kruger website.
  8. ^ "The Cake Man: Bondi Pavilion". AusStage. Retrieved 16 December 2021.
  9. ^ Moran, A.; Keating, C. (2009). The A to Z of Australian Radio and Television. The A to Z Guide Series. Scarecrow Press. p. 330. ISBN 978-0-8108-7022-2. Retrieved 15 December 2021.
  10. ^ Kearney, Briann; Syron, Brian (2016). Kicking Down the Doors. pp. 105–6. ISBN 978-1-329-91764-4. Retrieved 15 December 2021.
  11. ^ Stratton, David (1990). The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan MacMillan. p.205.
  12. ^ a b Byrnes, Paul; Moreton, Romaine. "Short Changed (1985): Curator's notes, and Secondary curator's notes". Australian Screen Online. National Film & Sound Archive. Retrieved 9 December 2021.
  13. ^ "Eora corroboree". ACMI. Retrieved 9 December 2021.
  14. ^ Hair, Margaret (2010). Jimmy Chi: Hybridity and Healing. University of New England (Masters by Research). pp. 31–34. Retrieved 16 December 2021. PDF
  15. ^ Le Moignan, Michael; Gulpilil; Lucas, Larry; Sokol, Yuri; Eora Centre for the Visual and Performing Arts; Miningida Dancers (1985), Eora corroboree: a film, Corroboree Films, retrieved 9 December 2021
  16. ^ "Eora Corroboree". AIATSIS. Retrieved 9 December 2021.
  17. ^ a b "Aboriginal film wins nomination". The Canberra Times. Vol. 60, no. 18, 523. 19 June 1986. p. 5 (the good times). Retrieved 10 December 2021 – via National Library of Australia.
  18. ^ "Short Changed (1985): Overview". Australian Screen Online. National Film & Sound Archive. Retrieved 9 December 2021.
  19. ^ a b "Merritt, Robert (1945–2011)". Indigenous Australia. 2021. Retrieved 10 December 2021.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]