Sunshine Super Girl – the Evonne Goolagong bioplay

By Vanessa Taylor and Jacqueline Doyle

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Her introduction to tennis has perhaps the most humble origins in tennis history, yet she overcame major stumbling blocks to become the No. 1 player in the world.
– International Tennis Hall of Fame

Sunshine Super Girl – The Evonne Goolagong Story depicts the player’s rise from a “little shack with the tin walls and dirt floor” to “the Holy Court of the Holy Grounds” of Wimbledon.

There are plenty of films about tennis – most recently Battle of the Sexes, Borg vs McEnroe and King Richard. But a play about tennis is rare.

Obviously, representing tennis matches on a theatrical stage presents considerable challenges.

The play is performed on a traverse stage with the audience seated on either side of the make-believe court. Projections onto the floor indicate a change of scenes, since most of the audience is watching the play from above. As well, scene changes are made obvious by costume changes, many of which happen on stage.

Goolagong was one of the game’s most graceful, balletic players and the motion of the characters playing mixes tennis with dance. This movement language was originally devised by choreographer Vicki Van Hout and added to by movement director Katrina Olsen.

Stylised tennis movement in the play. Photo: Paz Tassone

“We watched lots of old footage, looked at photographs,” Olsen explains. “We really were mimicking a lot of the movement to learn what that actually is on the body, so from there we could abstract it.”

Ella Ferris, who plays Evonne, studied at the Australian Ballet School before switching to an acting course. But she had never played tennis and knew little about it.  

“I feel a lot of pressure to make sure I was doing her justice,” says Ferris. “She was obviously an amazing player.

“We put a lot of effort into making sure there was technique there; that I wasn’t just swinging my arm around.”

The production features an all First Nations cast. Jax Compton, Lincoln Elliott, Katina Olsen and Kirk Page play multiple roles. Ferris is the third actress to play Evonne, following on from Katie Beckett and Tuuli Narkle.

Ella Ferris as Evonne. Photo: Paz Tassone

Sunshine Super Girl premiered in October 2020 in Griffith, a regional city in the Riverina area of New South Wales. The city was chosen for the first performances as it’s the Wiradjuri country birthplace of Goolagong.

On the city’s edge, between dense housing and paddocks, there is now a tribute Goolagong St.

The play’s pandemic-interrupted tour tripped through 15 stops around Australia before reaching Melbourne two years later than originally scheduled.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley and writer Andrea James.
Photo: Jhuny-Boy Borja

Goolagong Cawley, as she became known after marriage, and her husband Roger Cawley had consulted closely with author Andrea James during the development of Sunshine Super Girl. Goolagong Cawley was also present at some early rehearsals as the production was forming.

But she didn’t actually see the finished production until August of this year. She and Cawley finally saw it at Darwin Entertainment Centre, among an audience of 230 children from all around Australia who were attending the nearby National Indigenous Tennis Carnival.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley at the National Indigenous Tennis Carnival with aspiring tennis players. Photo: NITC

As well as exploring Goolagong’s success, the play touches on some of the difficult issues in her life – childhood fears of being taken away by a black car as part of the stolen generation; racial segregation at the local cinema, racial abuse by opponents; unwanted sexual attention from her coach and guardian Viv Edwards; and being made an honorary white to play in South Africa.

Nonetheless, the play is uplifting and crystalises all the admirable aspects of her life and career..

Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Ash Barty at the 2022 Australian Open. Photo: Getty

These days, Goolagong Cawley is also known as the mentor of a more recent world number 1, Ash Barty.

When Barty won Wimbledon last year she wore a skirt inspired by the Ted Tinling design worn by Goolagong as she beat Margaret Court for the title in 1971.

And it was Goolagong Cawley who presented the champion’s trophy to Barty at this year’s Australian Open, which turned out to be her final slam before her current retirement.

Jax Compton says the cast would love Barty to come to the play. “We knew Ash was around last week writing her memoirs somewhere and I’m thinking, come to the show! She hasn’t seen it yet.”  

Compton jokingly says she might have to spam Barty’s DMs with invitations.

Sunshine Super Girl – the title comes from an English headline about Goolagong’s first Wimbledon win – is both nostalgic and informative. The play grants insights into the champion who is Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

In the zone.
Your hearing changes–like you’re underwater.
Your muscles shift and tighten. Ready for anything.
Your vision is sharp. Every twitch, every flutter.
And when everything aligns, that ball moves in slow motion and comes up to meet you.
Like an old friend.

And when you hit that sweet spot:

It’s like pure heaven.
That ball flies like a bird.
You watch your opponent scramble and before she hits the ball.
You’re there. You know where to be.

Title photo of a Sunshine Super Girl dress rehearsal by Paz Tassone.

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