Lillian Crombie and Ningali Lawford-Wolf to receive Equity Lifetime Achievement Awards

Lillian Crombie and Ningali Lawford-Wolf.

Indigenous performers Lillian Crombie and the late Ningali Lawford-Wolf have been voted joint recipients of the 10th annual Equity Lifetime Achievement Award.

Australian actor, writer and director Wayne Blair was among the 32 members of the Equity National Performers’ Committee who selected Lillian and Ningali for this year’s award.

“Their rich and varied careers have been observed by generations of First Nations performers coming behind them. They have led by example and paved the way for so many others to follow in their footsteps,” says Blair.

A proud woman from the Pitjintjara/Yungkuntjara Nation, Crombie left Port Pirie in South Australia as its best classical ballerina and landed in Sydney in the 1970s to dance her way into Black performance, politics and culture.

Her career as one of Australia’s leading performers followed with roles in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, The Secret Life of Us, children’s series Double Trouble and in many productions including Belvoir’s ‘Conversations with The Dead’ and ‘Black Mary’ and Riverside’s ‘Rainbow’s End’.

Australian playwright and artistic director Wesley Enoch describes Crombie as a pioneer of theatre who has paved the way for so many Indigenous stories to be told.

“Her amazing comic timing is legendary. Who could ever resist the way she winks an eye and flashes her smile and has you laughing while she delivers a huge life lesson,” says Enoch.

“Working with Lillian is like a rollercoaster where she has you guessing in the rehearsal room but when in front of an audience she never fails to capture hearts and minds.”

Blair says: “Lillian is considered by close friends and family a quiet achiever who has always lived humbly and dreamt big.

“She has survived a difficult past as a member of the Stolen Generation, embraced her legacy and forged a new one as an esteemed artist, a mother and grandmother, a supportive unionist and always a survivor.”

Inspired by her own grief upon her brother’s passing, she founded the Lillian Crombie Foundation to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in financial hardship make one of the most important spiritual journeys of their life to travel home for the funerals of loved ones.

Crombie says she was “somewhat taken aback” when she found she was being honoured by her peers. “When it was a joint award with my sister Ningali Lawford-Wolf, I was emotional. I couldn’t believe it. There is that spiritual bond with her and I’m glad to share the spotlight,” she says.

A Wangkatjungka woman from the Kimberley in Western Australia, Ningali Lawford-Wolf began her performance career as a dancer with Sydney’s Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre, before moving on to the Bangarra Dance Theatre and then forging a career as one of Australia’s most acclaimed artists of stage and screen.

She won awards for her one-woman theatre show ‘Ningali’, which portrayed through dance, song and satire her struggle to maintain her identity as an Aboriginal woman in mainstream Australia, as well as for productions of ‘Aliwa’, ‘Uncle Vanya’ and ‘Jandamarra’. She was involved in the development of the Sydney Theatre Company’s acclaimed production of ‘The Secret River ‘and Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel of the Australian frontier wars.

Lawford-Wolf was also well known for her  film career including Rabbit-Proof Fence, Bran Nue Dae and Last Cab to Darwin.

Offstage Lawford-Wolf was a director of the Indigenous-owned Kimberley Agriculture and Pastoral Company, which took control of more than 700,000 hectares of cattle country earlier this year. She saw her role as a chance to improve opportunities for the Kimberley’s traditional owners.

Lawford-Wolf passed away on August 11 in Edinburgh, where she was touring with the Sydney Theatre Company.

“Her charm and curious mind were married to her outrageous sense of adventure and family,” says Enoch. “She was a fearless champion, an excitable friend, a loyal advocate and an actor who transformed the landscape. I believe that Indigenous theatre is where it is today partly because of her contribution. She will be sadly missed and I send thanks to the spirits that we got to see her work and experience her life.”

Equity president Chloe Dallimore says Lawford-Wolf was one of the most talented and respected members of the performer family. “She was a community leader and advocate for the rights and interests of Indigenous people throughout Australia. Her loss has been felt widely and deeply by her peers”.

Both will be honoured at an Awards Ceremony in Adelaide in December.

Ningali Lawford-Wolf’s family have given permission for the use of her name and image in this article.