The trailblazing women behind the razor gang warsJune 12, 2019
There are reminders of the women who ruled the Darlinghurst underworld everywhere. You just need to know where to look to find landmarks such as gang leader Kate Leigh’s former grog shop-turned-cafe in Surry Hills.
This gritty history is highlighted in Razorhurst, a musical directed by Benita de Wit about "trailblazer and unapologetic" gang leaders, Leigh and Tilly Devine, their infamous rivalry and Lillian Armfield – Australia’s first female detective.
Director Benita de Wit, Amelia Cormack (Tilly Devine) and Debora Krizak (Kate Leigh) bring to life Sydney’s gritty history. Credit:Peter Rae
Leigh, known as the Queen of Surry Hills, sold sly grog and drugs from her home. Devine – "the Queen of Woolloomooloo" – ran brothels around Darlinghurst and the Cross. The pair fought for the supremacy of Sydney’s streets through the lethal razor gang wars between 1927 and 1931.
Razorhurst not only tells part of Sydney’s storied past but also provides an opportunity for reflection. It's a chance to "think about the questions of violence against women through the decades, how we have to fight and push to survive, and the language we use to talk about women," de Wit said.
It’s an important set of messages to share, particularly in the era of the #MeToo movement, and the "need for female stories on the stage", De Wit said.
Serendipity played a role in bringing the story to life. Scrolling through social media, De Wit found a cartoon of Kate Leigh and sent it to her friend Andy Peterson with the comment that it could be the basis for something more.
The rest is history.
The play, created by Peterson and Kate Mulley, premiered at Luna Stage in New Jersey last year.
Bringing the show home enables new songs to be introduced and local slang to be reinstated – terms that were modified for an American audience. "Grog" needs no explanation for local audiences, for instance.
Razorhurst showcases the unique talents of local playwrights and actors.
"We’re not looking in our own backyard for ideas and talent," says De Wit. "It’s not that it's not there. Australia has phenomenal writers but they’re going overseas."
Including De Wit, who travels between Australia and the US.
"I think it's down to funding and taking risks on new work. It's pretty bold to take a risk," she says.
Sydney crime figures Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine. Credit:Fairfax Media
One of the challenges in creating a historic play is ensuring the characters are three-dimensional. The show's creators spent hours going through old newspaper archives "finding wonderful quotes, images and mugshots" of the two women, De Wit said.
"We see them as wives, mothers, friends, bosses. They were a part of the community," she said.
"I hope we're doing them justice," De Wit said.
Razorhurst, Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point, June 14 – July 13.
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