Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

10/02/2012 - 11/02/2012

The Basement -return season, Auckland

07/03/2013 - 10/03/2013

BATS Theatre, Wellington

13/02/2012 - 16/02/2012

La Mama, Melbourne, Australia

16/02/2013 - 03/03/2013

Auckland Fringe 2013

NZ Fringe Festival 2012

Production Details

A poignant tale full of black humour  

Written and directed by Arthur Meek, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated young playwrights, Dark Stars is a solo play starring Jonathan Council, who portrays a version of his own life journey.  

In seeking his big acting break, Council is propelled by misfortune to a tiny island in the Pacific where he unearths the forgotten story ofAustralasia’s popular Black Minstrel, Irving Sayles.

Dark Stars weaves together the stories of two African-Americans living a hundred years apart in an examination of racist humour and the price paid for lusting after fame at the expense of dignity.

Sayles was an entertainer with one of the largest minstrel companies in the midWestern USproviding audiences with stereotypical presentations of African American culture. After the Civil War in 1888 and aged just 16, he fled toAustralia.  He subsequently became a well loved figure on the Australian stage moving to New Zealand to continue his career in vaudeville until his untimely death on a Christchurch street in 1914.

“This work has been a true collaboration with Jonathan”, says Meek, “He wanted to bring to life the story of Irving Sayles who was a hugely talented comedic entertainer whose humour was self-deprecating and racist, a product of the segregated world he lived in”.

Dark Stars premiered on Waiheke Island in December 2011 and plays at:

The Basement, Auckland
February 10 and 11 2012, 7PM  

before heading toWellington for The New Zealand Fringe Festival 2012

Bats Theatre, Wellington
February 13 – 16 2012, 8pm 


LA MAMA, Faraday St, Carlton, Melbourne 
16 Feb – 3 Mar 

Auckland Fringe runs from 15 February to 10 March 2013. For more Auckland Fringe information go to www.aucklandfringe.co.nz  

7th – 10th March, 8:30pm
Venue: The Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Avenue, Auckland CBD 
Tickets: $15 / Concessions $12
Bookings: iTicket – www.iticket.co.nz or 09 361 1000   


Unpolished but genuine

Review by Heidi North 08th Mar 2013

Dark Stars is a deeply personal solo show preformed by Jonathan Council. Although written and directed by Arthur Meek, this is clearly a collaborative effort as it interweaves the tale of Irving Sayles, an African-American performer who one hundred years ago went to Australia and became a star, with the story of Council’s own life.

Council is also an African-American fame-seeker who went to Australia and later New Zealand seeking stardom. Their stories, while being a century apart, are uncannily similar, and it’s easy to see why Jonathan Council finds great affinity in Sayles.

While directed by Meek, at several points it feels more self-devised. At one point Council tells us a story about the rehearsal process and what Meek asked him to do. This level of intimacy, along with the personal nature of the performance, is undoubtedly brave, yes, but it can also have the effect of making the audience uncomfortable. How much is too much? How close is too close?

The transformations between Sayles and Council are demonstrated mostly through the use of the large cut-out figurines of movie stars on the set, and changes in lighting, and Council is a dedicated performer of both himself and Sayles. But I wonder if, by stepping back a little, the team could have gleaned more pathos from the performance. 

The show has a feeling of catharsis, as Council relives his own dreams, hopes and dashed ambitions along with Sayles’s own. However, while both men end up in New Zealand due to immigration issues (heart breaking in both cases), their stories diverge at the end. Sayles, despite all his fame, dies prematurely from an enlarged heart, and is buried in a low-key Christchurch grave in; Council finds something else in his exile: Waiheke Island and the true meaning of the stars. He finds his own bliss, and that is a genuinely lovely thing to share. The audience are touched.

It may not be the most polished performance, but it’s genuine.


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Dignity sacrificed in the quest for fame

Review by Andrew Fuhrmann 02nd Mar 2013

What does it mean that practically all of the hundred or so characters past and present from Neighbours have their own Wikipedia page but Irving Sayles, at one time among the most-famous entertainers in Australia, gets bupkis? That dark stars are indeed hard to see? 

Sayles was an African-American performer who, in 1888, at the age of just 16, toured Australia with a minstrel company. Like many black Americans who toured here at that time, he decided to stay, becoming a draw on the Tivoli Circuit. 

In this fascinating one-man show, Jonathan Council, also an African-American performer with an ambition to emigrate, compares and contrasts his own life story with Sayles’, bringing out several coincidences, and dwelling on some telling distinctions. [More


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Balance needed to light up Dark Stars

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 16th Feb 2012

Dark Stars is a solo play of great potential that despite Jonathan Council’s energetic and attacking performance never quite takes off. It mixes the film, stage and TV career of Jonathan Council with the biography of another African American performer who left the USA, aged 16, for Australia (and later New Zealand) in 1888 and became a star performer on the halls singing coon songs in the then popular minstrel shows.

Irving Sayles, singer, dancer, acrobat, and comedian, married a white, English born woman and he died on stage in Christchurch of a heart problem in 1914. Like many of his fellow minstrel performers he decided to stay in Australia where he no doubt faced some racial prejudice but nothing like the prejudice he would have faced back in his home state of Illinois.

He left the U.S. and found freedom; Jonathan Council left looking for stardom and fame and came close when he landed a role in a big Hollywood movie being made in Australia but it came to naught when he visited New Zealand and the Australian Immigration Service wouldn’t let him back and so he ended up on Waiheke and met playwrightArthur Meek.

The two stories are cleverly intertwined and often funny as he talks to the large cut-out figures that dot the stage: the Statute of Liberty, a TV camera, Cher, Liz Taylor, and Sayles and his stage partner Charles Pope. On opening night Jonathan Council overestimated the size of the Bats auditorium and underestimated the shattering power of his voice. When he finds the right balance, it will be a riveting performance and fascinating play.  


For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


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Unrealised potential

Review by John Smythe 14th Feb 2012

This production reinforces my belief that New Zealand actors are world leaders in making solo shows. Bruce Mason kicked the genre off with The End of the Golden Weather (1959), Jacob Rajan revitalised it with Krishnan’s Dairy (1997) and over the last couple of decades graduands of Toi Whakaari: N Z Drama School have added many ingeniously created 20-minute solos to the ever-growing lexicon, some of which have grown into bigger works that hit the Fringe touring circuit. 

Kiwi actors also grow up well aware of other cultures and becomes naturally adept at adopting their accents.  And in these financially straitened times, more and more stage plays require our actors to play multiple characters to make a production viable.

American actor Jonathan Council, then, has many hard acts to follow in this blend of his own life story to date with that of famed ‘Black Minstrel’ Irving Sayles, who wowed white audiences in Australia and New Zealand with painfully racist humour back in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Commissioned by Council, Dark Stars is written and directed by Arthur Meek. With the visual aid of cardboard cut-outs of his mother, Sayles, Liz Taylor, Sidney Poitier, the Statue of Liberty and himself, Council switches between his story and Sayles’ story, impersonating the flamboyant Sayles and other characters in the process.

On opening night at Bats, Council had not tuned into the pitch of the theatre. He projected so loudly – especially in the Sayles sequences – that, combined with his tendency to run words together, a lot of the text was rendered unintelligible. It may have been because of this that the juxtapositions of the 2 stories seemed clumsy and poorly structured.  

Much of the stories are told rather than shown. Sayles the showman is not offered in full performance mode, as a singer, dancer and acrobat. It is hard to discern when he is speaking as himself and as his ‘coon’ character. We don’t get to experience his act from an audience perspective; instead we are told how Australian and NZ audiences responded and invited to ponder the incipient racism of the whole concept (something we have contemplated the complexities of a lot more deeply in coming to terms with the humour of Billy T James).

Council’s inability to pitch or pronounce an Australian or New Zealand accent, apart from saying “mate” a lot, is probably a function of how little Americans are exposed to other cultures in their formative years and at impressionable ages. Nevertheless it is a skill we have come to expect from anyone who takes on work that requires it.

That the Sayles routine about his Aboriginal wife which culminates in his dining out on “cold mother-in-law” should leave us bewildered rather than shocked – given it ticks just about every box for culturally offensive comedy – sums up where this production fails. There is no hint of our being provoked to laugh at things we should not, which surprises me given the involvement of Arthur Meek(c.f. The Lonesome Buckwhips).  

There are poignant moments in Council’s own story, regarding the barriers placed in the way of his realising his dream of stardom. And the ‘dark star’ word-play is amusing, being apt for Council in its ‘hard to see’ mode, and for Sayles as a popular performer whose true self was eclipsed by his public persona.  

The tagline suggests the choice for both men has been between fame or freedom. But there is little suggestion that Council was being asked to demean himself or compromise his integrity in order to get work, even when cast as a transsexual prostitute in an episode of Crime Story. This does produce a good gag, however, in reference to his mother’s opinion of acting as a profession.

Somewhere in Dark Stars there is a blend of stories that could draw us in through empathy and provoke us into confronting our own racism, as individuals or as a nation. But as performed last night, that potential was not realised.  


John Smythe February 16th, 2012

Your final comment is a little ambiguous, Jepha, re which show you preferred … I was much more engaged by Silent Night because we shared her experience rather than just heard about it.  Another reality lurked beneath the brave face she put on.

I agree it’s not fair to expect American actors to master the NZ accent given their lack of exposure to it in their formative years – I just find it interesting that for any NZ actor hoping to make a living in the profession in NZ, mastering American accents is a prerequisite.  Are we better or worse off for that? 

Jepha Krieg February 16th, 2012

I was there on opening night and understood every word he said? I didn't think he was over projecting at all.
Obviously a man with an American accent isn't going to be able to adopt a Kiwi accent but I feel he captured the cadence well. 

Naturally the stories are told, it's a monolouge given by a story teller?

I unfortunately only have one other show to compare this to,Silent Night which was at BATS over Christmas, I feel this show was more personal and paced better. There was also much more control over how we swung from one emotion to the next.

John Smythe February 14th, 2012

The more I think about it the more I feel that had Jonathan Council genuinely talked to us - with the same sincerity and connection that he greeted us and farewelled us - my take on the stories and the style of their telling might have been entirely different.

nik smythe February 14th, 2012

This review, in comparison to mine, raises an issue about perceived rules in theatre.  I never regarded Council's portrayals of Sayles, his mother, Cher et al as impersonations as such, rather broadly stylised story-driving references.  While I observed the same technical 'shortcomings' as John, I regard the play as more a dramatised essay than an attempt at real-life character channeling ala Streep's Thatcher or Rush's Sellars. 

Nor did I find the transitions at all disjointed, and Council's powerful vocality was welcome in the Basement Studio where he was competing with a noisy fan and outside noise from the open fire-escape door employed for the partially-successful purpose of combatting the muggy heat.  Any actor who has ever performed in touring productions know well how dramatically the metre of a play can be altered in each new space, and adjusting to this is a skill in itself - particularly important where so few showings occur in each venue.

It is true that we Kiwis love our solo shows; especially autobiographical ones!  Off the top of my head I've personally witnessed Mervyn Thompson, Wiremu Davis, John Bolton, Miranda Harcourt, Paul Barrett, and of course John Council share their lives on stage in ways that couldn't be evoked by any other medium. 

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Earnest and endearing ride to cathartic epiphany

Review by Nik Smythe 11th Feb 2012

I am met at the door of the Basement Studio by solo performer Jonathan Council, who shakes my hand welcomingly and gestures for me to take a seat.  An appropriate introduction for such a personal autobiographical journey, juxtaposed as it is with the historic show-biz tale of all-but forgotten 19th century vaudeville minstrel Irving Sayles.

His ample stage is set about (by Sally Tran) with life sized black & white photograph cut-outs of various characters, some familar – Liz Taylor, Sidney Poitier etc – some not, identified in due course as Irving Sayles and his best mate Mr Hicks, and Council’s own mother, who early on affects the direction of his tragi-comic true-life journey with her judgemental input. To complete the picture are cut-outs of a scaled-down statue of liberty and a classic 80s-style TV camera. 

Council has enlisted the skills of young rising-star playwright Arthur Meek to form his very personal story which plays out in contrast to Sayles’ clear cut fable of fame versus dignity, as a kind of Buddhist parable addressing the desire for material gain versus the freedom of detachment forced upon him by agonisingly ironic timing.  Any fellow actor with a whisper of passion for the craft could not help but wince with incredulous pain watching him achieve the breaks most of us only dream of, only to have them torn asunder in the next moment.

Meanwhile 100 years ago, African-American Irving Sayles is the toast of Australia, and laterNew Zealand’s vaudeville circuit having left the US midwest aged 16.  His career predominately involved ridiculing his own race and culture by exploiting and reinforcing established uncomplimentary stereotypes, to greatly successful comic effect. 

Mr Sayles’ tale is sadly ironic at best, and ultimately tragically foiled by a bureaucratic technicality, not unlike Mr Council’s frustrating travesty a century later.  But Council makes a point of explaining where the similarities end and the thankful differences between their two stories begin; he wants to be clear that for all the prejudice he may have suffered in his own life, it’s a holiday compared to the abuse suffered by people who were alive when slavery was normal and legal.

Given its content, the work might have been indulgently apologetic or self-piteous, but instead in its own quiet way Council’s earnest and endearing performance carries us on a rollercoaster through his personal struggle to succeed, culminating in a cathartic epiphany denied his historic counterpart.  


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