Chenoa Deemal played Aunty Ruth Hegarty’s mother, Ruby Duncan, who was sent to Cherbourg in 1930 (Photo: Pete Wallis)
FLASHBACK: Aunty Ruth Hegarty at a reunion of former Dormitory Girls at Cherbourg in 2015

March 7, 2024

The stage adaptation of author Aunty Ruth Hegarty’s award-winning memoir about her childhood in Cherbourg has won an award of its own.

“Is That You, Ruthie?”, a two-woman play about life in the Girls Dormitory was adapted and directed by Leah Purcell and performed at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane in November / December.

On February 26, Brisbane actor Chenoa Deemal was presented with a Matilda Award for the Best Performance in a Leading Role Mainstage Production.

Chenoa played several roles in the play: the main character of Aunty Ruby Duncan (Ruth’s mother) as well as Ruth’s best friend Marcia, an office clerk, Ruth’s boss (“The Mistress”) and several men.

“It was only a cast of two, myself and wonderful actor Melodie Reynolds-Diarra,” Chenoa told

“The play depicted Aunty Ruth Hegarty’s story as well as her mother’s, Aunty Ruby-Anne Duncan.”

The book, “Is That You, Ruthie?”, won the prestigious David Unaipon Award in 1998.

The award is presented to an outstanding unpublished manuscript by an emerging Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writer.

The memoir and its sequel, “Bittersweet Journey”, went on to be published by University of Queensland Press in 1999 and 2003.

A third book, “Buthalangi: A Maranoa Woman”, was published in 2022.

The books explore the difficulties and enduring connections between a mother and daughter despite being separated by government policies.

Ruby Duncan was just 22 in 1930 when she was sent with her daughter Ruth from Mitchell to the Barambah Mission (the name was changed to Cherbourg soon afterwards).

When Ruth turned five, she was moved from the Women’s Quarters (where she had been with her mother) into the Girls Dormitory.  Ruby was sent out to work as a domestic servant.

Ruth stayed in the Dormitory until she, too, was sent out to work, at the age of 14.

In an interview in 1988, Aunty Ruth recalled that when she came back to Cherbourg on holidays, she was forced to stay again in the Dormitory. She was only allowed to leave the Dormitory  system when she got married.

In 2015, Aunty Ruth led a women’s walk in silence from The Ration Shed to the site of the old Girls Dormitory for a ceremony to unveil a plaque.

The Dormitory opened in 1925 and burned to the ground in 1988.

The women observed a minute’s silence for lost friends as they gathered around the plaque.

Aunty Ruth became tearful as she recalled life in the system.

“We know the terror, the horror. We know all these things yet we have come together this afternoon silently … we have lost so many. I am the only one left from my group of 40 to 50 girls,” she said.

Chenoa said the audience had responded very well to the stage production of Aunty Ruth’s story.

“I think there is always hope that a successful play will go on tour. With the response we got from the audience and our sold out final week, I think it would be a great idea for this show to tour and have another season!” she said.

The Matildas are Queensland’s premier theatre awards; the 36th Matilda Awards ceremony was held at the Brisbane Powerhouse.

Related articles:

“Is That You, Ruthie?” explores the consequences of the government’s forced separation of families (Photo: Pete Wallis)
Chenoa Deemal and Melodie Reynolds-Diarra in “Is That You, Ruthie?” (Photo: Pete Wallis)
The stage setting featured historic photos projected to the back of the stage as well as an iron bed, familiar to anyone who has visited the Boys Dormitory building at Cherbourg’s Ration Shed complex (Photo: Pete Wallis)


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