Monday, January 20, 2014

Black Diggers by Tom Wright

Cast in rehearsal
Photo: Stephen Henry

Black Diggers written by Tom Wright.  Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival in association with the Balnaves Foundation, directed by Wesley Enoch at Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House January 17-26, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 19

I approach commenting on Black Diggers in all humility, for this is impressive theatre dealing with difficult history.  It is an important achievement for our culture, for our country, and for our theatre.

In one hour and forty minutes, Wesley Enoch has done a brilliant job of making Wright’s text come to life with humour, straight talk, and finally with ceremony which both ennobles his subject and must bring tears to anyone’s eyes.

The drama covers the experiences of the Aboriginal men – at least 800 of them, according to Sydney University researcher Dr David Williams – who fought as Australians in World War I.  Their story necessarily requires context before and after the War, and falls into five parts: Pre-Nation, Enlistment, The Theatre of War, The Return and The Legacy.

Not only is this a story of literally epic proportions, but the men’s Aboriginal identities also required permissions from elders and agreement from families from many different communities all over Australia.  As Enoch has written, “When constructing this piece of theatre we were confronted by the enormity of the task, the cultural protocols, the military records, the family lore….” 

To have shaped all this into 60 scenes so that the emotional flow of the drama never falters, while the truth of the history is not lost, is a task that I suggest has not been achieved in our theatre before.  It is Shakesperean in scope, and more true to history.

It could be done only because the Aboriginal tradition of storytelling, with its mix of humour, irony and directness is so well understood by the Indigenous team of actors (above, in rehearsal) – led by George Bostock as cultural consultant, with Luke Carroll, David Page, Hunter Page-Lochard, Guy Simon, Colin Smith, Eliah Watego, Tobian Wyles and Meyne Wyatt – working with the doyen of Indigenous directors in Wesley Enoch.

But even more is achieved because this is, I believe, the first-ever absolute crossover piece of Aboriginal-European theatre.  The essence of Indigenous performance is that the actors and the audience are one and the same community.  Because the lives and deaths of the Indigenous soldiers in the War were no different from those of the 400,000 non-Indigenous men who fought in that same conflict – believing in their contribution to Australia’s place in the world – this play brings together everyone on stage and in the audience as one. 

This is not an Aboriginal play about Aboriginal experience, separate from the lives of a Euro-centred audience.  It is a play about the Australian experience of world wide warfare: the bravery, the practicalities, the violence, the destruction – and the sadness, not just because of these men’s deaths and injuries, but from the disappointments which followed.  What was it all for?

For the Aboriginal men who survived – “dozens were killed” writes Dr Williams – there was extra disappointment because they had fought on equal terms and in equal relationships with their non-Indigenous comrades, but were denied equal rights when they returned.  When the Last Post is sounded, my tears were for all those who had died for little gain, but with an even deeper shame for those who were Aboriginal and whose descendants still today are so disadvantaged.  The example those more than 800 men showed us all in World War I should have changed the world for the better, but White Australia would not listen.

Wesley Enoch - Director
Tom Wright - Writer

The Balnaves  Foundation, the aim of which is “to create a better Australia through the funding of education, medicine and the arts with a particular focus on young people, the disadvantaged and Indigenous communities” is to be congratulated for its support, in association with the Sydney Festival, for the Black Diggers project.  It has achieved its hope that “this production will be a landmark for future Indigenous theatre projects.”  I hope it will be a landmark for real political and social change as well.

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