Sunday, March 29, 2015

Black Diggers - Canberra Theatre Centre


Director: Wesley Enoch
Writer: Tom Wright

Review by John Lombard

Black Diggers is a tribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who served in Australia's military from World War 1 on. Although not citizens of Australia they were still considered subjects of the British Empire, and with a little persistence could squeeze into the ranks. In the army they enjoyed a freedom from racism they did not have at home - when someone is shooting at you, race doesn't matter that much.

Boldly, the ensemble of Black Diggers has actors of every skin colour playing indigenous roles - and Aboriginal actors playing whites. The effect recreates the colour-blindness of Australian military life, and forces us to see the performers as their characters rather than relying on skin colour as a shortcut for understanding relationships.

The story is told in vignettes that convey the collective experience of indiginous soldiers, rather than one particular soldier's story. At times, this can be confusing - with actors playing multiple roles of different races, ages, and genders (with the added complication that some characters age as the story goes on), it can sometimes be hard to tell who is who. However the actors do an excellent job with their characterisations, in particular the strong bond between soldiers who have fought together.

The tone of the play is surprisingly rollicking - an attempt to re-create the blind enthusiasm of soldiers who didn't know what they were getting in for. While the play does become darker (post-traumatic stress disorder, death and neglect of soldiers are all addressed), the focus is on the vibrant community of soldiers: this is a celebration of mateship rather than an attack on the waste of war. Some soldiers are destroyed by their participation in the army, but others are made by it and have no regrets.

The real enemy isn't war, it's racism: when indigenous soldiers return home they find that their participation in war has not changed racist attitudes. Cruelly, idigenous soldiers are denied land settlements that are being carved from indigenous communities: what they have is being taken away and what they have earned is denied them. But the bond of mateship sets the stage for reconciliation: indigenous soldiers with the help of their non-indigenous comrades are able to stand up for their right to have a drink in a segregated bar.

The message of the play is that the seeds of reconciliation were planted in the trenches of Gallipoli. As such, there is a strong emphasis on how indigenous Australians prospered in the military, with their true suffering beginning when they came home to a country that would not acknowledge their accomplishments. Fortunately, the play explores the darker side of military service as well. Black Diggers is a vibrant and important play, an attempt to bring these repressed stories into the light and help heal the rift between race in Australia.