I love that the Sydney Festival allows the convergence of great local works and also pieces from interstate and international companies to take up residence in our city during January. If you’re not a regular subscriber or you’re a little disheartened with the local big company offerings then this is the month to enjoy the summer feast of theatrical choices and take a punt on the calendar of works and I would strongly recommend that ‘Black Diggers’ appear on that list.
Queensland Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Wesley Enoch, working with writer Tom Wright, researcher David Williams and dramaturg Louise Gough have created a devised-style documentary play that explores our Indigenous servicemen’s experiences in WWI as well as their experiences post-war. The play asks lots of questions: why would a community who is denied citizenship and has suffered virtual tribal genocide want to fight with their ‘invaders’ for a country that has never served them? How were they treated in the field by a community that has often ostracised them? How can they enlist? What are the implications for the spirit if you die away from & are unable to return to your land? Did things change when they returned? How were they further oppressed in regards to land allocation and pensions for returned servicemen? The play’s device is not to answer those questions but to allow its audience to become aware of what is being asked, the effects of the events and for us to become further enlightened in new perspectives on Indigenous oppression. This is echoed in Enoch’s words in the program that “one purpose of Indigenous theatre is to write on the public record neglected or forgotten stories”. ‘Black Diggers’ certainly does this.
‘Black Diggers’ is a theatrical narrative borrowing from Epic Theatre techniques. The use of the surrounding backdrop of the blackboard that allows for dates, names and memorials was an effective tool designed by Stephen Curtis and Tony Brumpton’s soundscapes and Ben Hughes’ lighting stakes of this dark, violent period in history and the circumstances of nothing changing upon return were constantly reflected on stage in the dim light and the sounds of war.
In all of that we see the action brought to life by a talented ensemble who play an array of roles, form a chorus of united voices, find the balance of drama and humour and move through the play with pace and power. The first twenty minutes of the play in the pre-nation section takes a while to warm up but it hits its stride by section two’s enlistment and the ending of the Last Post was extremely moving in making us consider the Anzac legend and loss in a whole new light. This is a play that sneaks up on you and offers a new way to view history that is not the dominant white version we know.
The Australian War Story and heroism should not allow itself to be colour-blind and this play goes some way to right our perception. I was pleased to have my first official festival outing be such a strong and resonant play that warranted much foyer discussion post-show. I have previously voiced concerns over the repetitive yet vital voice of Indigenous stories that can sometimes foster a complacency in its audience when it feels it is on repeat but this one made me rethink history all over again. Bravo Enoch and team.
Lest We Forget.