“All faces looked brown in that mud”
In an important event of national significance, it is appropriate that the 100-year anniversary since the beginning of World War One be observed through theatrical story-telling in a newly devised work presented by The Queensland Company, simply but evocatively called Black Diggers.
It is also appropriate to re-write the history books and acknowledge the contribution of our indigenous soldiers who courageously (albeit naively), fought for God and Country, thinking it would grant them equal status amongst their fellow Australians (perhaps better timing would have been 100 years ago, but I do digress).
Drawn from extensive research through archives, official records, letters, diaries, and interviews with the families of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen, Black Diggers, written by Tom Wright, gives voice to untold war stories from an Indigenous viewpoint. With an all-male, all-indigenous ensemble of nine, including war veteran and aboriginal elder Uncle George Bostock, who served twenty years in the Australian army, the cast are charged with the weighty responsibility of sharing this important and shamefully buried history with the rest of Australia (and the world).
In spite of The Defence Act only allowing those of “substantially European descent” to enlist, many Indigenous men, who weren’t even acknowledged as citizens with voting rights, thwarted the system and lied about their heritage, and even their age to fight for their country.
On foreign soil they gained the respect they so desperately longed-for through brothers-in-arms camaraderie, only for it to be ripped away upon return. Not welcomed in RSL clubs as returned soldiers, or acknowledged with returned servicemen land grants, some even had their land taken away.
Directed by Wesley Enoch, Black Diggers is a series of vignettes (and a few songs) that trace the journey of several Indigenous soldiers through enlistment, fighting in the trenches, casualties of war, returning home and post-war life. The ensemble of nine (George Bostock, Luke Carroll, David Page, Hunter Page-Lochard, Guy Simon, Colin Smith, Eliah Watego, Tibian Wyles), play several roles including white soliders, publicans, German soliders, and a mother. While that’s quite an amazing feat, it can be problematic when trying to distinguish between characters that were victimised because of the colour of their skin.
Although it is understandable from a producer’s standpoint that a smaller cast is more viable to tour, it would have been nice for an indigenous woman to be represented in this story, as the role would have more emotional pull, rather than an inadvertent parody or comic relief character. I’m sure this was entirely unintentional, but with such heavy material, the audience needed to find relief where they could. The piece is not without humour though, as the larrikin Aussie spirit rises through and is littered throughout the text. This same Aussie battler spirit was infused within the execution of the work, keeping the sentiment of the story-telling buoyant with dignity rather than bitterness or self-pity.
The simple, black-box set design (Stephen Curtis) including a raised platform in the centre of the stage, a ladder, and an open fire either side of the stage, which allowed for smooth transitions from back home to the battlefields, and kept up the momentum in this one-hundred minute one-act show. The symbolically contrasting black and white only design featured chalkboard walls surrounding the set where characters painted names and dates of battles and fallen Indigenous soldiers.
Black Diggers is an important story needing to be told, and Wesley Enoch along with playwright Tom Wright, history researcher David Williams, and the cast have brought a proud and evocative production to the stage. However, the structure is not without fault. The monologues towards the end, lose their full impact due to their sheer length, and there was a colloquial word used a few times that stuck out like proverbials, as it only came into our vernacular in the last few years – Seriously, I don’t think our soldiers would have used the word “seriously” in the trenches, or in 1914 for that matter.
In a Queensland first, Black Diggers will be simulcast, with a live stream to regional theatres across the state on October 8, in Ayr, Bundaberg, Cairns, Gladstone, Mackay, Mount Isa, Rockhampton, Toowoomba and Townsville.
Black Diggers plays until October 12 at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC.