Tom Wright’s new play Black Diggers will make you shift in your seat with discomfort when the stories of our indigenous brothers in wartime are explored.
An excellent all male cast of about 11 and of varying ages, ensures that you leave the theatre feeling dismayed and downright sad but with a greater understanding of what life was in Australia at the turn of the century. We get a look-in to the social mores and attitudes of the time and we contrast that to today as we all celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. Has anything changed in our perception of war and our indigenous, one must ask?
Wright accepted the mammoth task of sifting through documents detailing many stories of Australian Aborigines in full military service. The program is littered with beautiful photos of indigenous men in full uniform staring at the camera lens with pride, apprehension and serenity. Wright chooses well and weaves the different stories into one journey. These Black stories heard for the first time on stage and hopefully never to be neglected again. Vignettes of the men leaving families to enlist, the race to get accepted into the army, the battlefields with all the horror that goes with that and finally the homecoming – society’s treatment of the Black veterans.
The most poignant moment at the end of the piece is when one of the Black diggers, unwelcomed on his return by society, resorts to booze and works as a sandwich board advertiser. His chance meeting with a white fellow soldier, his former mate in the trenches, whose life after wartime took him into a middle-class job; he was all suited and booted. This clothing symbolised a kind of armour and point of difference between him and his wartime mate. Their two very different worlds were very separate now.
The set was a nod to the many walls that have been erected around our land to list the many names of fallen soldiers. The stage served as a tomb, a bunker, a memorial and a message board. In a very provocative way, Stephen Curtis’ design shouted loudly the horror and the shame of our neglect of our veteran black soldiers with the actors scarring the walls with streaks of white paint, detailing place names of battles and names of the fallen. It was ugly graffiti which engendered feeling of anger and destruction in the minds of the audience.
The lighting served the play well with one exceptional piece of down lighting occurring when a soldier (actor Luke Carroll) who rose from the trenches as a ghost to explain his harrowing plight. Shadows were created against the angry walls. The lighting was used to great effect depicting the trenches and the soldiers torment as they hit the battle lines.
The direction by Wesley Enoch was tight with much movement and some heartfelt dialogue. It’s always hard to depict wartime battles on stage, but Enoch achieved this with his simplicity of movement and stills and also great care ensuring that each word from the actors was heard and was understood by the audience. The final part of the piece was entitled ‘Legacy’ and it was here where Enoch showed true style with the vignettes that were short and powerful, their message of the neglect of the Black soldier very clear. These final minutes of the play were moving and the audience was left with the question to ponder, what has been left in the annals of war history for us to face up to?
It is difficult to single out any one specifically within the cast. Suffice to say the ensemble were passionate and executed their characters well. The all-male ensemble must feel very proud of their product that examines the extremely important story of the contribution of Indigenous Australians to World War One.