It is a valuable undertaking to write a story about Australia’s difficult history especially a history that has often ignored the Indigenous peoples. The Black Diggers is a powerful story that writes into the public record one important aspect of the neglected and forgotten past.
The Black Diggers examines the time before and during World War One, when Indigenous servicemen volunteered and enlisted to fight for the Australia. Despite the harsh policies and neglect they faced, these men signed up and fought for freedom on the Western Front alongside white diggers. They faced death, and they also forged deep bonds with white comrades. But Indigenous servicemen who offered their services returned to see their efforts not recognised by others, and faced the same attitudes from white Australians. This story, or rather, a mixture of stories, are made visible and real to the audience, turning a page of history into moments of reflection.
At the beginning the diggers were lighthearted, witty jokes and even singing—until the first death during a gunning scene, and that’s when the atmosphere turned heavier and more solemn. George Bostock, Luke Carroll, David Page and others play different characters in each scene, but the storyline is kept neatly consistent and evocative.
From oral accounts, journals and letters passed down through the years, writer Tom Wright crafted a splendid narrative, breaking stories into segments that reflect these men’s lives as much as possible. One can easily sift through the research done for this piece of theatre. The specific oppressions faced by Indigenous people, namely the White Australia policy and the racism it entailed, were clearly spelled out; one has to sympathise their hardships and sacrifices.
Stephen Curtis’ bunker set is a symbolic space upon which the cast inscribe names where Indigenous men fell. The names are written in white on black, and they gradually blur into chaos, overwriting each other. The legacy reaches a climatic ending when, accompanied by the moving sound of a lone trumpet, the uniformed diggers stand solemnly as one.
The Black Diggers runs at QPAC Playhouse until October 12. For tickets and more visit QPAC or Brisbane Festival’s website.
Words by Donny Lau