What Jack Davis’ “No Sugar” can teach you about human experience


There are so many things that you can actually learn about the experience of humans from “No Sugar” by Aboriginal playwright Jack Davis. Davis’ text is set in Western Australia in 1929, around the time that the Great Depression hit and crippled the nation, the White Australia policy being a widespread belief within white communities with the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, and the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families in the Stolen Generation during 1920-1970. The play has a harrowing undertone achieved by graphic descriptions of marginalisation, told from the perspective of the Indigenous Millimurra and Munday families. The Millimurra family themselves are a synecdoche for the experience of all Aboriginal people, with the plot outlining the extent of power the government has over the marginalised group, meanwhile undermining it with carefully thought-out humour and irony. It explores the effects of post-colonialism on Australia as a whole, after white European settlement in 1788.

Human experience is something that is hard to resolve into a small blog post, such as this one. To simply put it, human experience is the experience of humans. Summarising “No Sugar”, the main points of human experiences from the point of view of Aboriginal Australians can be compressed into these labels: racism, violence, misogyny, and assimilation. However, with racism being the main motif, it can easily be interlinked to the other labels. While the play itself can teach us a lot about human experience of Indigenous Australians in the early 20th century, it’s important to remember that Jack Davis provides very authentic descriptions due to being based on real events.

You really start to get a vivid depiction of violence perpetrated by white superiority towards Aboriginals in Act Two, Scene Six. Billy, in conversation around a campfire, explains the horrors of when he had to witness the massacre that killed most of his tribe in the quote, “Gudeeah bin kill ‘em. Finish, kill ‘em. Big mob, 1926, kill ‘em big mob my country.”  Looking back through the history of Australia regarding Indigenous people, it becomes easy to notice the deplorable trend of violent attacks from white superiority. The Myall Creek Massacre on 10th June 1838 involved a group of white settlers who murdered 28 Aboriginal men, women and children near Myall Creek Station in northern New South Wales. Seven of the killers were tried and hanged. This massacre serves as a reminder of the nation’s colonial violence towards Aboriginal people.

The extreme racism expressed through the actions of white settlers set the grounds for a lack of respect towards Aboriginal women. These women experienced sexism to the extreme of misogyny. Jack Davis’ play highlights this when Mary tells the story of another Aboriginal girl who was sent away to work for a white man (“gudeeah”), then was sent back because she was raped and got pregnant. After giving birth, her baby was forcibly removed from her and killed, evidenced in the quote from Act Two, Scene Four, “And when she had that baby them trackers choked it dead and buried it in the pine plantation.” The Chief Protector of Aboriginals, A. O. Neville, believed that they were incapable of raising their own children themselves in their culture. This belief is what led to the Stolen Generation, a generation of children who were removed from their families and placed with white families. Neville is quoted as saying, “The native must be helped in spite of himself”. The 1905 Aborigines Act had a firm, controlling grip on almost all aspects of Indigenous lives. For those unfortunate enough to be born women, however, there were further restrictions, such as: choice of marriage partners, sexual contacts, and their rights as mothers to raise children.

One of the most significant experiences in Aboriginal life during the 20th century was assimilation. Assimilation is defined by the expectation of fitting into the dominant culture, which in Australia’s context was the European culture brought over by the first settlers. Davis’ play actually makes quite a few symbolic references to assimilation in the very first Act alone! The characters David and Cissie are partaking in the traditionally western past time of cricket, followed by David excitedly making reference to a white Australian legendary cricketer, “Woolah! Don Bradman.” Other stereotypes of western culture that the Indigenous characters are participating in are the traditions of drinking tea and reading newspapers, such as the Western Mail. The language barrier as Joe struggles to read this paper aloud clearly shows just how difficult it can actually be for a completely different culture to adopt a new one. In context to being forced into changing cultural identity, it can once again be related back to the Stolen Generation. Indigenous children were removed from their biological families, so that they could be indoctrinated with white Australian ideals and culture. Many Aboriginal and “half-caste” children were sent to the Moore River Native Settlement against their will, which is also one of the main settings of the text.

So, long story short, this article has hopefully made it crystal clear just how unpleasant (to put it lightly) the human experiences of Aboriginals were. Thankfully, it isn’t common to see anything like these atrocities committed on the news as a common occurrence in today’s society. If there were any laws trying to be passed which aimed to oppress and control Indigenous Australians a fraction of the way they did a century ago, it is certain it would be met with a great deal of controversy. Anyhow, it is important to keep in mind that there are so many human experiences from Indigenous perspectives, and “No Sugar”, that this article only scratches the surface on what you can learn about these injustices.


by H.B.


One thought on “What Jack Davis’ “No Sugar” can teach you about human experience

  1. Your tone, especially early, is more like an essay than a blog. The downside of this is that you potentially alienate your audience; the upside is that you show off a decent vocabulary in the process.

    There’s a good use of evidence here – the best example is when you link the massacre of Billy’s people to another attack on indigenous people.

    Well done!


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