Jack Davis’ play reveals the controversial truth about Australia’s past!
“There is a happy land Far, far away, No sugar in our tea, Bread and butter we never see That’s why we’re gradually Fading away.”
Last year, Google was congratulated for its ‘google doodle’ published to mark Australia day. The day, January 26th, is often criticised as a celebration of ‘Invasion Day’ and many view it as offensive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
The art in this image was drawn by a Year Ten student in Canberra and shows an Aboriginal woman mourning her stolen children.
In fact, this year, the boycott of Australia Day was a recurrent theme in the media, with even the city of Fremantle canning its firework display in favour of a ‘culturally inclusive alternative’ two days later. And rightly so – the 26th of January 1788 marks the day that First Fleet of British Ships arrived on Australian shores. Many Aboriginal Australians consider the date a commemoration of their loss- of family, land, and the right to practice their culture; many call it ‘Invasion Day’ ‘Survival Day’ or ‘Day of Mourning’. From the day that Europeans arrived in Australia, the Indigenous people who lived there have been heartlessly slaughtered, oppressed, and forced to assimilate into European culture.
This is the concept that Davis explores and criticises in his play, No Sugar. He follows the Millimura/Munday family, an Aboriginal family living in Australia during the Great Depression. Using their story, he criticises the racism and bigotry of the whites.
Here are seven reasons we’re all applauding Jack Davis’ as he highlights the oppression of Aborigines:
- He challenges the stereotypical perception of the indigenous ‘savage’ held by the white community
“if you can successfully inculcate such basic but essential details of civilised living you will have helped them along the road to taking their place in Australian society.”
In No Sugar, Davis focuses on the perception of the Indigenous ‘savage’ that is held by members of the white community, particularly those in positions of power. He reflects misguided stereotypical notions of Indigenous people through characters that are drunk, disruptive and shameless ‘troublemakers’. But, he also breaks these stereotypes! His indigenous characters are both intelligent and culturally and socially aware, speaking up against their oppressors and attempting to equalise themselves. They are kind and empathetic, and as Frank puts it: “a real mate to me. He took me to his home and gave me a meal… his family were very kind to me.”
However, despite Davis challenging such prejudice, the mindset of the white community remains: Aborigines are considered uncivilised, unclean ‘dirty’ savages. No Sugar continually highlights this discrimination, with Davis exposing the bigotry of white people: a proposed reserve for Aborigines is opposed by a white citizen because he “wouldn’t be able to go out and leave his wife home alone at night”. Indigenous characters are referred to as “bloody incompetent savages” and “blithering stone age idiots” by whites, and are blatantly discriminated against: “the ding always sells us little shrivelled ones (pies) and them wetjala kids big fat ones.”
Hygiene is a theme that Davis returns to throughout the play. Whites see Aborigines as dirty and unclean, so obviously, they would want to provide them with soap and everything that they need to become hygienic, to facilitate sanitation, right?
“I’m afraid that soap is no longer included as a ration item” says Mr Neville. WTF?!? Aborigines are criticised due to their struggle with hygiene, yet they aren’t given the things they require in order to remain clean. In Davis portrays the characters as concerned with cleanliness in order to break the stereotype: “But why? What am I gonna wash with? How can I keep my kids clean and send them to school?” In fact, even the children of the Millimura family want to keep clean: “Ay Mum? Why isn’t there any soap? I wanna wash my hair tomorrow.”
- He demonstrates and criticises the forced assimilation of Aborigines into white culture
“You can still collect ‘em, nothing stopping you.” “Where? Wetjala cut all the trees down.”
Even from the very beginning of the play, Davis reflects European influences and forced assimilation of Aborigines into Western culture: the first few lines depict Aboriginal children Cissie and David playing cricket with a ‘home made bat and ball’, and later in the play, the children are forced to take religious classes. Such treatment of Aborigines is based upon the idea that in order to become worthy Australians, they need to become ‘civilised’. Neville tells them that they should be “preparing yourself here to take your place in Australian society, to live as other Australians live, to livealongside other Australians.”
Davis shows the difficulty that many Aborigines have in assimilating into European culture. At the beginning of the play, Joe reads the newspaper “falteringly”. However, authorities refuse to provide Aborigines with the supplies they need to properly assimilate: when Sister Eileen talks about providing books to the aborigines and starting a library, Neal Shuts. Her. Down. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, he points out, a lame excuse for his bigoted behaviour.
And this baby has it right!
The harsh discriminatory policies placed upon Aborigines by the government reduce them to criminal activities. How are they supposed to assimilate when they don’t have basic needs met? Bicarb soda is taken out of rations, and while they would usually grind up jam and wattle seeds, this is now unnecessarily difficult: “Where? The wetjala cut all the trees down.” The ration system as a whole is insufficient, in fact. They are not given soap or meat: “there’s a bloody depression on”.
Despite being deprived of fundamental needs, the treatment of Indigenous Australians is still based on the premise that they need to become ‘civilised’ in order to become worthy Australians. How does this work? We don’t know either, but Neville, always the one to decide what they should or shouldn’t be doing, tells them that they should be “preparing yourselves here to take your place in Australian society, to live as other Australian’s live, to live alongside other Australians”.
- He portrays institutionalised racism against Indigenous people
As we’ve already mentioned, Aborigines are treated as second-class citizens and are victims of institutionalised racism. Davis portrays the behaviour of whites as horrific. As a case in point, Constable and Sergeant make disgusting and insensitive jokes about mass genocide and poisoning the natives: “too late to adopt the Tasmanian solution” they laugh. I mean, what the hell?!
Then there’s the sign in the office that says, “Government of Western Australia, Fisheries, Forestry, Wildlife and Aborigines”, basically implying that Aborigines fall into the same category as animals and fish- and if that’s not enough, to top it all off, Constable hands over the phone declaring that it is the “niggers’ department” calling. Pejorative (see: derogatory, racist) language such as this is used by Davis to shock the audience and negatively portray white characters as bigoted racists.
And neither can the audience!
Davis also reflects how Aborigines are exploited for labour: Milly tells the Sergeant that her son Joe cut hundreds of posts for ‘old Skinny Martin’ and received in return only “a pair of second-hand boots and a piece of stag ram so tough even the dawgs couldn’t eat it”.
- He uses Noongar and English language to create meaning
Aboriginal characters in the play speak Noongar, and this use of language is adopted by Davis to demonstrate the diversity of Aboriginal culture and the harsh contrast between European and Western culture. Indigenous people are alienated from the whites and forced to speak an unfamiliar language. However, they still use a variety of indigenous terms, for example “jeering meear”, “mummari” and “gugha”.
Use of these terms successfully alienates a white audience: we don’t understand what on earth Aborigines are saying! Davis does this in an attempt to mirror the alienation felt by Indigenous people and encourage the white audience to understand the difficulty in understanding another language and It also enforces the idea of significant cultural and lifestyle differences, as Aborigines often speak in their language when words are ‘untranslatable’. The divide between the privileged and underprivileged is a theme that Davis replicates throughout the text.
Like the others, the character of Gran also uses indigenous words, however, she represents her ancestry and culture far more proudly than the other Indigenous characters and shows no desire to Assimilate. She blends the two languages, as she feels the need to hold on to her own language as much as possible: “chergeant!” and “he give you six months.”
The song she sings at the end of the play is in her own South West language: this shows her pride in her own culture and desire to remember it. However, this is still a song of woe and pity (“weert miny, jinna koorling, weert miny” which roughly translates to “woe woe woe”) and highlights just how much life sucks for Aboriginal Australians living in the time period.
Like Gran, Billy speaks truncated (broken) English: “I’m a politjman”, “she comin’ you fella all wait this place now”. This broken English is a reflection of his struggle and the difficulty of assimilating to European culture. He compensates for his inability to fluently speak English by serving the white authority. He carries around a whip (which is significantly ‘less’ than Neal’s cat of nine tails) that he uses in order to control. Despite Billy serving them, those in places of authority insult him (and other Aboriginal characters) by inferring that he is stupid due to not being able to speak English: “bloody incompetent savage.”
Characters such as the Sergeant and the Constable speak colloquial and informal English. (Interestingly, this is also spoken by Indigenous characters in a bid to fit in). The language spoken by such characters reflects their lack of education and makes them easy to understand. This encourages the audience to relate to the characters, whom are also blatantly racist, which allows them to realise how easy it is to be racist.
Davis also uses language to portray white characters in positions of authority. Mr Neville speaks with an air of arrogance and self-importance, using big words that the audience might not always understand. Through this, the audience feel as alienated from Mr Neville as they do from the aboriginal characters.
- Comparison of characters to emphasise oppression of Indigenous people
This is specifically done through comparison of Aboriginal characters with Frank. Strategically, juxtaposing Frank’s struggles with those of Indigenous characters, Davis shows how Indigenous Australians suffer more.
Indigenous Australians are easily exploited: they receive just over two shillings each week whilst white people receive seven. The Sergeant believes that ‘natives’ are simply lazy and do not try to
find work. The character of Frank refutes this attitude, as Frank discusses his failure to find work; he has left his wife and children behind whilst he looks for it. He complains about the government because he lost his farm and is now unemployed. But Jimmy rightfully points out the privileges that Frank still experiences due to his being white: “at least you can walk down the street after sundown”. Jimmy then lists all the restrictions that he has to abide by as an Aborigine: “they aren’t allowed to go down the soak, not allowed to march.”
- He cleverly uses the character of Jimmy as a symbol of Aboriginal voice
“Munday, isn’t it? Northam. I’ve got police reports on you. You’re a trouble maker, and a ringleader. You must listen to me.”
Now our favourite character in this play is Jimmy. And that’s because, as a character, he serves as a voice of protest, drawing attention to the social injustice and discrimination that Aborigines face on a daily basis: the wetjalas “took our country”. He symbolises the angry voice of the dispossessed, the First Australians who were stripped of their rights, land, resources, and culture. At the very beginning of the play, he nicks his finger whilst he angrily drives his axe into a log, whilst protesting against the whites “cause them bastards took our country”. He “watches the blood on the ground” which symbolises the blood that was spent by his ancestors.
Like a boss, he brings up the inequalities that nobody wants to talk about: he announces to the entire Australia day assembly that the transfer of his family to the Moore River Settlement was “nothing to do with bloody scabies” but so “them wetjalas vote for [Jimmy Mitchell]”.
Just as he represents a voice of protest, his death symbolises the difficulties faced by the First Australians and a sense of hopelessness. He dies a dehumanising death. He doesn’t gain the justice he desires, and is also isolated, marginalised, and treated like a “trouble maker” or an “unruly nigger”.
- He still presents the idea of hope
No one wants to read something completely depressing and disheartening, right? Right. And Jack Davis knows this! That’s why the main reason we’re applauding his play is because instils a sense of hope into our dark and desperate souls! Hope that the world isn’t such a terrible place, after all!
One such symbol of hope is Joe and Mary’s baby. His Noongar name is ‘Magpie’. Magpies are typically feisty ‘fighters’, swooping those who get too close to their nest. It is also associated with love in some communities. The baby’s ‘wetjala’ name is Jimmy! This softens the blow of Jimmy’s death, which was seen as a representation of hopelessness, and creates a sense of hopefulness, suggesting the child will be future fighter and will speak up against inequality. Joe (Joseph) and Mary’s names also allude to religion, with Jimmy Jr. being the ‘Jesus’, which has connotations of hope, rebirth, and new beginnings, as well as linking to the dreamtime creation myth.
Admittedly, this might seem like the kind of stupid, farfetched thing your high school English teacher would say, yet, we still think that this is an extremely clever use of symbolism and cannot be coincidental (Seriously, Joseph and Mary?! For realz?!?)
And that’s not all! Davis presents hope in many other, albeit small, ways throughout the play:
- Cissie and David protect their indigenous heritage although they have ‘joined’ white society, which shows how the younger generation will continue to respect and remember their ancestors.
- Billy “hands [Joe] his whip”. He is rejecting the white culture that has oppressed and controlled him, and redeeming himself.
- Gran tells Mary she is a “good milker” which symbolises survival
- Neal, scared of Matron, allow Joe and Mary to leave the Moore River Settlement
So there you go!
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