Assimilation and Paternalism in No Sugar

Postcolonial literature both reveals and challenges the ideals of a dominant culture in their attempt to marginalise and control a minor group. No Sugar is a play set in a period of Australian history known as Protectionism, in which Indigenous Australians were marginalised as primitive beings, incapable of self-dependence and hence protected through forced assimilation. Through the experiences of the Millimurra family, the play effectively exposes the inhumane treatment of Aborigines imposed upon them through the ignorance and prejudice present amongst European Australians and Government policies. The Eurocentric value of assimilation and the paternalistic attitudes of white Australian society at the time are revealed through the way in which characters of the marginalised Aboriginal minority are represented as Other despite their forced attempts to acculturate, as well as the way in which white characters portray them as incompetent through their own condescending treatment of Aborigines.The value of Assimilation present in white European society at the time the play is set is both revealed and challenged through the way that character Billy Kimberley is marginalised and considered Other by both cultural groups. Throughout the1930s, assimilation existed as an unofficial policy which expected Indigenous Australians to abandon their own heritage and hence adopt the customs and traditions of the general majority. Such an expectation was highly valued amongst the xenophobic, white Australian public (Red Apple Education Ltd, 2009). This value is exposed within the play by the way in which Aboriginal characters are encouraged to acculturate with the promise of better treatment and improved living conditions. Billy, who has lost nearly all sense of belonging through the loss of his tribe, conforms to a Eurocentric lifestyle in hopes of escaping the oppression that his people face as a result of their cultural differences. His attempt to assimilate benefits him to some extent, for he is rewarded with the possession of a whip, considered as a symbol of white authority. However, the value of assimilation is challenged through Billy’s character rather than promoted. Amongst the white Australian society of the play, Billy is crudely represented as a “dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs” (Conrad, 1899,p. 36). Despite taking on a European appearance, he remains marginalised by the very society in which he tries to fit in with and continues to stand out. Such an image is emphasised through the stage directions which describe Billy being “dressed in new but absurdly ill-fitting uniform” (p.96). Billy, who is no longer recognised by his own people, is unable to completely assimilate and hence earns the ridicule of both groups through his futile attempts. Not only does he fail to gain equality in regards to appearance, but he is also unsuccessful in attaining the dignified treatment that the idea of assimilation seemed to incorporate. Instead of directly handing it to Billy, Mr. Neal “throws a stick of tobacco onto the floor” (p. 73) as one would throw a treat to common household pet. By accepting such undignified treatment, Billy loses the respect of his own cultural group, but he has never truly been respected from his assimilated society, either. Assimilation is revealed as a value of white Europeans within the play as it appears to benefit characters like Billy to some extent. However, through the way that he is marginalised and represented as Other by both cultural groups the policy of assimilation comes across as an inane Eurocentric ideology which serves no physical purpose in the romanticised colonial venture to civilise Indigenous Australians. The paternalistic attitude of the dominant European Australian society at the time is revealed through the way in which the condescending treatment of white characters towards Aborigines within the play portrays them as incompetent and in need of guidance. Aboriginal Protection boards were set up in the early 1900s to the 1950s, hence introducing a paternalistic approach. A result was the institutionalisation of racism in which white authorities were given the constitutional power to restrict Aborigines’ ability to find employment, travel, marry and even consume alcohol. Overall, they were viewed and treated as child-like primitives, almost a part of the land rather than as people with their own culture (Conference of Education Systems Chief Executive Officers, 2000). The parallel stage action utilised within the play serves to both reveal and challenge this attitude of paternalism as it creates a comparison between the paternalistic view and the subsequent lack of action, hence highlighting the hypocrisy present within Eurocentric beliefs. This is demonstrated through Mr. Neville’s supercilious letter to Mr. Neal, dictated in the office of the Chief Protector of Aborigines, in Perth, which outlines the lack of cleanliness of Aboriginal people, hence depicting them as incapable of the simple act of sustaining personal hygiene. For instance, Mr. Neville suggests “practical training from yourself and Matron on the correct usage” (p.24) of toilet paper. Such a patronising suggestion depicts Aborigines as incompetent and uncivilised due to their supposed inability to attend to such a menial task. They are evidently marginalised from the rest of society until they can “successfully uncalculated such basic but essential details of civilised living” (p.24). Despite being represented and treated as children who require such basic education, they are not actually given the means to live up to the standard that society expects of them. While this paternalistic attitude is romanticised through the way in which it is illustrated in Mr. Neville’s office, it is the parallel stage action taking place in the Northam police station that reveals the ironic reality. It is there that Milly and Gran first learn that soap had been cut from their rations, to which Milly responds “How can I keep my kids clean and sen ’em to school?” (p. 22). Milly is evidently a competent and mature person who is capable of taking care of herself and her family, yet is not provided with the proper means to do so despite the hypocritical expectations of white society. The romanticised Eurocentric attitude of paternalism is revealed by the way in which Aborigines are represented as incapable of self-dependence, illustrated through the parallel stage action utilised within the play. No Sugar is an example of postcolonial literature that both highlights and subverts the values of assimilation and the paternalistic attitude of the majority of white Australians at the time, as shown in the way in which the Aboriginal minority is represented as Other and treated condescendingly. This educates the audience on the possible forms of racial discrimination and hypocrisy present within society, resulting in many stereotypical representations which consequently cause the marginalisation of certain groups. Parallels that exist between possessing a certain value or belief, and the subsequent action of physically upholding it, are created within the play to provide the audience with the message that one’s idealised intentions towards another does not necessarily lead to favourable results. Through an emphasis on the negative aspects of assimilation and the paternalistic treatment of others, an appreciation of cultural diversity and independence is enhanced and racial tolerance is encouraged.

No Sugar and its Relationship to Australian Social and Cultural Context

Theatre reflects the society from which it springs, and in the case of No Sugar by Jack Davis (1986) this reflection is an exploration of cultural and social issues of Australian society. Although written later, Jack Davis’ commissioned play is set in Western Australian during the Great Depression of the 1920’s and 1930’s, known to Australian history as ‘The Assimilation Period’. No Sugar attempts to provide light on this dark part of Australia’s past in both a humorous and tragic way, educating its audience on the importance of Aboriginal family relationships and kinship with the environment, and the extent to which European invasion affected this. The play also gives an insight into the life of an Aboriginal during this time, the injustices they faced, and their positive but predominantly negative interactions with white Australians. To connect thoroughly to an audience and to highlight the thematic notions of this Australian play, it is essential for it to transform into a theatrical productions through thoughtful staging and performing.

No Sugar is a didactic play, attempting to educate the audience of Aboriginal culture, which includes the importance of family and maintaining culture and tradition. The opening scene of the play establishes the dynamics of the Millimurra and Munday family, one that aims to preserve traditional culture but is ultimately influenced by Western society, evident in the stage directions: [JOE who is absorbed in the special centenary edition of the Western Mail. GRAN and MILLY sort clothes for washing. DAVID and CISSIE play cricket with a home-made bat and ball. JIMMY sharpens an axe, bush fashion.] Having performed this scene in a workshop, I understand that it is difficult to translate the script onto the stage. Having so many different characters engaging in different tasks makes it challenging to enable each person and their action to be seen. Throughout the entire play, however, it is necessary to experiment with placing actors on differing levels and places on the stage, since there are often many characters within a scene to consider. Despite there being numerous family members, sometimes all on the stage at the same time, their position and actions must be in some way connected, to demonstrate the closeness of the family as a whole. Aboriginal identity is inextricably connected to family and to the land, known overall as kinship. The use of the Nyoongah language links the family members together, as do stage directions: [They exit laughing and hooting Nyoongah fashion.]. When Mary decides to have her baby at home instead of in the hospital (showing her connection to her land), Gran displays the kinship of the land and the family: “I got you little Nyoongah. Now I cut your cord and tie it, make a real pretty belly button for you, just like your daddy’s. Now cover you in ashes. More better than Johnson’s Baby Powder, eh?” Mary’s baby, Koolbardi (Magpie), is a naturalistic motif explored within the play. In Act Two, Scene Nine, a magpie squawks when Mary vomits, foreshadowing her pregnancy, and at the end of the play when Joe and Mary leave, a magpie squawks again, symbolizing hope for the maintaining of Aboriginal culture into the future.

Consistently throughout No Sugar, the role of Aboriginals within the Assimilation period of Australian history, and the injustices they faced, is referenced. Random Nyoongah language, and the use of a perambulant model (involving multiple points of focus) are dramatic techniques employed by Jack Davis to displace the audience, representative of the isolation of Aboriginals in Australian society. The perambulant model translates onto the stage as a multi-faceted system, as directed through the lengthy instructions at the commencement of the play, and this reflects the complexity of the ideas portrayed throughout No Sugar. Through observing class workshops and experiences as an audience member, as well as participating in them, I can affirm that the staging and consistent use of Aboriginal authentic language peppered throughout the play can be confronting, challenging, and confusing, but ultimately assist Davis’ purpose of alienating the audience to raise awareness of the issues that Aboriginals faced. There are many contextual links made within the play, exemplifying the reality of the difficulties that the Aboriginals endured. The genocide of natives in Tasmania is insensitively quoted by the Constable of Northam, “Should put a pinch of strychnine in the flour.”

A split stage is introduced early on within the text to display the societal divide between the Australian natives and European Australians. A.O. Neville, based on the real and ironically entitled ‘Chief Protector of Aborigines’, and the Sergeant of Northam discuss the needs and insufficient rations of Aboriginals over the phone, irony manifested with the white Sergeant acting as a representation of the needs of the Aboriginals and their country. Stage directions are further utilized to demonstrate the cultural and social tensions between Aboriginals and white Australians, especially those in power, and this is most clearly seen through the characterization and actions of Superintendent Neal. The primary supervisor of the Moore River Settlement maintains a perpetually careless attitude to the needs of the Aboriginals, the play often instructing him through stage directions as “reading the paper”, “reads at his desk”, and “sitting at his desk, reading” whilst important issues are being discussed. Neal’s negligence extends to violence in Act 4 Scene 2, evident through the brutal stage direction of his beating of Mary and the prop that Davis instructs to use: [NEAL grabs her. BILLY holds her outstretched over a pile of flour bags. NEAL raises the cat-o’-nine-tails. Blackout. A scream.]. Davis employs blackout as a metaphor for the Australian attitude toward the injustices faced by Aboriginals, implying that while people did not necessarily witness the atrocities, they knew it was occurring. Increasing the confronting nature of this scene is its contextual, factual basis, drawn from a statement from Annie Morrison in the Moseley Royal Commission of 1934 into the Moore River Settlement, “i hear some girls screaming in the office and the teachers said two trackers held the Girls feet over a sack of flour and Mr Neal Gave them a hiding and till tha wet them self we had to eat the flour after.”

No Sugar further explores the complex relationship between Aboriginals and white Australians, racist terms such as “abos”, “niggers” and “savages” being used by white Australians within Davis’ play to display their complete disrespect for the Aboriginal natives. White officials often abuse their power against Aboriginals, enforcing harsher sentences and punishments, not just to adults but also to children. When Billy does not attend Sunday School, stage directions exhibit his unnecessarily severe punishments: [BILLY belts DAVID on the legs with his whip.] Acting violence on stage is extremely difficult due to its confronting nature, but having seen it performed in front of me, it is very effective in making an audience uncomfortable. The terrible injustices placed on Aboriginals, however, do provide light on the few positive and genuine relationships between them and white Australians. In response to the violent consequences of children not attending Sunday School, Sister Eileen requests that it is reduced: “I’d prefer that they come of their own free will.” Matron Neal is another example of positive relations between Aboriginals and white Australians, and she acts as a foil to her husband, her acceptance of the native race juxtaposing his hatred toward them. In Act Two Scene Ten, Matron laughs with Billy to the annoyance of Superintendent Neal, and even tries a traditional quandong, though admits it tastes “bitterly sour”, reflective of the inescapable undertones of any relationship between an Aboriginal and a white Australian. Jack Davis incorporates positive interactions between white Australians and Aboriginals to lighten the emotional load upon a white Australian audience, and to provide them characters that they can identify with.

Thus, it can be seen that the concepts that are explored within No Sugar are representative of cultural and social issues within Australian society.