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.