Black Diggers (Queensland Theatre Company)
QPAC, The Playhouse
September 24 – October 12
“Black Diggers” is an important work, made to mark the centenary of The Great War. It tells the untold stories of Indigenous Australians fighting for their country during World War One (at a time when they were not recognised as Australian citizens). Through a series of personal vignettes the show reflects on experiences before nationhood, as these men enlisted, their venture to war to ‘hold a gun and stand in the sun’, the dignity of their quiet strength in return to the same old prejudices and their ultimate legacy as a forgotten part of our diverse national narrative.
All scenes are based on genuine moments; real men, reported incidents, documented arguments, individual stories, however, the fragmentary nature of this narrative structure is challenging. Initially, the show’s tone is humourous, albeit simple more than sophisticated, with crowd-pleasing local geographical references and panto-esque character exaggerations. There is a poignant shift, however, courtesy of a simple statement: “I’ve seen hundreds of bodies, but this is the first one that looks like me.”
Scenes set after the war, when society still sees skin rather than service, elicit the most memorable performances and moving monologues from some of the all-male indigenous cast. David Page and Luke Carroll’s experience shines, however, the actors all give decent enough performances, especially given their multiple characters and generational variance.
The set is minimal, yet highly effective in conveying the ‘patchwork quilt of the past’ feel that Tom Wright outlines in the program’s Writer’s Note. The bunker-walled staging serves as blackboard, to be progressively graffitied by players marking people’s names as fragments of the whole theatre of war story.
The acting isn’t particularly noteworthy and the plot isn’t always entirely engaging, but “Black Diggers” is an essential Australian play in its creation of a memorial to men who had been largely invisible up until now. There are several reasons to support this production, but perhaps the best is how it does its thing in thought provocation. As the broad themes are drawn together in the play’s final ceremonial moments, featuring ‘The Last Post’ and ‘Reverie’, above strains of a didgeridoo, you will feel compelled to share in its moving standing ovation.