The play Black Diggers opened the Sydney Festival at the Sydney Opera House on 18 January 2014 and concluded with standing ovations. Individual reports and reviews also attest to its success. It consists of a series of stories crafted to portray the range of experiences of Indigenous men in World War One and in the post war period. The writer is Tim Wright and the director Wesley Enoch with a cast of Aboriginal actors playing a multitude of parts. I was unable to attend but look forward to catching up with it elsewhere in Australia.
The recognition which Black Diggers will generate in the wider community is long overdue – despite the efforts of individuals over the last four decades. Black Diggers follows in the tradition of David Huggonson’s Too Dark for the Light Horse, an exhibition of photographs of Indigenous World War One service men. The exhibition which showed Indigenous men in the uniform of the AIF, collected by Huggonson toured south eastern Australia and Queensland from 1988 before later being shared with the Australian War Memorial. The impact on the eye of the photographs has proved so much more compelling and immediate than the printed word. In the same way this production which presents Aboriginal soldiers to audiences as flesh and blood, combining visual appeal with dialogue, will be invaluable in getting across the message that despite prohibitive legislation Indigenous men actually volunteered and served in World War One. The play will tour within Australia from September.
In the centenary year of World War One, as a visual and verbal presentation, Black Diggers will go a long way towards raising the general public’s awareness of the service of Indigenous men – both in World War One and following wars. This has been either neglected, ignored or buried by the racist Australia in which these men volunteered and which they returned to and their descendants continued to endure. Hopefully things are changing but there is still some way to go. Black Diggers is the most important milestone to date in the process of recognition and reconciliation with the men and their descendants. It is now recognised that the history of Australia is a shared one between black and white. Within this so is the history of the AIF and its sister services. Black Diggers eloquently makes this point.
Philippa Scarlett 29 January 2014
After the performance: Opening night 18 January, actor Meyne Wyatt, Isabella Edquist and director Wesley Enoch