Jack Davis is a renowned Indigenous man, famous for his playwriting, acting, poetry and Aboriginal activism. Born in Perth in 1917, Davis, The fourth child in a family of eleven, spent his upbringing in Yarloop and the Moore River Native Settlement, located approximately 96 kilometres South of his birthplace. His mother was taken from her tribe in Broome and raised by a white family; his father, William Davis, was also removed and cultivated by whites. Throughout his childhood, Davis had little knowledge of his cultural background; it was only while living on the Brookton Aboriginal Reserve he was introduced the language and culture of his people, the Nyoongah of the South-West of Western Australia. He worked as a stockman in the North West, which ultimately exposed him to tribal Aboriginal society.
At 14, outraged and irate at the treatment of Aboriginal people by white Australians, he began to write poetry as a method of expression. Oppression lead Davis into becoming an activist for the rights of Indigenous Australians, he joined the Aboriginal Advancement Council and began agitating for changes in government policies. Oppression furthermore influenced his pathway into poetry and play writing, which anticipate and center on major points of the progression in resolution between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Jack Davis himself is the receiver of many awards for his writing and for his assistance to the Aboriginal people in Western Australia. In 1985 he was titled the WA citizen of the year and later died in 2000.
The burdened and distressed context of Jack Davis’s play ‘No Sugar’ is intended to expose the discrimination of white Australia and the power they held over Aborigines. Davis’s childhood experiences whilst living in the Moore River Native Settlement, such as marginalization and seclusion from society demonstrates the unjust conduct displayed by the white settlers and their attempts at keeping the two races separate. The Millimurra’s, a strong aboriginal family depicted by Davis to show the difficulty of living in the time of a white oppression, are used to highlight the appalling conditions in which Aboriginals lived throughout the Depression, due to the ignorance and racist attitudes of the white Australians in the 1920-30’s.
This is shown through involving the rationing of soap and sugar in his play, “Haven’t got any soap yet. I’m afraid soap is no longer included as a ration item?” The character of Mr. Neville, ironically the Chief ‘Protector’ of Aborigines, is emphasized as being a corrupt oppressor in a position of authority, who forcibly challenges the Indigenous to conform to contemporary Australian society and to behave in line with idealistic European expectations. The unbalanced superiority that the white males in authority exert over the Aboriginal community is distressingly evident in this realist play. Davis context has succeeded in revealing to the viewer the way in which marginalized groups are forced to unite with the individuals in dominance and the inequalities and racism Aboriginals suffered during the reign of white Australia.
The characters of white Australian origin speak with an educated and ostentatious language. The most obvious example of this is the character of Mr. Neville. He states, with refined language, in Act One Scene Two, “if you provide the native the basic accouterments of civilization, you’re halfway to civilizing him.” This reveals a belief that Whites are conclusively superior to the Australian Natives and that any previous Aboriginal civilization was irrelevant. The pretentious statement of the Whites is juxtaposed against the more crude and blunt comments of Aboriginal characters to show the audience the belief that whites are superior. The character of Jimmy is a drunken, aggressive, outspoken Aboriginal man with a disregard for the law; “Native Protector, couldn’t protect my dog from fleas” because of this, there is repeated conflict involving him. Through his disruptive and aggressive behavior he reveals views held by Aboriginals such as the injustice of the treatment of Aboriginals by white Australians.
Gran is the link to the Aboriginal past, she proudly claims, “Isn’t that the neatest belly button you seen?” and “I brought him into the world with me own two hands.” Act Two Scene Three. Her spirit has not been broken despite White attempts to do so. For this reason when she is juxtaposed against white characters, even those of authority she seems to get some respect from them, Matron: “You did a very good job granny.” Billy is an example of the control whites had over Aboriginals, He works for the whites against the aboriginals as a tracker and because of this he is labeled a ‘black crow’ or ‘traitor’ Act Two Scene Four. The irony of an Aboriginal man acting against Aborigines shows just how much whites had influenced Aborigines and the extent to which Aborigines had to demean themselves in order to have any chance of survival. He does however help Joe and Mary escape by lying to Mr. Neville about which way they went on the train, it appears he is experiencing inner conflict and is confused whom he should be protecting.
When British settlers arrived in Australia, the Aboriginal race was thriving. After being dispossessed from their land, continuation of conflict and violence between Indigenous people and colonists and being exposed to new diseases for which they had not developed any immunity; it did not take long for their numbers in population to decline. In the 1920s, settlers had the mistaken view that Indigenous people were now ‘a dying race’ as the Aboriginal population extremely plummeted from approximately 300,000 to 60,000. Many were placed in reserves or missions, with the belief that it was giving them a place to live and food to eat, when in reality these reserves were used to segregate the aboriginals from the white Australians. This was despite the fact that these people had competently lived off the land for tens of thousands of years.
Aboriginal culture has always placed a strong importance on the land and on family. Ironically, after taking away their bond with the land, the government also decided that Aboriginal and half-caste children should be removed from their homes and assimilated into white Australian culture. This meant that they would have to relinquish their own traditions and adopt the customs, values and attitudes prevalent in white Australia. It was thought that the most effective way for this to occur was by removing the children at a young age from their homes, before they could become too settled in the ways of their Indigenous society. Many of the Aboriginal and mixed-race children, including a young Jack Davis, were sent to the Moore River Native Settlement, usually against their will, as part of the Stolen Generations. The Great Depression began with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and rapidly spread worldwide. The worldwide economic decline of the early 1930s resulted in severe unemployment and hardship throughout Western Australia. The loss of confidence in business, the drop in consumption and the huge fall in production resulted in record unemployment throughout Australia.
Aboriginal people throughout Australia were invariably hit harder by the Depression, and took longer to recover from its hardships than the white citizens of Australia, with outbreaks of racism against them and growing authorized and public concern at the “problem” of Aborigines in the southwest. These factors were important in contributing to the introduction of the Native Administration Act in 1936. This legislation affected virtually all people of Aboriginal background in the southwest and it further reduced their rights and increased the powers of the Department to hold control over them and to segregate them from the wider community. This relates to Davis’s play as it was set in Northam, WA, during the time period of the Great Depression and his experience held under the control of white Australians. Many languages are declining in use or are vanishing due to the tragic history of assimilation policies carried out in the 1930’s. In an attempt to assimilate Native Australian cultures into English society, the government discouraged and suppressed thousands of years of language diversity and knowledge.
Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their parents and communities and were forced to attend school, speaking their known languages was strictly forbidden, and students who disobeyed often suffered severe physical or psychological punishment. Cut off from their families, many students lost the ability to speak their First Nations languages and subsequently, were unable to pass on these skills to their children. As a result of the Stolen Generation, Aboriginal people experienced major repercussions of language loss. When a language is lost, the culture, health, and identities of the people are also threatened. This is apparent in ‘No Sugar’ as the comparison of Grans language to other characters, such as David, is distinctive. Gran is a representation of former Aboriginal ethnicity; although English has been influenced into her speech, she still strongly carries the traditional Indigenous language. This makes her an important character in the drama because it signifies the impact the white colonizers made on the Aboriginals.
Whereas the character of David, the youngest in the Millimurra family, has been highly affected by white teachings and has suffered a great loss in his traditional language. His speech consists vastly of European language and scarcely of any Indigenous words “Come on, set me up. Not beer tops, wine tops.” Exposing once again the suppression of usual language caused by white Australia. ‘No Sugar’, an Australian play written by Jack Davis, an Aboriginal Australian, challenged my values towards Aboriginals and issues such as the treatment of our indigenous people today and between the 1920-30’s. I was encouraged to respond to Aboriginal people in a positive way. By viewing Davis’ play I am more understanding of Aborigines and sympathetic towards them as the drama provided me with the opportunity to recognize a realistic portrayal of the daily lives and hardships of these people, especially the older generations of indigenous Australians.
By comparing how I live to how the characters in the play, I realise I am extremely fortunate; such necessities as soap that I take for granted, they lived without, and ironically their ‘protectors’ saw this item as a luxury, yet denounced them based on an absence of cleanliness. I, as the audience, was encouraged to sympathise with the Aboriginal characters, and embrace a negative attitude towards characters such as Neville and the Sergeant. These two white Australian characters along with a multitude of others treated the Aboriginals with very little or no respect. This emphasizes the ignorance of white Australians. “The native’s entrance is around the back” this quote demonstrates the key issue of racism Davis raised in ‘No Sugar’. ‘No Sugar’ is a play that promotes many issues related to the treatment of Aborigines during the Depression but which also still exists in today’s society. By viewing plays such as ‘No Sugar’, with its entertaining and informative mixture of humour, history and exposition of injustice, hopefully we can become a more understanding nation in the future and open our eyes to the prejudices of the past.
Considering my fortunate upbringing and living in an improved and evolved version of Australian society, in comparison to the one Davis describes, my views have been shaped to accept all and to celebrate living in a country that is extremely rich in multiculturalism. Because of this, my understanding of ‘No Sugar’ has impacted and appalled me tremendously. I was encouraged to respond negatively towards those of a ‘higher status’ and who viewed Aborigines as beneath them, because of the pigment of their skin. Davis highlights my views of indigenous people and correctly identities them as individual human beings with personalities and talents, not as stereotypes. This is shown through the use of characters such as Gran with her humour and Jimmy with his determination, that despite our race we as humans are still the same. Whilst viewing ‘No Sugar’ I couldn’t help but sympathise with and laugh at Gran’s witty humour “You don’t want to shout like that, sergeant. You’ll have a fit, just like a dingo when he gets a bait”. Due to my views and beliefs I instantly resented characters, like Mr. Neville, that held such disrespect towards Aboriginal people.
A person who is in a position of authority, for example a police officer, may interpret this play differently to how I do because of the demeaning manner belonging to the character of Sergeant Carrol in ‘No Sugar’. Someone involved in the police force may feel ashamed to be categorized in the same occupation, or have any relation to a character as disrespectful and intolerant as the Sergeant. Their understanding may be one of disgust and view the Sergeants conduct as unprofessional and out of character in comparison to how a policeman is believed to behave. “Yeah, and you tell that bush lawyer brother of yours, if he comes here arguing I’ll make him jump: straight inside.” The Sergeants use of terminology such as ‘bush lawyer’ depicts him as racist towards the Indigenous.
The subtly intimidating and unethical threatening of imprisoning a Native also shows lack of respect and an attitude that would deem unexpected from an influential authority figure in today’s society. A person of the equal profession as Sergeant Carrol would understand this text differently to me, because of the comparison in behaviour to how Sergeant’s character acts in relation to how a policeman today would treat someone of different racial background. They would realize the inequality of the character in such a high position in society. Jahni O’Meara.