Essay by Bernadette Brennan

It has seemed to me for some years that two aspects of the Aboriginal struggle have been under-valued. One is their continued will to survive, the other their continued efforts to come to terms with us … There are many, perhaps too many, theories about our troubles with the aborigines. We can spare a moment to consider their theory about their troubles with us. – W.E.H. Stanner, After the Dreaming (1968)

No Sugar, first performed in 1985, is part of Jack Davis’s The First Born trilogy: three plays that trace the history of Aboriginal people in Western Australia from 1829 to the present. Though it was written after The Dreamers (1982), this play moves backwards in time to 1929 to dramatise the story of the Millimurra family’s forced removal from their home in Northam to the Moore River Native Settlement during the Great Depression. No Sugar confronts boldly the harsh treatment of the Nyoongah people at the hands of white administrators, but it also celebrates with humour and pride the resilience of the Nyoongah people to survive brutality and maintain their culture.

Jack Davis, acclaimed Nyoongah editor, poet and playwright, persistently invites his audiences to consider the many ways colonialism has impacted upon Aboriginal Australians. Throughout his work, he interrogates the narratives of Australian history, challenging what might be termed the official version of history with counter-stories and alternative perspectives. Drama, being a spatial medium, provides an ideal vehicle for Davis to demonstrate not only how colonialism deliberately displaced Aboriginal people from country, but also how it sought to contain and control them. On stage, Davis’s Aboriginal characters resist containment within or by police, missionaries, jail, Christianity and the English language. Through humour, rebellion and pathos, they command attention, insist on their subjectivity and resist, albeit to varying degrees, attempts to destroy their culture and spirituality.

Performance space 

The opening directions state that the ‘play is designed for a dispersed setting on an open stage’. Why might Davis have deliberately positioned all the spaces of the drama on the one plane? How might those spaces, and the actions in those spaces, interact? What might Davis be saying about the relationship between events occurring in different geographic spaces?

It is important to remember, as Helen Gilbert has noted when discussing place and displacement in Davis’s theatre, that:

In performance genres, unlike in fiction, narratives unfold in space as well as through time … drama offers the possibility of a simultaneous reading … of all the visual and aural signifiers embedded in the text as performance. Theatre thus lends itself particularly well to the representation and interrogation of the spatial aspects of imperialism. It allows a remapping of space and a reframing of time to facilitate the telling or showing of oppositional versions of the past that propose not only different constitutive events but different ways of constructing history itself. (Gilbert p. 61)

In No Sugar, Davis exploits ‘visual and aural signifiers’ masterfully. Perhaps he directs the action to be on the one stage to suggest that all the events in his play are interrelated and that to understand what happens in one place one needs to appreciate what has occurred elsewhere. Or put another way, nothing in the power play of history and Indigenous affairs is simple or happens in isolation. Another aspect of the staging might suggest that the lives of black and white Australians are inextricably linked. Each group, to borrow Stanner’s words, has ‘troubles’ with the other. Davis’s setting emphasises the ongoing power struggles. Offices of white authority – replete with their separate entrances for black and white – frame the stage and encroach upon Aboriginal spaces. Even so, the play celebrates the Aboriginal characters’ refusal to remain within proscribed boundaries.

Politics of performance 

Crucially, we appreciate that the published text is never the same as the performance. Indeed, each performance is itself determined by the audience dynamic. Joanne Tompkins, writing about orality, text and theatrical direction in Davis’s plays, has discussed how in 1988 the director of The First Born trilogy wanted to accentuate the trilogy’s difference from ‘conventional’ theatre by staging it in the Fitzroy Town Hall and shifting the production to different parts of the auditorium, ‘requiring the audience to move to different rooms and venues within the main building’ (Tompkins p. 58). Such movement may have gestured towards the forced destabilisation and displacement of Indigenous people, and the movement of the families over time, but more significantly it would have required the audience to become active participants in, rather than passive recipients of, the unfolding drama.

As Davis has said in an interview with Adam Shoemaker: ‘If you’re black, you’re political’ (Shoemaker p. 32). He is interested in the impact his drama has on his audience. That impact will vary according to the size, spatial configuration and lighting of the theatre. Think for a moment how an audience member might experience the whipping of the heavily pregnant Mary. In an intimate venue, such a scene might be almost intolerable. What of the corroboree? Would the reverberation of the didgeridoo have the same power in a cavernous space as in a smaller space? Perhaps. Might a powerfully performed corroboree diminish the symbols and figures of white power and authority?

Shared and contested histories 

Davis appreciates that black and white histories are inextricably linked. The opening scene ofNo Sugar seamlessly presents the lived realities of mixed histories in the everyday lives of the Millimurra family. The children play cricket, an imported game of Empire, while Jimmy ‘sharpens an axe, bush fashion’. Joe reads the special centenary edition of the Western Mail – a written document that will constitute white Australian history. The newspaper text, not unlike the brass band in the march, proclaims proudly how brave and successful the white ‘pioneers’ have been in overcoming the ‘dangers’ posed by Aboriginal people. Yet that triumphalist narrative is fragmented and disempowered, initially through Joe’s hesitant diction, and then more forcefully by Jimmy’s outburst: ‘You fellas, you know why themwetjalas marchin’ down the street, eh? … ‘Cause them bastards took our country and them blackfellas dancin’ for ’em’ (Davis No Sugar Act 1, scene 1).

The authority and power of the written word to construct history cannot be overstated. As the bitter ‘History Wars’ of the 1990s demonstrated, Australian history is afforded credibility when verified through written records such as newspapers and archival documents. Oral histories, and histories told through song, dance, painting and sacred rangga, have been presented as evidence in important land rights cases only to be dismissed as not legally persuasive. (Rangga are the sacred emblems of Indigenous clans. For the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land, they consist of paintings and markers of ceremony made out of bird feathers and possum fur. In Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, commonly known as the Gove Land Rights Case, the Yolngu men broke tradition and showed their rangga to Sir Richard Blackburn, the white presiding judge. The judge appreciated that these objects were obviously religious in character but did not find them legally persuasive.) Similarly, critics of the Bringing them home report (1997) argued that the witnesses’ testimonies should be dismissed as mere stories because they were not subjected to rigorous cross-examination in a court of law.Davis wants to complicate and qualify what constitutes white Australian history by showing how that history needs to incorporate Aboriginal history and experience, told through documents, yes, but also through story, song, painting and dance. History, he insists, is more than the written word.

In No Sugar, Davis dramatises the facts of his own life, most obviously his family’s forced removal from Northam to the overcrowded Moore River Native Settlement. (The introduction to the 1988 Currency Press edition of Kullark/The Dreamers includes photographs of the corroboree group, Palm Sunday at the Moore River Settlement, and the actual Matron Neal with Aboriginal babies at the hospital dated 1930s.) Annie Morrison’s submission to the 1934 Moseley Royal Commission, cited as the introduction to Act 2 of Kullark, is replicated in Gran’s requests for meat and blankets, and Mary’s brutal whipping: ‘two trackers held the Girls hand and 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’ (Davis Kullark/The Dreamers p. 40).

This kind of affirmation of experience, sought from documents and testimony, structures Dallas Winmar’s Aliwa!, a play about Davis’s three sisters and their mother’s attempt to keep them with her after the death of their father. When performed at Subiaco Theatre, Perth, and Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, in July and August 2000, an actor playing Davis’s sister, Aunty Dot, remained on stage as the voice of authority while boards of photographs and letters were displayed in the foyers.

The political motivation for the removal to the mission, and A.O. Neville’s role as Chief Protector of Aborigines in that move, are established facts. Davis’s characterisation of Neville bears comparison with Neville’s portrayal in Phillip Noyce’s film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Kim Scott’s novel Benang: From the heart (2000). Like Davis’s plays, Benangincorporates archival documents and demonstrates how Aboriginal voices and history have, for most of the twentieth century, been effectively silenced by the voices and stories of non-Aboriginal Australians.

Tales of massacre

Davis orchestrates two powerfully dramatic addresses by two divergent figures of authority: A.O. Neville and Billy Kimberley. Both speak of massacre. Flanked by signs of Empire, Neville delivers a rousing speech to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society outlining Stirling’s intentions to prosecute anyone who behaved ‘in a fraudulent, cruel, or felonious manner towards the aboriginal race’ (Act 3, scene 5), before recounting the horrendous story of a massacre led by Stirling. In performance, such a scene would command an appalled silence. One imagines Neville centre stage, brimming with confidence (and blind to his own hypocrisy), concluding with the shocking statistics that in seventy-two years the Aboriginal population of south-west Western Australia has been decimated: ‘a people estimated to number thirteen thousand were reduced to one thousand four hundred and nineteen’ (Act 3, scene 5).

Davis demonstrates his familiarity with European literary forms and modes of address. Through satirical poems such as ‘A Letter to the Shade of Charles Darwin’, he exposes the patronising, racist assumptions held by Europeans against the Aboriginal population. The history outlined in Neville’s speech, of honorable intentions gone so wrong, also informs Kim Scott’s award-winning novel, That Deadman Dance.

Gilbert has described how in the 1990 Neil Armfield and Lynette Narkle production of No Sugar in Perth, ‘a vibrant corroboree’ preceded Neville’s speech:

When the dance ended, Neville walked tentatively across the corroboree ground while traces of the dancers’ footprints and a visible layer of unsettled red dust marked his presence as incongruous, invasive and ultimately illegitimate. (Gilbert pp. 69–70)

In contrast to Neville’s formal diction, Billy Kimberley’s earlier narration of the Oombulgarri massacre captures the rhythms and speech patterns of his people: ‘I bin stop Liveringa station and my brother, he bin run from Oombulgarri. [Holding up four fingers] That many days. Night time too …’ (Act 2, scene 6). Billy commands the stage as he speaks and acts out the slaughter. Sam and Jimmy hang on his every word. Repeatedly the stage directions note: ‘He sits in silence’, ‘Silence’, ‘They sit in silence, mesmerized and shocked by Billy’s gruesome story’, ‘They sit in silence staring’. So too the audience. The conclusion of each of these two speeches marks a moment of immense dramatic impact. Through these speeches, Davis yet again emphasises a shared history and the need for both stories to be heard.

Naturalism, humour, audience

A number of critics have discussed Davis’s use of naturalism: as a tool to gain identification and sympathy from white audiences (Webby); as a way to educate audiences – black and white, and to challenge accepted notions of Aboriginality (Casey); and as a ‘distinctive … trademark of all the Aboriginal plays written to date’ (Shoemaker p. 258). Maryrose Casey cites a number of reviewers describing ‘performances of total verisimilitude’ (Casey p. 153).

An important component of Davis’s naturalism is his use of humour. Again, critics have argued that there is a distinctive sense of Aboriginal humour most often employed as a strategy for survival (Shoemaker, Anna Haebich, Lillian Holt). Davis himself believes:

Aboriginal people are more spontaneous with their humour. Quicker to laugh … there is a different attitude to humour … Aboriginal humour is far different to white humour. Aboriginal people see humour where white people could see it for a smile but not for a laugh … they may grin at it but they don’t laugh at it. But an Aboriginal – if he felt like it – he’d just hold his guts and roar with laughter. (‘The Real Australian Story’ pp. 40–1)

Humour plays a vital role in No Sugar. Scenes where Jimmy refuses to keep quiet – in Neville’s office, in the courtroom, in the jail cell – and the way in which he outsmarts Billy Kimberley, most likely provide light relief, entertainment, for a white audience. For a Nyoongah audience, they would be uproariously funny and celebratory, affirming the delight of speaking back to power.

In addition to humour, Davis employs the Nyoongah language to great effect. The white reader has the benefit of a glossary; not so the white viewer. There are moments in performance, therefore, where the white viewer is deliberately disempowered, at a loss, marginalised. At the same time, a Nyoongah viewer would experience a sense of validation and inclusion. On another level, Davis’s incorporation of Nyoongah language, song and dance facilitates the sharing of language, knowledge and story among his Nyoongah audience. (Nyoongah writer Kim Scott undertakes a more explicit project of sharing language and story in Mamang and Nyoongah Mambara Bakitj, produced through the Wirlomin Nyoongah Language and Stories Project.)

Davis refuses to romanticise and thereby ‘demean’ his Aboriginal characters ‘by always making them the goodies’ (‘The Dreamers’, Meanjin p. 46). Many of his characters are based on real people and he attempts to construct them as fully rounded personalities. In No Sugar, the Aboriginal residents of Northam are objectified and cast out as unwanted nuisances from white Australian space. Sergeant Carrol tells Neville: ‘between you and me and the gatepost, the Council’d prefer it if you sent ’em to Moore River or somewhere’ (Act 1, scene 7). Davis refuses to allow his characters to stay as ”em’. He restores their full subjectivity through two strategies: verbal and visual.

Repeatedly, Gran and Milly interrupt Sergeant Carrol’s discussions with Neville, invading the space of white authority, mocking Carrol, and insisting on their rights to rations. Their physical presence and rowdy voices force Neville to withdraw and Carrol to attend their needs. Similarly, Jimmy refuses to be silent or passive. He will not wait for Neville out the back; he ‘barges into the Chief Protector’s Office’, insisting on being seen and heard. In court and in the police cells, he repeatedly interrupts the white authority figures with his fiery ripostes. He arrives in the courtroom in his own time, responding to the suggestion that he might well be making ‘a mockery of the court by delaying proceedings’ with: ‘Sorry, sir, I was on the shit bucket … toilet … Got a guts ache, sir’ (Act 1, scene 5). Dramatically, these scenes with crossed conversations, multiple yelling voices, songs and repartee, are not only humorous, they are potentially very disruptive, noisy, even shambolic. Order and control have been subverted. Aboriginal bodies and voices refuse containment.

Visually, Davis emphasises the dignity and beauty of the Aboriginal body. In The Dreamers, The Dancer, particularly in contrast to the ailing Worru, embodies tradition, strength, culture and power. Here Jimmy, Sam, Joe and Billy dance the corroboree, representing those same qualities and telling of a time of plenty in the midst of ration cuts, hunger and cold. Obviously, Davis is drawing a parallel between the opening story of the farcical staging of Aborigines dancing to a brass band and the corroboree. But more affectingly the corroboree, which purposefully directs the audience’s gaze to the visible, beautiful painted bodies, contrasts with the earlier scene of Joe’s humiliation as Matron conducts her embarrassing health check.

Civilisation and Christianity

It was A.O. Neville who spoke of uplifting and elevating Aboriginal people ‘to our own plane’. It was Neville who designed the ‘breeding out the colour’ policy. It was Neville who addressed the West Australian Native Welfare Conference of 1937, noting, ‘We have power under the act to take any child from its mother at any stage of its life’, before asking: ‘Are we going to have a population of 1,000,000 blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were ever any aborigines in Australia?’ (Neville p. 11). Davis insists on remembering.

With heavy-handed irony, he has Neville state: ‘I’m a great believer that if you provide the native the basic accoutrements of civilization you’re half way to civilizing him’ (Act 1, scene 2). For Neville, one of the great signifiers of civilisation is Christianity. Rather than make overt statements, Davis uses structure and symbolism to comment on the destruction wrought by the imposition of Christianity and the missions. Consider the dramatic impact of following Neville’s massacre speech with Sister Eileen’s Sunday School narration of the Slaughter of the Innocents.

Jimmy, skilled in bush ways, was once a choir boy at New Norcia mission. He can sing ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Hail, Queen of Heaven’, as well as ‘Springtime in the Rockies’ and Al Jolson’s ‘Mammy’ (Jolson in blackface). Jimmy exemplifies the intelligent, adaptable Aboriginal man who is forced to bow to unreasonable cross-cultural demands while preserving his own culture. Fittingly, though tragically, Jimmy’s final act is to reject Neville’s pompous exhortation for Aboriginal people to ‘take [their] place in Australian society … living like the white man’ (Act 4, scene 5). In fury and defiance, he collapses during the Australia Day ceremony, clutching the flagpole to the tune of ‘God Save the King’.

So what of the future?

Dramatically, the birth of a child should denote joy and hope for the future. The birth ofkoolbardi (Magpie) is more complex. The magpie and the crow are important creatures in Nyoongah culture. Indeed, Kullark opens with the story of how these birds got their colouring. Mary’s excessive fear that Matron will take her child, or that the trackers may strangle it, prefigures the horrors of the Stolen Generations. She and Joe return to Northam, but such a return may land Joe back behind bars.

In Joe and Mary and the birth of their son, Davis offers a Nyoongah version of the Holy Family. As Elizabeth Webby has pointed out in her study of Davis’s trilogy: ‘Davis’s use of the biblical names … has been criticized as unsubtle but he had a good precedent in Henry Lawson’ (Webby p. 76). She continues:

… the savage whipping of the pregnant Mary by Neal recalls both the scourging of Christ and the floggings of convict Australia. Early accounts record the horrified reaction of ‘savage’ Aboriginals to seeing convicts being flogged by ‘Christian’ settlers. Davis likewise provokes horror in his audience and a questioning of the values of a society which can sing of ‘a Happy Land’ while making the lives of fellow humans a hell. (Webby p. 76)

The parody of the hymn ‘There is a happy land’, which appears in several of Davis’s works, suggests one meaning of the play’s title, emphasising the recurring motif or theme of resistance and subversion. More subtly, and far more powerfully, the title reflects back to Neville’s advice to Jimmy in Act 1, scene 7: ‘sugar catches more flies than vinegar’. Davis’s choice of title, therefore, is a bold renunciation of white authority. Aboriginal people will not play sweetly, they will not be meekly charming and abide by the rules of the imposed game. They will assert their ‘troubles’ with the colonial forces. Their stories will be told and heard, and, despite great adversity, through it all they will survive.


Referenced works

Bringing them home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997.

Casey, Maryrose. ‘Jack Davis and Nyoongah Theatre 1978–1986’. Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967–1990. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2004: 129-64.

Davis, Jack. No Sugar. Sydney: Currency Press, 2012 (1986).
—. Kullark/The Dreamers. Sydney: Currency Press, 1988 (1982).
—. ‘A Letter to the Shade of Charles Darwin’. Black Life: Poems. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1992: 29.
—. ‘The Dreamers’. Meanjin 1 (1984): 45–8.

Gilbert, Helen. ‘”Talking Country”: Place and Displacement in Jack Davis’s Theatre’. Jack Davis: The Maker of History. Ed. Gerry Turcotte. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994: 60–71.

Haebich, Anna. Interview with Adam Shoemaker, Canberra, November 1980, cited in Shoemaker, Adam. Black Words White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1989 (1992): 233.

Holt, Lillian. ‘Aboriginal humour: A conversational corroboree’. Serious Frolic: Essays on Australian Humour. Eds Fran de Groen and Peter Kirkpatrick. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009: 81–94.

Neville, A.O. Address delivered to the Aboriginal Welfare – Initial Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities, Canberra, April 21–23, 1937.

Noyce, Phillip (dir.). Rabbit-Proof Fence. Miramax, 2002.

Scott, Kim. Benang: From the Heart. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999.
—. That Deadman Dance. Sydney: Picador, 2010.

Scott, Kim, Roberts, Lomas and the Wirlomin Nyoongah Language and Stories Project. Artwork by Geoffrey Woods and Anthony Roberts. Nyoongah Mambara Bakitj. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2011.

Scott, Kim, Woods, Iris and the Wirlomin Nyoongah Language and Stories Project. Artwork by Jeffrey Farmer, Helen Nelly and Roma Winmar (Yibiyung). Mamang. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2011.

Shoemaker, Adam. Black Words White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1989 (1992).
—. ‘”The Real Australian Story”: An Interview with Jack Davis’. Jack Davis: The Maker of History. Ed. Gerry Turcotte. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994: 22-47.

Stanner, W.E.H. After the Dreaming: 1968 Boyer Lectures. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1969.

Tompkins, Joanne. ‘Oral Culture, Theatre, Text: Jack Davis’s Plays’. Jack Davis: The Maker of History. Ed. Gerry Turcotte. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994: 48-59.

Turcotte, Gerry, ed. Jack Davis: The Maker of History. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994.

Webby, Elizabeth. ‘The First Born Trilogy’. Modern Australian Plays. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1993: 65-82.

Winmar, Dallas. Aliwa!. Sydney: Currency Press, 2002.

Further reading

Dibble, Brian and Macintyre, Margaret. ‘Hybridity in Jack Davis’ No Sugar‘. Westerly 37.4 (1992): 93-8.

Kaine-Jones, Karen. ‘Contemporary Aboriginal Drama’. Southerly 4 (1988): 432-44.

© Copyright Bernadette Brennan 2014