Lest we forget ... Black Diggers. Photo: Jamie Williams
Black Diggers reclaims lost history

Black Diggers reclaims lost history
Trista Coulter
11 March 2015 Adelaide Festival Review

Black Diggers tells the story of a group of Indigenous men who, despite not being recognised as official citizens, lied about their age and heritage to enlist with the British Commonwealth during World War I.

Leaving behind the oppression they suffered in Australia, these brave men found equality, acceptance and mateship in the trenches of Europe, only to return home to a country still rife with racism and segregation.

Writer Tom Wright and director Wesley Enoch have drawn on archival material and testimonies to create a thought-provoking narrative which is expertly brought to life by the all-male, all-Indigenous cast, many of whom play multiple roles.

A series of musical numbers enables the cast – including George Bostock, Luke Carroll, Shaka Cook, Kirk Page and Tibian Wyles – to showcase their beautiful singing voices. There are moments when the rhythmic chanting of the men is haunting, particularly when coupled with the eerie sounds of the didgeridoo and the solemn undertones of the bugle.

Despite its sombre premise, Black Diggers begins in a surprisingly light-hearted fashion and there are many comedic moments as the young men attempt to lie their way past the authorities so they can enlist. However, the mood soon changes when they reach the frontline. As the horrors of war unfold around them, they find themselves in a situation where skin colour is irrelevant; the audience witnesses the previously naive boys evolve into men with a newfound sense of purpose and pride in their culture and country.

Wright's strong scriptwriting has created a realistic war experience with likeable characters, and highlights the injustices suffered by Indigenous returned servicemen. But rather than seeking to lay blame for the forgotten Indigenous ANZAC experience, Black Diggers reclaims it and proudly shares it was the audience.

Strobe lights and explosive sound effects help to create a feeling of danger and violence, however, it is the men's descriptions of the warzones which captures the truly horrific experience of war.
Black Diggers unfolds on a sparsely furnished set littered with a handful of rusty chairs and ladders, army supply boxes and a large raised platform which serves as both a bunker and a raised stage. The walls are black and throughout the play the men paint a series of names and symbols on them in white, the most evocative of which is "Lest we forget".

The entire cast deliver strong performances and the play's only downfall is that some scenes seem unnecessarily drawn out. Presented by the Queensland Theatre Company, Black Diggers is a well-crafted tribute which shines a light on a seemingly forgotten yet important part of Australia's ANZAC legend.

Click here to read the original review

Nelson Meers Foundation supported this work for the Sydney Festival in 2014.

Black Diggers was presented at Her Majesty's Theatre 10-14 March 2015 as part of the Adelaide Festival program.

Black Diggers' next season is in Canberra where it opens on 26 March 2015.