Jack Davis’ No Sugar is a prime example of a play that does not rely solely on dialogue to produce meaning. Through dramatic conventions, Davis is able to provide an insight of the suffering, oppression and marginalisation endured by the Aboriginal people in the post-colonial Australian society. The play focuses on the political dislocation of the Millimurra family, to a reserve in Moore River, as a government attempt of ‘protection’. Without relying on dialogue, an effective amalgamation of dramatic devices, including staging, lighting, costume and sound, expose the disastrous effects of colonisation which resulted in the segregation and oppression of the Aboriginal population and the attempted annihilation of their culture.
The staging of No Sugar is an effective technique to produce meaning, other than dialogue. The stage design is divided into two sections. One section of the stage holds “the Avon Valley of Northam” where the police station and the Government Well Aboriginal Reserve are situated. On the other side of the stage “is the Moore River Native Settlement” which is where the Superintendent’s office and the Millimurra tent is set. The space on stage works well to show power relations between the two cultures in the post colonial context. The white authority held obvious positions of power, such as the Chief Protector’s Office, which works to segregate the Aboriginal people.
On stage, the areas of white authority and dominance are placed on the margins of the stage. It is in these places that the Millimurra family is restricted, oppressed and marginalised. The Aboriginal encampment is situated at the forefront of the stage, thus becoming the visual focus. It is only in these areas, where white authority is not dominant, that the Millimurra family is able to celebrate their culture which was considered inferior.
This privileging of the Aboriginal culture through staging is evident in both Northam and the Moore River settlement. The division on stage also works to enhance the political dislocation of the Millimurra family from Northam to Moore River. It is through the forceful dislocation that the audience sees how the fight to own and contest the same space is the main source of conflict between the two cultures. The disempowerment of the Aboriginal people is criticised through the lack of equality in the set design. Without relying on dialogue, the staging helps to expose the power disparities of the post colonial context.
The staging of Act One, Scene Seven helps to produce meaning by highlighting the segregation of the Aboriginal people. The use of space in the staging clearly illustrates the regulations and restrictions imposed upon the Aboriginal people, without completely relying on dialogue. In this scene, part of the action takes place in the office of “the Chief Protector of Aborigines” in Murray Street, Perth.
It is this office that has an “entrance front and rear for whites and blacks respectively”. Jimmy Munday, an Aborigine character, is at the office in order to obtain a train fare back to Northam. This office is construction of a government department which carried out the clauses of the Aborigines Act of 1905 “an act to make provision for the better protection and care for the Aboriginal inhabitants of Western Australia”. Under this act, the Chief Protector Mr. A.O. Neville, was the person responsible for promoting the welfare of Aboriginal people. Jimmy’s rejected attempts to enter the office, even to get the attention of Mr. Neville, exposes hypocrisy of the Aborigine Act.
This Aborigine act actually resulted in the oppression and disempowerment the Aboriginal people and attempted annihilation of their culture. A criticism of white abuse of power is made through the segregation of Aboriginal people in a place which is supposed to assist in their “preservation and well-being”. It is this example that helps to show the dominance of the white colonisers who, by undermining the Aboriginal people, are able to maintain their control and authority over them. Through the staging of a rear entry, the design of the Chief Protector’s office helps to expose the hypocrisy of the Aborigine Act of 1905, without the use of dialogue.
The lighting design in the Corroboree ceremony works to privilege the traditional Aboriginal culture. The spiritual and visually stimulating ceremony is significantly enhanced by the lighting design. The ceremony is set at “night” and the lighting design is simplistic and natural, “a campfire burns”. By merely having the campfire to provide light on stage works to emphasise how the Aboriginal people do not require any western influences. The Aboriginal people, at night, are able to keep their culture alive, as an act of defiance to white paternalism. Whilst the characters are dancing, their bodies are “appearing and disappearing as the paint catches the firelight.”
The lighting adds an element of magic to the ceremony whilst furthering the spirituality of the celebration. The lighting in this ceremony works to have a strong effect upon the audience. By having only a campfire, the audience is somewhat assimilated into the spiritual nature of the Aboriginal culture; as the firelight is not customary theatrical lighting. Without having the audience to rely on dialogue, the lighting design’s strong effect produces a strong level of meaning. The lighting helps to significantly privilege the Aboriginal culture through promoting the spiritual and natural nature of the ceremony.
Properties and effective lighting are employed in Act Four, Scene Three in order to show the suffering and disempowerment of the Aboriginal women. This scene exposes Mr. Neal’s, the superintendent of the Moore River Reserve, abuse of Mary Dargurru, the pregnant Aborigine character. Mary, despite Mr. Neal’s orders, refuses to work in the hospital on the reserve. In reaction to her defiance, Mr. Neal immediately “takes the cat-o-nine-tails from his desk”. This automatic resort to violence works to show how the Aboriginal people were treated with no justice. The whip works as a symbol of abuse of power and violent oppression of the Aboriginal people.
This scene ends with Mary’s punishment, where lighting is the main component in providing meaning “NEAL grabs her. Billy holds her outstretched over a pile of flour bags. NEAL raises the cat-o’-nine-tails. Blackout. A scream.” The use of lighting is effective here. It works to intensify the abuse of power by forcing the audience to focus on the result of the punishment – the ‘scream’. The abuse of Aboriginal women is exposed in this scene without relying entirely on dialogue. Through the use of the whip and lighting design, the audience is subjected a shockingly real representation of abuse of power.
Without the use of dialogue, the costume of Billy Kimberley at the Australia day ceremony works to show the subjugation of the Aboriginal people. The contrast in Billy’s traditional ‘wilgi’ costume in the Corroboree ceremony – where he was free from oppression and able to celebrate his culture, to that of the Australia Day ceremony is significant. At the Australia Day ceremony, set on a “very hot afternoon”, Billy Kimberley is dressed in “new but absurdly ill fitting uniforms”. Through the costume, it is shown how the formality of white tradition does not in keep with traditional native culture. This costume furthers to show how, according to the Aboriginal people, colonial power does not ‘fit’ and is ‘absurd’ to native Australian culture.
His costume also works to further represent the subjugation of the Aboriginal people. Billy Kimberley’s “new” but “absurdly ill fitting” position as Mr. Neal’s helper shows how the British redefined a man who was without a people or a home after the Oombulgarri Massacre. He has obtained a new identity from the restraints he is under. The redefinition of this Aborigine character works to show the devaluing and attempted eradication of the Aboriginal culture. The formality of the costumes on the hot day is impractical. However this formal nature is a result of colonial attempts to constantly assert their superiority over the Aboriginal people. Through the costume of Billy Kimberley a strong criticism of colonial formality, power and values is projected without total reliance on dialogue.
Without completely depending upon dialogue, the use of sound in the resolution produces a message that conveys the need for reconciliation and cooperation between the two different cultures. In the resolution, Mary and Joe obtain permission from Mr. Neal to leave the Moore River reserve and return to Northam. It is shown here how the Aboriginal characters cannot create a future without permission from British authority figures. As Joe and Mary begin to “farewell each member of the family” before they walk to Northam, “Magpies squawk”. The sound of the magpie embodies one of the main purposes of the text – to encourage the cooperation and integration of the two culture.
The use of sound whilst Joe and Mary are “walking off into the distance” works to create an element of hope in the resolution. The two characters are easing away from oppression, and the sound of the magpie can work to finally enforce Davis’ evolutionary position – the hope for an idyllic future where the two cultures have reconciled and grew an understanding for one another. Without solely using dialogue, the use of sound in the resolution is a vital technique in imposing the need for mutual cooperation between the two conflicting cultures.
Jack Davis’ No Sugar uses an effective amalgamation of dramatic devices, not only dialogue, to produce meaning. Through the dramatic conventions the frighteningly real effects of colonisation are exposed, along with the segregation and oppression of the Aboriginal population and the attempted annihilation of their culture. The use of dramatic conventions allows Davis to further criticise the domineering treatment of the Aboriginal people who were considered culturally inferior and socially inappropriate in the post colonial context.