No sugar, no recognition

It’s doubtful that the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust Twenty would have imagined such an ongoing legacy for a play they commissioned in 1984. Thirty years have now passed since Jack Davis’ No Sugar was first performed at the Maltings in North Perth. The play, which tells the story of Northam’s Munday-Millimurra family and their forced relocation to Moore River in the 1930s, travelled briefly. It was the Australian entry at the 1986 World Theatre Festival in Canada; it went to Melbourne’s Fitzroy Town Hall, for a performance of a Davis trilogy; and, finally, to London’s Riverside Studios in 1988. Other than that, professional performances of No Sugar have been rare. Nonetheless, Davis’ semi-autobiographical tale of disenfranchisement remains worryingly relevant.

Davis’ white authoritarian nightmare lives on in the ongoing struggle of his Noongar people in Matagarup (Heirisson Island). There, the Indigenous community has set up a Noongar Tent Embassy.The Embassy follows the decade-long failure of Western Australian governments to settle the Noongar Native Title Claim and the more recent announcement of remote community closures.

On the former, Premier Colin Barnett made a final settlement offer last year: the government would pay $1.3 billion, indexed over 12 years, into a Noongar Future Fund. In return, the community’s (already limited) right to native title would be forever extinguished. The South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, acting on behalf of the Noongar community, have held meetings in various areas to secure majority support for Barnett’s settlement offer.

The Ballardong meeting – an area that includes the Northam township where No Sugar begins – secured a vote of 166 to 132 in favour of the settlement on 14 March. This along with other votes, such as the 207 to 200 favourable vote in the Wagyl Kaip region, demonstrate that there is a significant portion of the Noongar community who are not sold on Barnett’s offer.

Indeed, there are many who argue that a settlement of $1.3 billion is conservative (especially given the wealth of minerals that exist in Noongar land). They argue that more could be gained through a native title claim in the court system. Noongar activist Richard Wilkes called Barnett’s offer a ‘sham’. It’s an understandable viewpoint premised on basic logic: why would Barnett, who has already proven his limited sympathy for Indigenous communities, offer more than necessary? His analysts must have advised him to settle this matter now precisely because a court battle could be more costly.

Barnett’s proposed closure of over one hundred remote West Australian communities has reinforced the Noongar community’s concerns. Tony Abbott’s ‘lifestyle choice’ comment certainly didn’t help the situation. With reports of non-Indigenous communities being spared the fate of nearby Indigenous communities, it’s hard to see much progress from the Great Depression Australia of No Sugar.

For the Noongar community, it’s a story all too similar to Davis’ play. When Joe Millimurra, having escaped the Moore River Settlement with his partner, returns to Northam, he finds it has been razed. At this sight he boldly declares, ‘it’ll never be over!’ Indeed, it seems that the Noongar struggle for proper and adequate recognition will be never-ending.

Granted, there are some cases of progress in modern West Australia. For example, the play’s (arguably) well-intentioned Sister Eileen plans to provide books to the Moore River Indigenous population in order to improve literacy. In response, Neal, the Superintendent of the Moore River Settlement, asserts his dominance: ‘there’s enough troublemakers without giving them ideas.’ The church perhaps now has some positive reach in Noongar circles (or, in any case, more than Sister Eileen did), with the Perth Anglican Church providing a Noongar translation of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and widely acknowledging the Noongar people as the original custodians of the land. Overall, however, progress is limited. Ongoing Indigenous community closures and contentious land rights settlements indicate that with No Sugar, Davis may not have been telling a past story as much as he was foreshadowing a future one.

James Fogarty

James Fogarty is a teacher and writer from Melbourne. He tweets at @JamesHFogarty.

More by James Fogarty ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays