A moving portrait of Indigenous soldiers offers up a Sydney Festival highlight.

Queensland Theatre Company

Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, January 24, 2014

An exploration of the untold stories of Aboriginal soldiers in the First World War, Wesley Enoch's Black Diggers is an understated yet powerful attempt to weave Indigenous contribution in World War I into the well-established Anzac legend.

Presenting a narrative of War through 60 vignettes, each self-contained scene flows smoothly together, played out in a charcoal black box strewn with graffiti.

From the diggers’ initial belief that fighting for God and Country would earn them integration into mainstream society, to facing continued discrimination upon their return to Australia, the play explores the untold story of 800 dispossessed Indigenous soldiers who offered up their lives on the battlefields of Europe.

The production features nine Indigenous actors, all men, performing in a wide range of roles, male and female, black and white. Some characters weave themselves through the vignettes; others make fleeting cameos. The script by Tom Wright feels hauntingly authentic, full of verbatim material based on the diggers' own experiences.

The play is an ensemble work, with the performances of Meyne Wyatt, Guy Simon and Luke Carroll particular stand-outs. The final monologue offered by David Page offers a gripping and ceremonial image of the “Iron Harvest” – the shrapnel, bullets and wire exposed on the battlefields by the thawing of the snow each year in Spring.

We also gain revealing insight into the experiences of Indigenous soldiers in the trenches, whose interactions with white soldiers offer up a mix of curiosity and mateship. 

Stephen Curtis's set design is simple yet effective – a raised platform features centre stage; behind is a blackboard, upon which the cast paint the name of battles and fallen Indigenous comrades.

There are no overblown sentiments in Black Diggers; instead, just the fluid accounts of real experiences and real lives. In the centenary year of the First World War’s outbreak, the play offers a poignant commemoration of Australia’s wartime history, and of the Indigenous soldiers who selflessly offered up their lives.

Black Diggers will run at Queensland Performing Arts Centre from September 24-October 12.