Based on real archival accounts, Black Diggers tells the complex, intertwining stories of roughly a dozen fictional Aboriginal Australian soldiers during World War One. Rather than present a single, linear narrative, the play uses more than fifty disjointed vignettes, none longer than a few minutes, to emphasize the diversity of Indigenous pathways to, through, and onward past the War, as well as to evoke the sense of shock and disorientation that the War created for Aboriginal soldiers (as well as for the world as a whole). The play, written for “nine male indigenous actors,” therefore seeks—in the words of its author, Tom Wright—to offer “a patchwork quilt of the past.”
Black Diggers opens with a number of scenes depicting Indigenous life before the war and future Indigenous soldiers’ reaction to its outbreak. The audience watches a white Taxidermist save a young boy named Nigel from his parents’ fate—murder at the hands of greedy white settlers—in the remote Bellender Ker wilderness of Queensland. But he only does this because Nigel is a “perfect specimen,” and indeed he soon shows Nigel around his collection of stuffed apes at the Australian Museum, which illustrates the dominant social attitude toward Aboriginal Australians at the turn of the 20th century: they were seen as sub-humans, unworthy and incapable of appreciating political rights.
Other characters, like friends Harry, Bob, Ern, and Norm, wonder what the War is about and whether they might be able to win recognition as Australians by deciding to fight in it. Initially rejected because only “Substantially European” men are allowed to enlist in the army, Ern, Norm, and Bob run into a Sergeant who shares their skepticism toward this requirement and signs them up. They join the Australian military, although an anonymous radio broadcast confirms that it defines itself as a white institution fighting on white Europeans’ behalf against the savage forces of the Ottoman Empire.
As the “black diggers” ship out to Europe and the Middle East, they face both discrimination and acceptance—often reluctant but sometimes enthusiastic—from their white compatriots. One Private threatens Harry for daring to eat lunch with him, but the other white Privates take Harry’s side and beat up the racist. Laurie and Nigel both get sent on the most dangerous assignments because they are Indigenous. Ern meets the pub owner’s son from his hometown, and when the man realizes Ern is Aboriginal while lighting his pipe, he enthusiastically promises to let Ern “into the front bar.” Similarly, Harry becomes friends with a white soldier named Stan. Another soldier, Mick, meets and beats up four black Trinidadian soldiers who ironically call him “Australian nigger.”
Meanwhile, the underage Bertie, who lives on his family’s traditional land in New South Wales, convinces his mother to forge his birthdate so that he can enlist in the war—even though his grandad reminds him that he will be fighting on behalf of the same country that has oppressed them for generations and will never win the equality he seeks. On the battlefield, Mick, Archie, Ern, and Stan grow increasingly bored and depressed fighting the trench warfare of World War One’s Western Front, having moved “seven feet since April” and leaving themselves with nothing to do but play I-Spy.
Soon, the diggers start encountering the severe violence that later scars them for life. Bertie and Tommy watch another Indigenous soldier die and take a lock of his hair in hopes of somehow helping his soul return to Australia; soon thereafter, they are buried under the soil by a German bomb, and when they are dug out three days later, they are too traumatized to speak, even though they finally get to return home. One soldier, Archie, writes a series of progressively despairing letters to his Auntie May, at first simply wishing his best to her but later describing in detail the failed suicide attempt of a friend, repeating the gruesome fact that “he hasn’t got a face.”
In Palestine, Laurie and a British Commander take comfort in the Bible, while in the German Zössen POW camp (designed for nonwhite Allied soldiers), Nigel listens to a German prison guard explain how he is oppressed by Britain and try to convince him to change sides. As he struggles to make sense of his identity as an Australian oppressed by the Australia on whose behalf he is fighting, Nigel meets a German professor who, in a disturbing parallel to his childhood with the Taxidermist, wants to use him as an “anthropological specimen.” Norm, Ern, and Bob all end up hospitalized with severe injuries. In the first act’s final scene, Archie strangles a German soldier to death—the German’s final words are “Black devil … last thing I see.”
Act Two of Black Diggers is set many years after the war and deals with Indigenous soldiers’ experiences returning to both peacetime and a country that staunchly refused to consider them human. An anonymous “bloke with a glass of wine” praises Indigenous servicepeople after World War Two in 1949, “thank[ing] God for the Army” that finally allowed him to realize his potential in the same year that Indigenous servicepeople were first allowed to vote. Back in 1919, as Mick and Archie return home, they hope that “this wasn’t for nothing.” But it quickly becomes apparent that it was: Archie gets kicked out of a pub on Anzac Day, the national holiday celebrating Australian and New Zealand servicepeople, even though he is wearing his war medals (a manager does later let him back in), and Mick learns at a meeting of the Soldier Settlement Commission that his land in Victoria’s Western District is being appropriated by the government and given away to former soldiers—even though he, as an Aboriginal veteran, has no chance of getting such a deal.
Archie returns to work on the old cattle ranch, where conditions for Indigenous workers have only gotten worse and the manager threatens his family’s safety when he brings it up. At a fireplace in their hometown of Cherbourg (or Barambah), the mostly-deaf Norm and one-armed Ern lament their fates: as Norm puts it, “they painted my colour back on the day I got off that boat.” A minister gives Tommy’s eulogy at an empty funeral, revealing that the soldier returned home so traumatized that he became a homeless alcoholic, with nobody learning of his service in the War until after his death. Ern gives away his war medals and Bertie simply passes his days clutching Frank’s hair and staring into space.
A number of anonymous letters fall from the ceiling, recounting the government’s neglect of Indigenous soldiers’ welfare, and the reader learns that Harry, Laurie, and Nigel also go the way of Tommy and Bertie. Harry briefly runs into his old friend Stan while begging on Castlereagh Street in downtown Sydney; Laurie meets a fellow soldier from the Light Horse in the church where he collects hymn books (but denies that he ever fought in the war, then admits that he “think[s] of another world” instead of remembering this one). After the government’s 1929 massacre of Indigenous Australians at Coniston, Nigel writes an eloquent letter to a newspaper, whose editors are so fascinated by the fact that a “darkie” can have such “beautiful handwriting” and decide to print his letter only because they are sure nobody will read its content. In the next scene, Nigel drinks while wearing a sign for the show “TARZAN THE APE MAN” in downtown Sydney; he is yet again caught in the Taxidermist’s paradox: he is valued only as a spectacle, as proof of the white belief that Indigenous Australians are closer to apes than men. Ern gives a long monologue about the enduring effects of the war, symbolized by the pieces of bullet shells that he discovered stuck in his side during World War Two, after he began spontaneously bleeding. In the final scenes, a hymn celebrates God’s “ancient sacrifice” and the Australian Prime Minister declares the nation’s “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” But the very last scene again returns to Nigel’s story, revealing his new home in 1951: the Callan Park psychiatric hospital, where he refuses to participate in Anzac Day festivities because, as he insists, “I don’t belong.”