In Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s The 7 Stages of Grieving, Australia’s colonial history hovers over everything. As the action unfolds, the play’s lone character, an Aboriginal woman known only as “the Woman,” shares her experiences of grief and sorrow, evoking the violence and oppression that white settlers and their descendants have inflicted on Australia’s indigenous populations for centuries. Throughout the play, Enoch and Mailman show that the experience of suffering from colonialism and oppression is pervasive in modern indigenous life, since Australia’s prevailing culture is built on white supremacy.
Enoch and Mailman’s collaborative work draws on both of their real-life experiences, painting a portrait of what it’s like to live under an oppressive, colonial system. Through the Woman’s experiences, they show that Australia’s colonial history is inseparable from its fractured present—this history is unavoidable in day-to-day life, especially for First Nations people. About midway through the play, a pair of scenes reflect on the colonial violence that is a part of both the Woman’s story and her family’s history. In “Invasion Poem,” the Woman recounts a story (which may be her own or may be the story of a family member) who suffered a brutal beating and rape in her own home at the hands of “strangers” who were “offering gifts” and “demand[ing] respect.” The story is both realistic and allegorical—this incident of invasive violence evokes all of the other instances of violence and cruelty committed by the white “invaders” and their descendants over the years. Then, in the following scene (entitled “1788”), the Woman confronts the first English ships to arrive on Australian shores, telling them that there’s no room in the harbor—they must turn around and leave. Taken together, the first scene depicts the brutal reality of ongoing colonial violence, and the second scene depicts a wishful counterfactual in which the Woman is able to stop all this pain and violence before it starts by simply sending the invaders away when they arrive. This shows the fervent wish of First Nations peoples to retroactively protect their lands, families, and traditions from colonialism, which has forever transformed their homelands and their ways of life (and whose legacy continues to brutalize them in the present).
The play also depicts how colonialism and oppression affect daily life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by telling the story of Daniel Yocke. Yocke was a young Aboriginal man who was racially profiled, accosted, and arrested by Brisbane police while out drinking in a park with some friends. The man died in police custody—and although the Woman does not state his cause of death, it is clear that the police have violently killed him. As the woman describes Yocke’s death and the resulting protest march that took place weeks later, it becomes clear how racism and violent oppression affect not just individuals like Yocke, but also entire indigenous communities. White people ridicule the march protesting Yocke’s death, they heavily police it, and they interpret indigenous grief as aggression; all of this shows the many insidious forms of racist oppression—emotional and physical—that affect indigenous communities.
After demonstrating how omnipresent and devastating colonial violence is in Aboriginal life, the play grapples with the future by tackling Reconciliation, a movement in Australia meant to repair relationships between white Australians and First Nations people. While the intentions of this movement—to stop the racism and violence that harm Aboriginal communities in Australia—are clearly good, the Woman points out the absurdity of the notion that such a fraught and exploitative relationship can ever be repaired. First, she ridicules the name “Reconciliation,” as the indigenous peoples that Reconciliation supposedly aims to benefit have, in many cases, been denied the education needed to even spell the word. Then, by dividing the word “reconciliation” into the four smaller words (“wreck,” “con,” “silly,” and “nation”), the Woman points out the “silly” nature of such a mission. A nation that has conned itself into thinking the “wreck[age]” of colonialism can be repaired is, according to the Woman, unforgivably ignorant of the sheer scale of what would be needed to begin amending its legacy of violence, racism, and genocide. In this way, the play suggests that the good intentions and symbolic gestures of Reconciliation are far too little to address the colonial oppression and violence that has, for centuries, ravaged Aboriginal life.
Ultimately, Enoch and Mailman use the story of the Woman to show how central the evils of colonialism are to the contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experience. By focusing on one woman’s specific struggles, the playwrights invoke a pain that many First Nations peoples share. Since this pain is so overwhelming and the colonial culture that creates it is so pervasive, the play suggests that there isn’t much hope for true equality or meaningful reconciliation.
Colonialism and Oppression ThemeTracker
Colonialism and Oppression Quotes in The 7 Stages of Grieving
A large block of ice is suspended by seven strong ropes. It is melting, dripping on to a freshly turned grave of red earth. The performance area is covered in a thin layer of black powder framed by a scrape of white.
I miss my grandmother. She took so many stories with her to the grave. Stories of her life, our traditions, our heritage from her now gone. I resent that.
The Woman walks over to the grave and embraces the block of ice. Springing away, she turns to the audience and clutches her breast.
THE WOMAN: Oh my sousou.
The Woman sits on the edge of the grave.
I’m trying to deal with Dad’s death. He hasn’t died yet, but the time is coming soon when he’ll be taken away.
They come in the front door
I invited them in, they demanded respect.
They sat in my father's seat
And talked to me of things that made no sense.
I nodded. Listened. Gave them my ear
As I was always taught to.
Thinking that tomorrow will be a better day, I go to bed. Kicking that sniffer dog out. Still with the sound of sirens in my head. Snuggling up to my doona and pillow. Morning comes, I wake up, looking in the mirror. Nice hair, beautiful black skin, white shiny teeth. I'M STILL BLACK! NUNNA!
I never saw her cry the whole time she was with us.
Dad said she was stuck-up and wasn’t really family. She married this Englishman after World War II. There was a photo of her on a ship waving with this white fella, his arm around her. For some reason she didn’t stay, which in my family is strange.
The ambulance got there and they had to pump needles into him, they were pounding his chest, giving mouth-to-mouth, whilst the others stood back and watched. They took him to the Royal Brisbane Hospital, pounding and pushing his limp body.
The Woman returns to the written word.
The resuscitation attempts were unsuccessful and at 7.13 p.m. he was pronounced dead.
The sound of hammering. The Woman slams a nail through two pieces of wood. She stands and carries the wooden cross over to the grave. As she drives it into the red earth, the words ‘FOR SALE’ are revealed.
What is it worth?
The Woman gathers up the smaller piles and relocates them on the white fringing that defines the black performing area.
Now imagine when the children are taken away from this. Are you with me?
The Woman flays her arm through the remaining large pile and circle, destroying it.
This is how it starts. This is how it starts, the cycle. The cycle. […]
You see. . .
No matter how clean our clothes are,
No matter how tidy we keep our house,
Or how well we speak the language,
How promptly we pay our bills,
How hard we work,
How often we pray,
No matter how much we smile and nod,
We are black, and we are here, and that will never change.