No Sugar Jack Davis Essay Definition

A series of essay plans for No Sugar, based on workshops with students (Dr Jennifer Minter, English Works Notes)

Topic: No Sugar is about the misuse of power

Jack Davis’s play No Sugar depicts the plight of the First Australians during the 1930s and their struggle for survival during the Great Depression in Western Australia. Set on an Aboriginal Reserve, the Munday and Millimurra families are forced to move from the Northam Shire to the Moore River Native Settlement in the 1930s. Using a variety of real-life incidents, Davis suggests this is a typical pattern of dispossession whereby those in a position of power have physically and psychologically abused the First Australians since the colonial settlement period. Not only do the law and order officials, politicians and councillors use false pretences to forcibly move the Northam residents but many of the Indigenous women are exploited by the men who control their employment.


In No Sugar, Mr Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines misuses his power by treating the First Australians as second-class citizens. He seeks to “civilise” them and help them “take their place in Australian society”.

  • they are treated disdainfully, and  on the same level as the birds and the beasts.
  • he forces the First Australians to assimilate
  • he controls them through the ration system that denies them a decent lifestyle


Misusing their power, Mr Neville, politicians and councillors plan the forced removal of the First Australians from Northam Shire to the Moore River Native Settlement. Davis suggests that this repeats the pattern of forcible removal and dispossession that completely disempower the First Australians . Mr Neville instigates the procedure to forcibly remove the First Australians from the Northam Shire to Moore River Settlement. In this case, the First Australians have no voice and must follow the officials’ orders. No one in Northam Shire wants to be living near the First Australians because they believe it will be unsafe to leave wives and children, despite the fact that many of the neighbours are getting drunk at the Shamrock Hotel “till stumps”. (For political reasons, the government fears that Bert Awkes may upseat Jimmy Mitchell in the forthcoming election. There are a lot of Chinamen working on his farm at Grass Valley which is very unpopular (45).) Jimmy asks Mr Neal if he voted for “Jimmy Mitchell’s lot”. He knows it is just a political stunt; he wishes to protect his power “so he could have a nice, white little town, white little fuckin’ town” (94). The excuse is that they will be moved until the “scabies are cleared up” . When the matron examines the natives, only 4 out of 89 have scabies. It is a complete farce. As Davis points out, the Indigenous are meant to be kept in the quarantine camp but there is no need for it. (58)


Law and order officials misuse their power through the (indiscriminate and gratuitous) use of violence and brutality. Davis refers to the Oombulgarri Massacre that took place during the colonial settlement period and that clearly shows how the policemen and those in a position of power killed Aboriginal families with impunity (without punishment). Davis suggests that this is a common occurrence and traumatises the First Australians who are unable to revisit this site. Billy relates the story of the massacre of his people at Oombulgarri which Davis suggests is typical of the settlement story whereby violence is used disproportionately to kill the Indigenous peoples. During this particular massacre, Mr George flogged an “old man”, almost to death, who in an act of retaliation, speared the “gudeeah” with his “chubel spear”. The police force returns to “shoot ‘em everybody mens, kooris, little yumbahs”. IN addition, contrary to the official version of history as narrated in Mr Neville’s Australia Day speech, the colonial government with its “big mob politjmans” are the ones to massacre the children and mothers and “chuck ‘em on a big fire”. (62) Davis suggests that this is the story of settlement that is not included in the early official narrative. Mr Neville refers to the first 70 days of Tasmanian settlement during which only one Indigenous person remained out of “some six thousand natives (who) disappeared”. (81)  Clearly, Davis suggests that those in a position of political power used violence to dispossess the First Australians. Their stories are not silenced and marginalised as the stories of the Pioneers take priority in the national conscience.


Davis depicts Mr Neal as a typical white official or employer/owner who exploits his position of authority and power and assaults the girls in his care. Davis suggests that many white people who own cattle stations or properties that employ an Indigenous “maid” often exploit the women. For example, one girl was assaulted by the “boss’s sons” who, “you know, force her” and eventually the trackers killed the baby and “buried it in the pine plantation” (57) Even Mr Neville notes in his official papers that 30 out of 80 girls who went into domestic service returned pregnant. Mr Neal is Superintendent of the Moore River Settlement and it soon becomes clear that he assaults many of the girls who work in the hospital which is why Mary is so adamant that she does not want to work there. Mr Neal not only intimidates the Indigenous and walks around with a “cat o nine tails”, but he is prepared to use it against the Indigenous women who defy his orders. Mary does not want to work on a farm because many girls are raped. Not only does Mary fear rape, but she is brutally assaulted when she refuses to work in the hospital which would expose her to Mr Neal’s advances. Neal whips Mary barbarically with a “cat o nine tail” over the bag of flour. After “Neal raises the cat o nine tails” there is a blackout. The audience hears Mary’s heart-rendering and pitiful scream that becomes a powerful symbol of aboriginal resistance in the face of the shameful misuse of violence.

Also law and order officials misuse power through the legal system and through the control of their rations. They policemen treat the Aboriginal Australians much more harshly than the White Australians and make it difficult for them to gain justice in a court system that consists of a foreign language. Also their rations are constantly reduced. In the Moore River Settlement Davis suggests that the Mr Neal unjustly denies the First Australians an education. He threatens to remove Sister Eileen from the Settlement if she insists on providing the First Australians with books (90)

Topic: No Sugar offers audiences an insight into what it meant to be Aboriginal in the 1930s in WA.

The First Australians  are forced to live in reserves and daily life becomes a constant struggle because of the racist attitudes of the white officials.  That life is a daily struggle for survival is evident in their “bush style” living, their lack of adequate resources, the lack of food and soap…  they are subject to the racist attitudes of the white members of the community. The girl is given the worst apple. …   Also the ration system is a product of the protection-style policies of the white government that seeks to control and humiliate the First Australians . The stage directions relating to the sign alert the audience to the fact that the First Australians  are treated like the Australian fauna and flora. Right from the opening of the play, Milly and Gran are preoccupied with cleanliness, as they are “[sorting] clothes for washing”, Milly then scolds her son to give his shirt to her because “it’s filthy” so that she can wash it. Davis does this to focus the audience’s attention on the view that Aboriginals … are … This constant reference towards to hygiene and the soap rations reinforce Davis’s point that white people typecasts the First Australians  as unclean and dirty. It also encourages readers to understand that First Australians  struggle with hygiene due to substandard living condition and constant reductions in their rations.

The First Australians are kept on the fringes of society and often forcibly removed from settlements because of the unfair racist views held by many white Australians. (Through the depiction of the Millimurra family, Davis shows how the First Australians are often forcibly removed from the land and herded into mission areas.)  (They are treated as political victims in the attempt to constantly dispossess them and move them to more remote areas. The Millimurra family is moved from the Northam Reserve to the Moore River Native Settlement.)  They are also expected to sing the praises of the pioneers and learn the biblical refrains that assisted the exploitation of the aboriginal population. Their own stories are minimalised and they have little access to education. In contrast to the myth of the pioneers, Billy presents the story of the massacre which reflects the trauma the First Australians  suffered because of the dispossession of their culture and land.

The First Australians  suffer greater hardship during the depression because of their inability to find work and to continue their lifestyle (lack of work)  The First Australians  suffer more than their white counterparts during the depression. This is shown through the comparison with the itinerant worker, frank Brown, who is typically paid at least double the unemployed subsidy of an aboriginal. When “soap is no longer included as a ration item”, the Sergeant tells Milly that she has got “three healthy men bludging off you, too lazy to work” , however it can be seen that it is not the First Australians  who do not want to work but rather is not paid money for it and instead the “cockies want ‘em to work for nothin’ ”. He uses Frank Brown as a comparison to insinuate that if a white man cannot find a decent job, what are the chances of an aborigine finding a job, let alone finding a job with pay.  When they do find work, they are typically exploited and underpaid.  For those who cannot find work, they are often forced to “snowdrop” and often end up as pawns in a legal system which they do not understand.

Davis shows how Aboriginal woman living on  reserves during the 1930s are very vulnerable to the abuse of power by the white officials. The girls are often exploited and sexually assaulted. Mary defiantly resists Mr Neal’s attempt to move her to the hospital to work because it is easier to rape her. At least one third of the girls who are sent into domestic service become pregnant.  Mary also fears the story of the baby who is killed. Include reference to the stage directions…

There is little access to education and the indigenous peoples experience language problems as they move between cultures.  (Joe reads “falteringly”). In contrast they often use their dialect to converse among themselves.  The indigenous people are forced to assimilate into the white society, demonstrated early in the play where Joe “falteringly” reads the Western Mail. The legal system and their relationship with the police also proves to be an alienating (strange and foreign) to experience for them. …. This also displays the aboriginals’ lack of education, in which it is believed that “a little knowledge is dangerous” suggesting that the aboriginals should not be trusted. Due to this they are forcefully moved to Moore River reserve, thus dispossessing them from their only source of dependence. Davis reminds us of the harsh discriminatory policies that the white authority Joe’s inability to read fluently when reading the Western Mail in the beginning of the play reflects the First Australians  struggle with the white dominant culture and shows their exclusion. When the Sister wants to start a library for the First Australians  Mr Neal states that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. His attitude reflects the views and values of white authorities who do not wish to empower the First Australians through education and knowledge. Davis implies that the authorities restrict their education as it is much easier to control them if they are uneducated.


Topic:  ‘Family, protest and identity are crucial for the survival of the individuals.’ How does No Sugar show this to be true?

In this plan below, include references to the problems, the discrimination, the misuse of power, the humiliating and degrading treatment.

In Davis’ play, family plays a vital role in the survival of Aboriginal people, their traditions and their values.

  • Gran is the backbone of Millimurra’s family. She is a strong traditional matriarchal figure whose humour, good will and courage help the family endure difficult times.
  • When Millimurra’s family is forcibly removed to Moore River Settlement, Sergeant Carrol asks Gran to take the train rather than walking to the new Settlement. However, Gran doesn’t want to be separated from her family and says ‘ I ain’t goin’ on no train. You can put me in gaol if you want to’.
  • Also when Gran delivers Mary’s baby, she relies on traditional medical techniques that ensure survival.  Gran has the natural skills of a midwife who helps Mary give birth to her baby and protect her from infection. She uses a “live” and burning firestick and “clean ashes”  to deal with the afterbirth. In many ways, Davis suggests that these natural techniques are more “civilised”, and superior than the use of Johnson’s baby powder in the natural Australian bush setting.
  • When Joe and Mary decide to return to Northam, the Millimurra family provides support, gives them “a bit of Merrang” and tells them to “…jump to rattler’bout half a mile”.  Even Billy helps.

Furthermore, Davis depicts the fierce determination of the First Australians to resist the unreasonable and often violent treatment they suffer by white officials. They protest , he suggests, because they are treated unjustly and exploited on a daily basis.  Jimmy’s forthright activism is critical to the survival of the Indigenous Australians. During the Australia Day celebrations, Jimmy argues with Mr.Neal and exposes the truth about their forced removal. It is “nothin’n to do with bloody scabies. And that’s why we got dragged’ere, so them wetjalas”.

  • Symbolically, Davis honours Jimmy’s voice of protest which he believes is critical for the First Australians in their fight for justice. This voice is evident in descendants such as Joe Millimurra.
  • Mary Dargurru’s defiance is also significant. She resists Mr Neal’s orders. When Mr.Neal asks Mary to work in the hospital at Moore River Settlement, Mary says, “you can belt me if you like, I’m not workin’ in the hospital.”  She is is beaten shamefully, but refuses to give in. Neal belts her with the “cat-o-nine tails”.  The scene ends in a “blackout” and “a scream”, which represents Mary’s suffering, but she does not yield. She leaves with Joe, full of hope as symbolised by the birth of the baby. So, protest is a significant way for Aboriginal to stand up for themselves and fight with the racism from the whites.

Furthermore, Davis suggests that the First Australians must fiercely protect their cultural and indigenous identity if they are to survive.

  • Jimmy is angry at the very violent act of dispossession which makes it difficult for his family to gain a living. He is angry also at the Indigenous Australians who are helping the white people in positions of authority.  He tries to remain fiercely independent and resists the attempts to control him.
  • Davis depicts how the two families are determined to remain true to their cultural identity and practice their language and cultural customs.
  • Culturally, Davis also suggests that the First Australians must remember the sacrifices made by their own ancestors.  (Hence the use of the North West Aboriginal language.)

Topic: Overall the play is about the strength of family, not the power of racism

Main contention: No Sugar is about the strength of the family, which is critical to survival of the First Australians, precisely because of institutionalised racism.  The First Australians suffer from discrimination and Davis suggests that those who do have strong family and cultural links are more likely to survive.

Paragraph 1: strength of the family and daily struggle for survival because of racist policies of government institutions  and discrimination. (The good will of the family stands them in good stead as they struggle to cope with injustice.)

Paragraph 2: strength of family and community with regards to cultural pride/history/ stories and survival of culture (despite racist attempts to denigrate the culture).

Paragraph 3: strength of family provides hope and the courage to resist. Despite policies that seek to dispossess and exploit the aborigines, Mary and Jim become a symbol of survival.


The play concerns both the strength of the family and racism. Davis suggests that the family needs to be strong and resilient to withstand the racist and patronising policies of those in power.

  • The family is stoic, proud and resilient in their attempt to withstand the racist policies that discriminate against the Aborigines on a daily basis.
  • Constant fight to maintain and preserve their dignity and fight against the unjust official attitudes that perpetuate the stereotypes of the unclean savage.
  • Struggles of daily life; ration system
  • Have to be resourceful and inventive; rely on their own bush skills and innovation and warmth and generosity to succeed
  • They constantly have to deal with the humiliation of a ration system that seeks to control them, undermine their rights and freedoms and make life difficult

As a family group, the aborigines must also be strong and resilient to maintain their cultural pride in the face of policies that lead to dispossession and forced dispersal.

  • Their cultural stories are ignored
  • Instead – the historical narrative relating to the pioneers / Christian songs of the

Ultimately Davis critiques the racist system that undermines the aborigines’ independence and seeks to dispossess and eradicate them. The strength of the family also emerges in their proud and rebellious spirit against the injustices of those in a position of power.

  • Mary and her resistance to rape/exploitation
  • Jimmy – comments against the policemen and the lawyers…
  •  Also degradation for those who are complicit in the system that works against them, Billy

Davis suggests that with strong reliance on family ties, however; one can manage to withstand adversity and survive.

The strength of a family is best captured in the incredible love and courage of Gran who serves as an admirable role model. It is her job to maintain peace within the household and to pass on traditional values. She takes pride in their ancestry. Gran’s capacity to survive, endure and thrive provides enormous strength and support for her family. Gran’s strong links to the family’s past allows her to pass on her knowledge of and, take pride in, Indigenous culture and traditions. This is evident in the attitudes of the Millimura and Munday families, where no one ever complained about being an Aborigine.

Gran comforts Mary by ensuring her that “nobody’s goin’ to take Baby” and then helps Mary give birth because she is terrified of the missionary hospital. Gran’s use of ashes instead of “Johnson’s baby powder” is a symbol of keeping the Indigenous culture alive despite of the racist society they live in. Similarly, Joe’s act of returning “back to Northam” shows a strong sense of family and place. Davis suggests that not even the constant threats by Neal can stop him from breaking the restriction order and returning.

Also, Frank Brown shows close family ties, despite the hardships that he has to endure. He is struggling with the depression but still sends whatever he can earn home to his “wife and two kids staying in … Leederville”. Although family ties enable individuals to survive hardships, losing it can have its repercussions.

Billy’s help: Billy’s tribe was massacred by “big mob gudeeah…big mob politjmans, and big mob from stations”, forcing him to work for the white people in order to survive. Although Billy works for Neal, Neal is still racist towards him by “[throwing] a stick of tobacco onto the floor” for him to pick up, treating him as a slave. Billy is also hated by other Aborigines, such as the children who call him “black crow” – a traitor. However, Billy tells Joe to “back sit down” in his country and gives Joe his whip as a parting gift to help him catch rabbits, snakes and “bungarra”. This symbolizes his connection to his race – his “family”, which even the power of racism cannot break.

In No Sugar, Davis shows that the bonds of family and community are necessary for survival.’ Discuss.

Paragraph 1: the immediate family

Paragraph 2: the wider aboriginal family/community (culture and history)

Paragraph 3: how some aborigines working for the whites undermine family and community

Paragraph 1:

Davis foregrounds the Millimurra’s daily fight for survival despite the adverse social, political and racial circumstances. Family bonds, based upon their shared cultural experiences, reinforce their cultural identity and help members of the family endure the physical hardship and social isolation.

Narrative devices/techniques/positives (first):

  • The family’s daily struggle… – opening scene/soap/humour/reading. (despite hardships)
  • Granny’s attitude and humour: she walks the three day trek to the mission rather than opt for the official transport
  • The family also extends their hospitality to other social outcasts such as Frank Brown
  • Joe and Mary’s baby symbolises the unbreakable family bonds: (despite the efforts of Mr Neal to literally whip Mary into submission) she remains faithful to Joe and Granny delivers their baby. (bush-medicine style): sense of hope and continuity despite deaths of other family members.
  • The obstacles: they are “booted out” from their cultural land

Link sentence: Through the depiction of the Millimura family, Davis conveys to the audience how their unbreakable family bond
helps them survive and conquer difficult times.

Paragraph 2:

Davis also suggests that, on a collective level, the aborigines must proudly cling to their cultural traditions and celebrate their heritage which, during these testing times of social and political upheaval, provides the best hope of survival.

Narrative devices… (about celebration/cultural differences)

  • Through the use of their “nyoongah” language and their strong connection to their culture and land, the playwright reinforces, proudly their cultural differences. (examples): source of celebration.
  • Billy’s story about the massacre contrast to the white historical narrative about pioneers (that seek to denigrate and marginalise the aborigines)
  • Collectively, the playwright suggests that they must band together to resist the official policies to dispossess the aborigines, eg. moving them from the land to the reserve (Joe : the pull of the land)
  • Jimmy’s fight for equality results in his death at the Australia Day celebrations while “clutching at the flagpole”, which reflects Davis’s criticism of the hypocritical and contradictory actions of government officials.

Link sentence: It is only when they have a sense of who they are through family and community bonds do they realise that they are not an inferior race. This knowledge, Davis suggests, fundamentally allows them to preserve their dignity and pride and therefore survive in a world that has turned against the “natives”.

Paragraph 3:

Davis suggests that those who work for the white officials become complicit in a system that degrades them and works towards their annihilation.

  • Davis compares characters such as Jimmy and Joe, refuse to stay silent, with characters such as Topsy and Billy, who subserviently let the “wetjala’s” control them, to show the importance of maintaining a strong stance. Mary also refuses to give into Mr Neal’s demands.
  • Jimmy’s comments about “dancing for ‘em”
  • The whites official treatment of the aborigines
  • Billy Kimberly is an example of such character who is “savage[ly]” and cruelly mistreated by Superintendent Neal, a white authority figure who repeatedly treats aborigines with disrespect and stereotypically defines them all as “trouble makers”.

Davis suggests to the audience that they may not have a family that can help them on their quest to survival. Due to this they create bonds with the white community hoping to grab that chance. Davis indicates to the audience that Billy ultimately has no choice but to fall into the hands of Neal. By conforming to Neal and thus white society, Davis represents Billy’s approach of trying to survive,

Davis repeatedly demonstrates throughout his play the hardship and difficulties faced by the aborigines. It is through Davis’ depiction of the reliance and support from members of family and the community does it show the greatest survival technique.

Topic: How does Davis show the affect of prejudice?

Paragraph 1: life is very difficult for the aborigines because of institutionalised racist policies  (daily life/struggle/ constant struggle with discrimination)

Paragraph 2:  alienation and isolation from mainstream society; the loss of pride and dignity – struggle with little education (struggle to maintain pride in their own cultural traditions)

Paragraph 3: humiliation and exploitation: the officials rape and exploit the indigenous with impunity because of their racist policies

Paragraph 1
The discriminatory policies perpetuated by the white government are based on the premise that the aborigines are an inferior race. Because of the extreme prejudice that is practiced at an official level the aborigines are constantly treated as “savages” which reinforces the stigma associated with aboriginality. They are culturally isolated and dehumanised which has humiliating consequences.

  •  Treated like “dog”… Billy by Mr Neal and Jimmy by Mr Neville – ticket
  • Symbolism of the hygiene: soap
  • The stereotypes evident in the white community

Paragraph 2
The discriminatory polices lead to a constant struggle for survival. The Mill family is controlled by the inadequate ration system that dehumanises them and treats them as a nuisance.

  • Ration system: Comparisons: the treatment of the aborigines with Frank Brown (during the depression) They suffer much more hardship during the depression than the white people and are constantly battling for basic resources, without which they are undernourished and often unhealthy. (physical deprivation)
  • Daily life: Cissie in hospital; jail – Davis shows how the aborigines often become criminals despite themselves; the daily struggle for survival often leads to criminal acts such as theft… snowdropping…
  • There are no rations for those who return to Northam from the Moore River Settlement which Davis believes becomes a deliberate attempt at dispersal.

Paragraph 3:

Davis shows how another consequence of the discrimination is the cultural degradation which overlooks and marginalises their cultural myths, which leads to a loss of pride.

  • Davis compares the historical narratives: indigenous versus white settlers
  • In the opening scene Joe reads a passage from the newspaper that depicts the priority of the history of white settlement; Davis shows throughout the play how this history takes priority and the aborigines’ culture is disregarded. Davis deliberately draws attention to the fact that they are speaking a “foreign” language that reinforces their exclusion from the mainstream culture.. .
  • The Happy Land parody on Australia Day

Paragraph 4

Another effect of prejudice is the degradation of the women who are treated contemptuously and exploited by the white officials. They are often raped and if they resist they are whipped.

  • Scene about Mary and the whipping
  • Injustice – exploit the girls in the mission… Mr Neal is typical of the superior white officials who exploit their position and take advantage of the girls. He believes …
  • Mary also is fearful of becoming pregnant in this situation… Ironically, Davis does show that in many ways it is the white man who is the savage, and who hides his bestiality and brutality behind his official superior views… abuse of power

Topic: “Overall, the play suggests that there is no hope for the Aborigines.” Discuss.

The aborigines appear to have no hope because of the official policies that discriminate against them and that seek to systematically dispossess them.

Paragraph 1:

Davis suggests that it is difficult to find hope in a society that legally and socially marginalises the aborigines and treats them as second class citizens. Legally and culturally they are estranged from the dominant society.

Pick and choose a variety of narrative devices:

Legal alienation: a cycle of despair
Davis deliberately structures the play so that events repeat themselves, symbolising that the struggle faced by Aborigines will continue regardless of resistance. Early in Act I, Gran and Milly argue with the Sergeant over rations cuts, and do so again later in Act I, suggesting that the rations will not improve, but lessen. Jimmy is sent to prison for three months in 1929 and is later depicted in Act II as leaving prison in 1932. Davis implying that he has been at least one more time since his 1929 prison visit. Joe gets supposedly arrested in Act III for “absconding with [a minor]” when he is really being sent to jail so that ‘no natives remain in the Northam area.’ Just like the Millimurra family, who get forced to move to the Moore River Settlement for “health reasons” when they are really being moved for political reasons, Joe is moved because of the ‘Royal Commission.” At the end of the play, Joe plans on disobeying Neal and returning the Northam with Mary and their baby, suggesting that he will be sent to jail again. Davis uses this cyclical pattern style within No Sugar to capture the feeling that there is no hope the Millimurras’ lives will change and improve, as highlighted by Gran’s song of ‘woe, woe, woe.’

Social alienation
The stereotypes that treat them as inferior savages (as perpetuated by those in a position of power)
Aborigines cannot “walk down the street after sundown” or be “under [the] influence of liquor,” the latter of which they can be arrested and imprisoned for by a “politjman” who drinks “down the Federal every night.” The Millimurras cannot live of the land like they used to, because the “wetjalas cut all the trees down.” Because of this, they are forced to rely on the Government for a meagre supply of rations every week, leaving them malnourished and in poverty. Constrictive rules such as these do no change throughout the play, so Davis is suggesting that they maybe never will and the Aborigines will continue to live their lives without the freedom to choose or freedom from poverty.

Paragraph 2:

The aborigines also suffer because of the attempt to marginalise their culture and traditions.

  • Cultural alienation: the stories of the pioneers are favoured.
  • Billy’s story of the massacre
  • Corroboree: Jimmy sings his “grandfather song”, showing his connection with land and the stories of his ancestors

Paragraph 3:

Jimmy’s death is a potent symbol of despair and shows the difficult of the voice of resistance.

  • Jimmy proudly resists the government’s attempt to control the family. He systematically exposes the hypocrisy of the Government, but his addiction to alcohol acutely captures their loss of faith, their soul and their degradation.
  • Jimmy’s willingness to stand up for himself is shown when Neville tries to dismiss him and he replies “I’m not wait’ ‘round here all day.” On Australia Day, he insightfully and courageously announces to the entire assembled company at the Moore River Settlement that the transfer of his family and other Aborigines to said settlement was “nothin’ to do with bloody scabies” but so “them wetjalas vote for [Jimmy Mitchell],” showing that he is a voice for the Aboriginal people.
  • When he dies of a heart attack after this outburst, it symbolically represents the death of the voice of protest amongst Aborigines and sense of loss of hope for the fight for Indigenous rights.
  • No blankets (no decent burial): symbolic of dehumanisation.

Paragraph 4:
Although Davis shows how disheartening life can be for the Aborigines, he also suggests there is hope. One symbol of hope is Joe and Mary’s baby which is named after Jimmy, suggesting that despite the difficulties, the aborigines do survive through sheer determination and cultural pride.

  • Cissie and David also represent the hope for Aborigines in ‘joining’ white society while maintaining their Indigenous heritage through use of English interspersed with Nyoongah words. Gran’s insistence on Cissie and David attending school shows that she understands the importance of and power that comes with learning the dominant language.
  • Sense of humour and fortitude (Gran) and attempt to assimilate as best they can (soap and hygiene/rations)
  • Humour and parody
    As Joe and Mary bid farewell to “each member” with the “fire [] burning” and a “magpie squawk[ing]”, Davis suggests that there is hope through reconnecting with their cultural land and origins/spirit (cultural identity through the land)
    As Billy “hands [Joe] his whip”, Billy seems to redeem himself through the help he offers. He subverts the white authorities attempts to dehumanise and control him.


Topic: How does Jack Davis use language/dramatic techniques to explore cultural differences? 

Think about:

  • the use of Aboriginal terms to relate to their own specific lifestyle and subsistence culture. North West Aboriginal language and Billy’s use of creole to relate the massacre.
  • the language of discrimination and prejudice used by white officials to humiliate the aborigines and make them feel inferior and to reinforce cultural superiority of the white society.
  • the language of power: the legal terms / words that reflect discrimination and differnece: These words show how the laws alienate the aborigines in their country. They do not understand many of the terms that are used to exclude them and shut them away.  Colloquial terms such as “give girl” are used in a derogatory way to refer to the patronising practice of “giving” aboriginal girls to elderly white men; they were used exploited virtually as sex slaves.

Symbols and dramatic techniques

Return to Summary Notes for No Sugar

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Essay by Bernadette Brennan

It has seemed to me for some years that two aspects of the Aboriginal struggle have been under-valued. One is their continued will to survive, the other their continued efforts to come to terms with us … There are many, perhaps too many, theories about our troubles with the aborigines. We can spare a moment to consider their theory about their troubles with us. – W.E.H. Stanner, After the Dreaming (1968)

No Sugar, first performed in 1985, is part of Jack Davis’s The First Born trilogy: three plays that trace the history of Aboriginal people in Western Australia from 1829 to the present. Though it was written after The Dreamers (1982), this play moves backwards in time to 1929 to dramatise the story of the Millimurra family’s forced removal from their home in Northam to the Moore River Native Settlement during the Great Depression. No Sugar confronts boldly the harsh treatment of the Nyoongah people at the hands of white administrators, but it also celebrates with humour and pride the resilience of the Nyoongah people to survive brutality and maintain their culture.

Jack Davis, acclaimed Nyoongah editor, poet and playwright, persistently invites his audiences to consider the many ways colonialism has impacted upon Aboriginal Australians. Throughout his work, he interrogates the narratives of Australian history, challenging what might be termed the official version of history with counter-stories and alternative perspectives. Drama, being a spatial medium, provides an ideal vehicle for Davis to demonstrate not only how colonialism deliberately displaced Aboriginal people from country, but also how it sought to contain and control them. On stage, Davis’s Aboriginal characters resist containment within or by police, missionaries, jail, Christianity and the English language. Through humour, rebellion and pathos, they command attention, insist on their subjectivity and resist, albeit to varying degrees, attempts to destroy their culture and spirituality.

Performance space

The opening directions state that the ‘play is designed for a dispersed setting on an open stage’. Why might Davis have deliberately positioned all the spaces of the drama on the one plane? How might those spaces, and the actions in those spaces, interact? What might Davis be saying about the relationship between events occurring in different geographic spaces?

It is important to remember, as Helen Gilbert has noted when discussing place and displacement in Davis’s theatre, that:

In performance genres, unlike in fiction, narratives unfold in space as well as through time … drama offers the possibility of a simultaneous reading … of all the visual and aural signifiers embedded in the text as performance. Theatre thus lends itself particularly well to the representation and interrogation of the spatial aspects of imperialism. It allows a remapping of space and a reframing of time to facilitate the telling or showing of oppositional versions of the past that propose not only different constitutive events but different ways of constructing history itself. (Gilbert p. 61)

In No Sugar, Davis exploits ‘visual and aural signifiers’ masterfully. Perhaps he directs the action to be on the one stage to suggest that all the events in his play are interrelated and that to understand what happens in one place one needs to appreciate what has occurred elsewhere. Or put another way, nothing in the power play of history and Indigenous affairs is simple or happens in isolation. Another aspect of the staging might suggest that the lives of black and white Australians are inextricably linked. Each group, to borrow Stanner’s words, has ‘troubles’ with the other. Davis’s setting emphasises the ongoing power struggles. Offices of white authority – replete with their separate entrances for black and white – frame the stage and encroach upon Aboriginal spaces. Even so, the play celebrates the Aboriginal characters’ refusal to remain within proscribed boundaries.

Politics of performance

Crucially, we appreciate that the published text is never the same as the performance. Indeed, each performance is itself determined by the audience dynamic. Joanne Tompkins, writing about orality, text and theatrical direction in Davis’s plays, has discussed how in 1988 the director of The First Born trilogy wanted to accentuate the trilogy’s difference from ‘conventional’ theatre by staging it in the Fitzroy Town Hall and shifting the production to different parts of the auditorium, ‘requiring the audience to move to different rooms and venues within the main building’ (Tompkins p. 58). Such movement may have gestured towards the forced destabilisation and displacement of Indigenous people, and the movement of the families over time, but more significantly it would have required the audience to become active participants in, rather than passive recipients of, the unfolding drama.

As Davis has said in an interview with Adam Shoemaker: ‘If you’re black, you’re political’ (Shoemaker p. 32). He is interested in the impact his drama has on his audience. That impact will vary according to the size, spatial configuration and lighting of the theatre. Think for a moment how an audience member might experience the whipping of the heavily pregnant Mary. In an intimate venue, such a scene might be almost intolerable. What of the corroboree? Would the reverberation of the didgeridoo have the same power in a cavernous space as in a smaller space? Perhaps. Might a powerfully performed corroboree diminish the symbols and figures of white power and authority?

Shared and contested histories

Davis appreciates that black and white histories are inextricably linked. The opening scene ofNo Sugar seamlessly presents the lived realities of mixed histories in the everyday lives of the Millimurra family. The children play cricket, an imported game of Empire, while Jimmy ‘sharpens an axe, bush fashion’. Joe reads the special centenary edition of the Western Mail – a written document that will constitute white Australian history. The newspaper text, not unlike the brass band in the march, proclaims proudly how brave and successful the white ‘pioneers’ have been in overcoming the ‘dangers’ posed by Aboriginal people. Yet that triumphalist narrative is fragmented and disempowered, initially through Joe’s hesitant diction, and then more forcefully by Jimmy’s outburst: ‘You fellas, you know why themwetjalas marchin’ down the street, eh? … ‘Cause them bastards took our country and them blackfellas dancin’ for ’em’ (Davis No Sugar Act 1, scene 1).

The authority and power of the written word to construct history cannot be overstated. As the bitter ‘History Wars’ of the 1990s demonstrated, Australian history is afforded credibility when verified through written records such as newspapers and archival documents. Oral histories, and histories told through song, dance, painting and sacred rangga, have been presented as evidence in important land rights cases only to be dismissed as not legally persuasive. (Rangga are the sacred emblems of Indigenous clans. For the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land, they consist of paintings and markers of ceremony made out of bird feathers and possum fur. In Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd, commonly known as the Gove Land Rights Case, the Yolngu men broke tradition and showed their rangga to Sir Richard Blackburn, the white presiding judge. The judge appreciated that these objects were obviously religious in character but did not find them legally persuasive.) Similarly, critics of the Bringing them home report (1997) argued that the witnesses’ testimonies should be dismissed as mere stories because they were not subjected to rigorous cross-examination in a court of law.Davis wants to complicate and qualify what constitutes white Australian history by showing how that history needs to incorporate Aboriginal history and experience, told through documents, yes, but also through story, song, painting and dance. History, he insists, is more than the written word.

In No Sugar, Davis dramatises the facts of his own life, most obviously his family’s forced removal from Northam to the overcrowded Moore River Native Settlement. (The introduction to the 1988 Currency Press edition of Kullark/The Dreamers includes photographs of the corroboree group, Palm Sunday at the Moore River Settlement, and the actual Matron Neal with Aboriginal babies at the hospital dated 1930s.) Annie Morrison’s submission to the 1934 Moseley Royal Commission, cited as the introduction to Act 2 of Kullark, is replicated in Gran’s requests for meat and blankets, and Mary’s brutal whipping: ‘two trackers held the Girls hand and feet over a sack of flour and Mr Neal gave them a hiding and till tha wet them self we had to eat the flour after’ (Davis Kullark/The Dreamers p. 40).

This kind of affirmation of experience, sought from documents and testimony, structures Dallas Winmar’s Aliwa!, a play about Davis’s three sisters and their mother’s attempt to keep them with her after the death of their father. When performed at Subiaco Theatre, Perth, and Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, in July and August 2000, an actor playing Davis’s sister, Aunty Dot, remained on stage as the voice of authority while boards of photographs and letters were displayed in the foyers.

The political motivation for the removal to the mission, and A.O. Neville’s role as Chief Protector of Aborigines in that move, are established facts. Davis’s characterisation of Neville bears comparison with Neville’s portrayal in Phillip Noyce’s film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Kim Scott’s novel Benang: From the heart (2000). Like Davis’s plays, Benangincorporates archival documents and demonstrates how Aboriginal voices and history have, for most of the twentieth century, been effectively silenced by the voices and stories of non-Aboriginal Australians.

Tales of massacre

Davis orchestrates two powerfully dramatic addresses by two divergent figures of authority: A.O. Neville and Billy Kimberley. Both speak of massacre. Flanked by signs of Empire, Neville delivers a rousing speech to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society outlining Stirling’s intentions to prosecute anyone who behaved ‘in a fraudulent, cruel, or felonious manner towards the aboriginal race’ (Act 3, scene 5), before recounting the horrendous story of a massacre led by Stirling. In performance, such a scene would command an appalled silence. One imagines Neville centre stage, brimming with confidence (and blind to his own hypocrisy), concluding with the shocking statistics that in seventy-two years the Aboriginal population of south-west Western Australia has been decimated: ‘a people estimated to number thirteen thousand were reduced to one thousand four hundred and nineteen’ (Act 3, scene 5).

Davis demonstrates his familiarity with European literary forms and modes of address. Through satirical poems such as ‘A Letter to the Shade of Charles Darwin’, he exposes the patronising, racist assumptions held by Europeans against the Aboriginal population. The history outlined in Neville’s speech, of honorable intentions gone so wrong, also informs Kim Scott’s award-winning novel, That Deadman Dance.

Gilbert has described how in the 1990 Neil Armfield and Lynette Narkle production of No Sugar in Perth, ‘a vibrant corroboree’ preceded Neville’s speech:

When the dance ended, Neville walked tentatively across the corroboree ground while traces of the dancers’ footprints and a visible layer of unsettled red dust marked his presence as incongruous, invasive and ultimately illegitimate. (Gilbert pp. 69–70)

In contrast to Neville’s formal diction, Billy Kimberley’s earlier narration of the Oombulgarri massacre captures the rhythms and speech patterns of his people: ‘I bin stop Liveringa station and my brother, he bin run from Oombulgarri. [Holding up four fingers] That many days. Night time too …’ (Act 2, scene 6). Billy commands the stage as he speaks and acts out the slaughter. Sam and Jimmy hang on his every word. Repeatedly the stage directions note: ‘He sits in silence’, ‘Silence’, ‘They sit in silence, mesmerized and shocked by Billy’s gruesome story’, ‘They sit in silence staring’. So too the audience. The conclusion of each of these two speeches marks a moment of immense dramatic impact. Through these speeches, Davis yet again emphasises a shared history and the need for both stories to be heard.

Naturalism, humour, audience

A number of critics have discussed Davis’s use of naturalism: as a tool to gain identification and sympathy from white audiences (Webby); as a way to educate audiences – black and white, and to challenge accepted notions of Aboriginality (Casey); and as a ‘distinctive … trademark of all the Aboriginal plays written to date’ (Shoemaker p. 258). Maryrose Casey cites a number of reviewers describing ‘performances of total verisimilitude’ (Casey p. 153).

An important component of Davis’s naturalism is his use of humour. Again, critics have argued that there is a distinctive sense of Aboriginal humour most often employed as a strategy for survival (Shoemaker, Anna Haebich, Lillian Holt). Davis himself believes:

Aboriginal people are more spontaneous with their humour. Quicker to laugh … there is a different attitude to humour … Aboriginal humour is far different to white humour. Aboriginal people see humour where white people could see it for a smile but not for a laugh … they may grin at it but they don’t laugh at it. But an Aboriginal – if he felt like it – he’d just hold his guts and roar with laughter. (‘The Real Australian Story’ pp. 40–1)

Humour plays a vital role in No Sugar. Scenes where Jimmy refuses to keep quiet – in Neville’s office, in the courtroom, in the jail cell – and the way in which he outsmarts Billy Kimberley, most likely provide light relief, entertainment, for a white audience. For a Nyoongah audience, they would be uproariously funny and celebratory, affirming the delight of speaking back to power.

In addition to humour, Davis employs the Nyoongah language to great effect. The white reader has the benefit of a glossary; not so the white viewer. There are moments in performance, therefore, where the white viewer is deliberately disempowered, at a loss, marginalised. At the same time, a Nyoongah viewer would experience a sense of validation and inclusion. On another level, Davis’s incorporation of Nyoongah language, song and dance facilitates the sharing of language, knowledge and story among his Nyoongah audience. (Nyoongah writer Kim Scott undertakes a more explicit project of sharing language and story in Mamang and Nyoongah Mambara Bakitj, produced through the Wirlomin Nyoongah Language and Stories Project.)

Davis refuses to romanticise and thereby ‘demean’ his Aboriginal characters ‘by always making them the goodies’ (‘The Dreamers’, Meanjin p. 46). Many of his characters are based on real people and he attempts to construct them as fully rounded personalities. In No Sugar, the Aboriginal residents of Northam are objectified and cast out as unwanted nuisances from white Australian space. Sergeant Carrol tells Neville: ‘between you and me and the gatepost, the Council’d prefer it if you sent ’em to Moore River or somewhere’ (Act 1, scene 7). Davis refuses to allow his characters to stay as ”em’. He restores their full subjectivity through two strategies: verbal and visual.

Repeatedly, Gran and Milly interrupt Sergeant Carrol’s discussions with Neville, invading the space of white authority, mocking Carrol, and insisting on their rights to rations. Their physical presence and rowdy voices force Neville to withdraw and Carrol to attend their needs. Similarly, Jimmy refuses to be silent or passive. He will not wait for Neville out the back; he ‘barges into the Chief Protector’s Office’, insisting on being seen and heard. In court and in the police cells, he repeatedly interrupts the white authority figures with his fiery ripostes. He arrives in the courtroom in his own time, responding to the suggestion that he might well be making ‘a mockery of the court by delaying proceedings’ with: ‘Sorry, sir, I was on the shit bucket … toilet … Got a guts ache, sir’ (Act 1, scene 5). Dramatically, these scenes with crossed conversations, multiple yelling voices, songs and repartee, are not only humorous, they are potentially very disruptive, noisy, even shambolic. Order and control have been subverted. Aboriginal bodies and voices refuse containment.

Visually, Davis emphasises the dignity and beauty of the Aboriginal body. In The Dreamers, The Dancer, particularly in contrast to the ailing Worru, embodies tradition, strength, culture and power. Here Jimmy, Sam, Joe and Billy dance the corroboree, representing those same qualities and telling of a time of plenty in the midst of ration cuts, hunger and cold. Obviously, Davis is drawing a parallel between the opening story of the farcical staging of Aborigines dancing to a brass band and the corroboree. But more affectingly the corroboree, which purposefully directs the audience’s gaze to the visible, beautiful painted bodies, contrasts with the earlier scene of Joe’s humiliation as Matron conducts her embarrassing health check.

Civilisation and Christianity

It was A.O. Neville who spoke of uplifting and elevating Aboriginal people ‘to our own plane’. It was Neville who designed the ‘breeding out the colour’ policy. It was Neville who addressed the West Australian Native Welfare Conference of 1937, noting, ‘We have power under the act to take any child from its mother at any stage of its life’, before asking: ‘Are we going to have a population of 1,000,000 blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were ever any aborigines in Australia?’ (Neville p. 11). Davis insists on remembering.

With heavy-handed irony, he has Neville state: ‘I’m a great believer that if you provide the native the basic accoutrements of civilization you’re half way to civilizing him’ (Act 1, scene 2). For Neville, one of the great signifiers of civilisation is Christianity. Rather than make overt statements, Davis uses structure and symbolism to comment on the destruction wrought by the imposition of Christianity and the missions. Consider the dramatic impact of following Neville’s massacre speech with Sister Eileen’s Sunday School narration of the Slaughter of the Innocents.

Jimmy, skilled in bush ways, was once a choir boy at New Norcia mission. He can sing ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Hail, Queen of Heaven’, as well as ‘Springtime in the Rockies’ and Al Jolson’s ‘Mammy’ (Jolson in blackface). Jimmy exemplifies the intelligent, adaptable Aboriginal man who is forced to bow to unreasonable cross-cultural demands while preserving his own culture. Fittingly, though tragically, Jimmy’s final act is to reject Neville’s pompous exhortation for Aboriginal people to ‘take [their] place in Australian society … living like the white man’ (Act 4, scene 5). In fury and defiance, he collapses during the Australia Day ceremony, clutching the flagpole to the tune of ‘God Save the King’.

So what of the future?

Dramatically, the birth of a child should denote joy and hope for the future. The birth ofkoolbardi (Magpie) is more complex. The magpie and the crow are important creatures in Nyoongah culture. Indeed, Kullark opens with the story of how these birds got their colouring. Mary’s excessive fear that Matron will take her child, or that the trackers may strangle it, prefigures the horrors of the Stolen Generations. She and Joe return to Northam, but such a return may land Joe back behind bars.

In Joe and Mary and the birth of their son, Davis offers a Nyoongah version of the Holy Family. As Elizabeth Webby has pointed out in her study of Davis’s trilogy: ‘Davis’s use of the biblical names … has been criticized as unsubtle but he had a good precedent in Henry Lawson’ (Webby p. 76). She continues:

… the savage whipping of the pregnant Mary by Neal recalls both the scourging of Christ and the floggings of convict Australia. Early accounts record the horrified reaction of ‘savage’ Aboriginals to seeing convicts being flogged by ‘Christian’ settlers. Davis likewise provokes horror in his audience and a questioning of the values of a society which can sing of ‘a Happy Land’ while making the lives of fellow humans a hell. (Webby p. 76)

The parody of the hymn ‘There is a happy land’, which appears in several of Davis’s works, suggests one meaning of the play’s title, emphasising the recurring motif or theme of resistance and subversion. More subtly, and far more powerfully, the title reflects back to Neville’s advice to Jimmy in Act 1, scene 7: ‘sugar catches more flies than vinegar’. Davis’s choice of title, therefore, is a bold renunciation of white authority. Aboriginal people will not play sweetly, they will not be meekly charming and abide by the rules of the imposed game. They will assert their ‘troubles’ with the colonial forces. Their stories will be told and heard, and, despite great adversity, through it all they will survive.


Referenced works

Bringing them home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. Sydney: Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997.

Casey, Maryrose. ‘Jack Davis and Nyoongah Theatre 1978–1986’. Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967–1990. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2004: 129-64.

Davis, Jack. No Sugar. Sydney: Currency Press, 2012 (1986).
—. Kullark/The Dreamers. Sydney: Currency Press, 1988 (1982).
—. ‘A Letter to the Shade of Charles Darwin’. Black Life: Poems. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1992: 29.
—. ‘The Dreamers’. Meanjin 1 (1984): 45–8.

Gilbert, Helen. ‘”Talking Country”: Place and Displacement in Jack Davis’s Theatre’. Jack Davis: The Maker of History. Ed. Gerry Turcotte. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994: 60–71.

Haebich, Anna. Interview with Adam Shoemaker, Canberra, November 1980, cited in Shoemaker, Adam. Black Words White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1989 (1992): 233.

Holt, Lillian. ‘Aboriginal humour: A conversational corroboree’. Serious Frolic: Essays on Australian Humour. Eds Fran de Groen and Peter Kirkpatrick. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009: 81–94.

Neville, A.O. Address delivered to the Aboriginal Welfare – Initial Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities, Canberra, April 21–23, 1937.

Noyce, Phillip (dir.). Rabbit-Proof Fence. Miramax, 2002.

Scott, Kim. Benang: From the Heart. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999.
—. That Deadman Dance. Sydney: Picador, 2010.

Scott, Kim, Roberts, Lomas and the Wirlomin Nyoongah Language and Stories Project. Artwork by Geoffrey Woods and Anthony Roberts. Nyoongah Mambara Bakitj. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2011.

Scott, Kim, Woods, Iris and the Wirlomin Nyoongah Language and Stories Project. Artwork by Jeffrey Farmer, Helen Nelly and Roma Winmar (Yibiyung). Mamang. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2011.

Shoemaker, Adam. Black Words White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1989 (1992).
—. ‘”The Real Australian Story”: An Interview with Jack Davis’. Jack Davis: The Maker of History. Ed. Gerry Turcotte. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994: 22-47.

Stanner, W.E.H. After the Dreaming: 1968 Boyer Lectures. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1969.

Tompkins, Joanne. ‘Oral Culture, Theatre, Text: Jack Davis’s Plays’. Jack Davis: The Maker of History. Ed. Gerry Turcotte. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994: 48-59.

Turcotte, Gerry, ed. Jack Davis: The Maker of History. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994.

Webby, Elizabeth. ‘The First Born Trilogy’. Modern Australian Plays. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1993: 65-82.

Winmar, Dallas. Aliwa!. Sydney: Currency Press, 2002.

Further reading

Dibble, Brian and Macintyre, Margaret. ‘Hybridity in Jack Davis’ No Sugar‘. Westerly 37.4 (1992): 93-8.

Kaine-Jones, Karen. ‘Contemporary Aboriginal Drama’. Southerly 4 (1988): 432-44.

© Copyright Bernadette Brennan 2014

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