The play opens on the Government Well Aboriginal Reserve, in Northam, in Australia. The year is 1929. Sam Millimurra is making tea with sugar, and he gives some to Joe, his eldest son, who is reading the newspaper. Gran, his mother-in-law, and Milly, his wife, are sorting clothes to be washed. David, his younger son, and Cissie, his daughter, are playing cricket with a homemade bat. Jimmy, Milly's brother, is sharpening an axe, "bush fashion."
David tells Cissie to "bowl overarm" in the cricket match, while Joe reads aloud, railing against the white colonialists who have settled in the area. Jimmy gets annoyed by the news and chops wood furiously, accidentally cutting his finger on the axe. Milly gives Cissie and David twopence so that they can buy an apple for lunch. David wants to get a pie, but Milly says that the twopence is the only money she has. Cissie complains that they always get shriveled apples, while the apple seller gives big ones to the white kids.
Hearing this, Joe gets out sixpence and gives them to David and Milly. Milly gives David a clean shirt and tells them to wash themselves after school. She then tells Joe and Sam to go out and get a couple of rabbits for dinner.
Scene 2. Frank Brown, an unemployed farmer, rolls a cigarette on the street in Northam, as Sergeant Carrol, a policeman, approaches him. Carrol asks Frank where he's camped, and Frank tells him he's near the saleyards with some other white men. Hearing this, Carrol suggests that Brown has been hanging around with natives, and reminds him that "it is an offence to supply liquor to an Aboriginal native under the Aboriginal Act."
Carrol confronts Frank directly about supplying Jimmy with two bottles of port wine, which led to him trading in fox scalps for three pounds. He warns Frank not to do it again, and suggests that Frank move on from Northam. To this, Frank tells him that he has no money to travel to see his wife and two kids in Perth. Carrol gives him some cigarettes and reiterates, "Natives best left to keep to themselves." He elaborates: "You might think your doin' 'em a good turn, but your not. Take it from me, I been dealin' with 'em for years. I got nothin' against 'em, but I know exactly what they're like."
The scene shifts to the office of Auber Octavius Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, and his secretary, Miss Dunn. Miss Dunn makes a call about selling her brother's motorcycle, as Neville takes a seat at his desk. When she hangs up, Miss Dunn tells Neville that her brother cannot find work. Neville asks Miss Dunn to get Sergeant Carrol on the line, before dictating a note to the Minister about the fact that Aborigines should get a smaller weekly ration than unemployed white workers. He discusses the fact that soap has become a discontinued ration and that Aborigine girls are coming back from service jobs pregnant.
Carrol gets through to Neville and they discuss the location of a new reserve for Aborigines. As Neville speaks on the phone, Gran and Milly approach his office looking for rations. Carrol hangs up and puts flour, sugar, meat, and tea on the bench. He tells them there's no more soap, and Milly protests. Carrol insists that the order came from Neville at the Aboriginal Department in Perth. He then tells Milly and Gran that the men in their house ought to try and find jobs, but they insist that they can only get jobs that pay horribly.
"You wait till brother Jimmy hears about this no soap business. He'll make you fellas jump," Milly says. Carrol threatens to arrest Jimmy if he comes around, and Gran and Milly leave, making a joke at his expense, and "laughing and hooting Nyoongah fashion."
When they have left, Neville dictates a letter to a Mr. Neal, the superintendent at the Moore River Native Settlement, thanking him for his hospitality on their visit to the settlement. In the letter, he also says that he thinks the native children ought to be civilized and cleaned. "If you can successfully inculcate such basic but essential details of civilised living you will have helped them along the road to taking their place in Australian society."
Scene 3. At the Government Well, Joe and David are playing a game called two-up with bottle caps. Cissie calls to Joe to ask him to help her make some bread near the fire, then tells him to chop up some more wood. Sam, Billy, Jimmy, and Frank all enter, slightly drunk. Then Gran and Millie come in. Joe is skeptical of Frank, but Jimmy insists he's a friend.
When they hear about the fact that there's no more soap in their rations, Jimmy says he'll go and talk to Carrol, but Gran tells him that Carrol will send him to jail for six months if he does. "Mother, I can do that standing on my head," he says, laughing. He then takes some turnips out of his pocket and Milly puts them in the rabbit stew she's cooking.
Taking out a mouth organ, Jimmy asks Frank if he's ever been to jail, and Frank tells him he hasn't. Jimmy tells him he's been in jail 4 times, for drinking, fighting, and snowdropping, which is taking clothes off people's clotheslines. He then tells Frank that he was the leading choir boy at the local church.
The family sits down to dinner. Jimmy is delayed because he wants to keep drinking. He tells his family that Frank used to have his own farm near Lake Yealering, but lost it. Jimmy points out to Frank that even though he lost the farm, he is still allowed to walk down the street at night—unlike Jimmy and his family, who, as Aborigines, have a curfew. He tells Frank that the police shot their dog.
Frank tells the family that his three kids and wife are in Perth at his wife's mother's, as Jimmy takes Frank's wallet out and tells him to show the Millimuras a picture of his family, before going out to strain the potatoes. The Millimuras admire the picture of Frank's family as he tells them he met his wife at a dancing contest in Perth. Sam asks him how long it has been since he saw his kids and he tells them it's been six months.
When Jimmy comes back in, he trips over David's bike, and kicks it angrily. Joe runs to rescue the bike, which David has been working on all day, and Jimmy accidentally clocks him in the nose. Sam jumps up and pushes Jimmy, who tries to throw a punch at Sam, then lunges at him, starting a brawl. As the fight breaks out, Frank excuses himself, thanking Milly for the meal. Gran jumps into the mix, grabbing Sam and Jimmy by the hair and separating them, before falling onto the ground.
Scene 4. Jimmy and Sam are in jail, in separate cells. Sergeant Carrol and the Constable sit outside the cells with the bottle of port that Jimmy was drinking, and separate the prisoners' possessions. As Jimmy plays "Home, Sweet Home" on the mouth organ, the Constable goes to him and orders him to hand over the instrument. Jimmy then complains that his toilet bucket has a hole in it, but they ignore him and insist that he isn't aiming correctly.
Jimmy begins to sing a hymn, "Hail, Queen of Heaven," then several other songs. After singing "Mammy," the song made popular by blackface performer Al Jolson, Jimmy references the fact that Al Jolson performs the song pretending he is black and calls him a "poor white bastard."
Scene 5. At the courthouse, Carrol stands with the Justice of the Peace, a local farmer, and tells him that they're bringing in Sam, Jimmy, and Frank. Carrol calls in Frank, who pleads "guilty with an explanation." Frank tries to reason with the authorities about how generous and kind the Millimura family was with him, but the JP is not interested in hearing it, stating that it is his job "to protect natives and half-castes from alcohol." He sentences Frank to six weeks of imprisonment with hard labor. They then call Jimmy and Sam out, and Carrol lists their offenses, adding that Jimmy threatened to blow his head off. Jimmy protests, but they silence him. The JP sentences Jimmy to three months imprisonment with hard labor, and fines Sam 25 shillings, due in 14 days.
The play opens with a tight-knit family that is scraping by during the Great Depression in the late 20s and early 30s. The opening scene is a cacophony of activity, with kids playing cricket, the father making tea, and Cissie and Gran preparing the laundry. In this outbreak of activity and flurry, we see the dynamics of how the household works, what each member is invested in, and the complications of living in near-poverty with a big family.
Not only are the Millimurra family surviving in the midst of the economic precariousness, but they are also contending with the racial discrimination of post-colonial Australia. Jimmy and Joe are both disturbed by the prejudice against them as Aborigines, and Cissie complains that the discrimination even happens at school when she tries to buy an apple for lunch. The structural disparity and violence of colonialist attitudes towards indigenous Australians make life all the harder for every one of the family members.
In the second scene of the first act, we are introduced to some white people who live in Northam: Frank Brown, an impoverished farmer, and Sergeant Carrol, a hard-nosed, racist cop. Frank has a reputation for consorting with Aborigines, and even buying them liquor, which is against the Aboriginal Act, and Carrol wants to remind Frank that it is best to leave Aborigines alone. Immediately after showing us an Aborigine family, and their struggle to stay afloat economically, we see two white characters discussing the indigenous community as though they were a lost cause.
The tension between the white members of Australian society and the Aborigines is complicated not only because of outright racism, but also because of white Australians' condescension towards the indigenous community. Neville and Carrol not only treat the Aborigines as inferior, but imagine that they are paying them a great service by helping them integrate into white society, which makes both their patronage and prejudice all the more despicable.
Frank, the white farmer who has lost everything and spends much of his time with the Millimura family, serves as a kind of foil for his Aboriginal companions. While he is worse off economically than the Millimura family, having lost his farm and any money with which to even travel and see his family, he has more rights than the Millimuras because he is white. Through his relationship with the family, we see that while Australians are all suffering from the difficulties of an economic depression, there are still hierarchies that put white citizens at an advantage; Frank has never gone to jail, he can walk freely at night, and is allowed to march.