The distinction between black and white is pronounced in postcolonial Australia, and the theme of racism marks every interaction between Aboriginals and white Australians throughout the play. Due to their race, Aboriginals are forbidden to drink, walk the streets after dark, move beyond where the government stipulates, or marry without permission. Additionally, they receive less than a third of the welfare that white Australians receive. They are often referred to disparagingly as "abos" and have to deal with discrimination from white people, who treat them as if they are inferior.
All characters within the play suffer from the effects of racism, including the three youngest characters, Joe, Cissie, and David. Joe cuts one hundred posts for a white man, and receives an old pair of boots and a tough piece of stag ram as compensation, instead of any money. David and Cissie, who are only children, are also subjected to racism at school, where they receive dirty apples with holes in them, instead of big, juicy ones like the white children get. Racism is embedded in the social order of Australia, connected to the colonial attitudes of white Australians towards the Aborigines.
The era in which No Sugar is set, the 1920s and 30s, was an assimilation period for Aboriginals, one in which white Australians forced Aboriginals to conform to the conventions of Western society in the hopes of suppressing their culture. During this time many mixed-race Australians were born, as attempts were made to breed out Aboriginality in Australia.
Assimilation is a major theme within the play, and it is clearly evident throughout various points. Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, sums up the ethic of assimilation in his speech on Australia Day: "It doesn't hurt to remind yourselves that you are preparing yourselves here to take your place in Australian society, to live as other Australians live, and to live alongside other Australians."
According to Neville, the ultimate goal of the government in regards to the Aboriginals was not to accept their culture, but to diminish it and turn them into Western-thinking people who live in the same way as white Australians.
Protectionism is another prevalent theme in No Sugar, one that is most clearly seen in the actions of white people in charge of Aboriginals. A distinct condescension is applied by white officials in their treatment of the Indigenous population, in an effort to "protect the natives from themselves." It is because of this political protectionism that Aboriginals are not allowed to drink. As a Justice of the Peace says in Act One, Scene Five of the play, "It is my duty to protect natives and half-castes from alcohol."
While protectionism purports to "protect" people, its application in early-20th-century Australia caused more harm than good for the Aborigines, as it completely restricted their freedoms.
While the Millimurra and Munday families can often be dysfunctional, and are certainly living under harsh conditions, throughout the entirety of the play, an effort to maintain a strong sense of family is displayed by all characters. Even when separated, as when Jimmy goes to jail, or when Joe and Mary left their home for safety, the relationships between the family members remain strong, and when reunited, they appreciate the connections they have forged with one another. Indeed, it is familial life that protects these Aborigines, who know they are stronger together as a unit than separately.
Connection to the Past and Tradition
Despite the obvious attempts by white officials to assimilate the Aborigines and destroy their culture, the importance of maintaining Indigenous tradition is significant to each member of the Millimurra family within the play. This connection to the past is perhaps best exemplified by the character of Gran, who has lived her traditional culture without modern influence for the longest amount of time. When the families are no longer given soap in the rations, and Cissie worries about washing her hair, Gran assures her that she can "use tjeerung bush," proving that the traditional ways are far more reliable than the contemporary bureaucratic structures.
Another realm in which the Aborigines must maintain their culture and tradition is in the use of their own language. The continual use of native language bears the promise that the tradition will continue into future generations, in spite of the prevalence of English.
While the members of the Millimura are vigilant about maintaining their safety under the violent and oppressive structures that govern them, they also resist their oppression often. When they have grievances, they visit the offices of the various authorities under whom they live and demand better treatment. The characters who represent the spirit of resistance most fully include Gran, Jimmy, Joe, and Mary. When the family gets sent to live at the Moore River Reserve, Gran makes a huge fuss about not being allowed to bring her dog with her. Jimmy makes a point of speaking truth to power throughout the play, and he dies in the middle of a diatribe against the hypocrisy of their so-called "protectors." Joe inherits his uncle's fighting spirit, and the meek Mary even fights back when Neal tries to force her to work at the hospital.
Bureaucracy is a major theme in the play, reflected especially in the actions of the white characters. They create arbitrary rules and restrictions and devalue the lives of the Aborigines they purport to protect, but frame their actions as generous and charitable. Neville, Neal, and Carrol are all motivated more by their own professional ambition and the promise of looking like heroes than by the desire to protect or help the people over whom they preside.
No Sugar Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for No Sugar is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.