Box the Pony tells a story which is based on the life story of the main protagonist and co-author Leah Purcell. It is the story of the struggle of a young Aboriginal woman, whose father is English, to find her place in the world and to get free from the oppression she is exposed to. This is either the subjugation of Leah as a woman, in the male-dominated society or the oppression of Leah as an Aboriginal person, subjugated by Western imperialism (Maufort 109). This play presents issues that are present in contemporary Aboriginal society such as alcohol abuse and domestic violence, struggle for finding one’s own identity of the children from mixed parentage or racism. Crime is not dealt with in this play, thus a subchapter on this is not present in the analysis. Poverty is touched upon marginally and is incorporated in the subchapter on Family Relationships.
The play follows two storylines. One is of Steff, who we meet during her childhood and adolescence when she is looking after her grandmother and mother and later working in the meat factory. She also falls pregnant, considers suicide and finally escapes the oppressive world to become Leah. Leah’s storyline is set in the present, she is successful, she works in Sydney and she is the one who impersonates all the other characters in the play.
3.4.1. Family Relationships
Family relationships are not depicted as idyllic as in Jack Davis’s trilogy here. It is because there are tensions amidst the family and some characters do not have the best relationship with the other. Alcohol and violence play an important role here. What is also very important is that Leah’s father is “white” and has two families:
LEAH. Now my father, he’s white. Two wives, two families, one white, one black and that was my mum. He and her had six kids together. I was the youngest. (Rankin and Purcell 25)
This actually puts Leah in the position of someone who partly belongs to both cultures but is not sure where her true identity lies. It is possible to examine the situation with the help of Homi Bhabha’s concept of hybridity. Meredith draws on Bhabha and presents hybridity as “the process by which the colonial governing authority undertakes to translate the identity of the colonised (the Other) within a singular universal framework, but then fails producing something familiar but new” (Meredith 2). By interweaving the cultures of the coloniser and the colonised, something what Bhabha calls the “third space” emerges. As opposed to colonial binary thinking (black/white, etc.) the term “third space” is used for the inclusion rather than exclusion of the synthesis of cultures creating a new identity in between (Meredith 2). This third space in the play is shown through Leah’s position in the society, where her identity is neither fully Aboriginal nor white. An example of this third space in between is taken from an interview with Purcell:
… when I was 13 and I started high school and the Indigenous students, the Aboriginal students from Cherbourg came and that was the first time I really felt the racial tension personally. We were all told to go and sit under the school, the black kids went to one side of this horseshoe, sort of, seating, the white kids went to the other. I was the last one to move because I said, “Where do I sit? I’ve got white friends. I know I’m related to some of the Aboriginal kids.” I sat dead set centre. … (qtd. in Denton)
The complexity of hybridity of Aboriginal and Western cultures (the colonised and the coloniser) is tightly connected to the search for one’s own identity that the characters of Steff/Leah pursue throughout the play. When Steff takes part in the Miss Murgon beauty contest, she becomes “complicit in the Western materialism, thus being deprived of her aboriginality” (Maufort 109). She does exactly what the other girls in the contest do and she voluntarily becomes part of something that demeans the girls, who are compared to the livestock:
LEAH. In 1987. Steff was fifteen. The biggest time of the year in Murgon was the Agriculture Show … gave the farmers the opportunity to show off their livestock. You got the chooks…brrk, bbrkk … the bulls…mmmmmhh, and then their daughters …the Beauty Pageant. (Rankin and Purcell 73)
In this scene, Leah/Steff is not sure where she belongs.
Opposed to the Western materiality is the spirituality, which is provided by Nanna–the Grandmother. The character of Nanna serves as the link with the world of Aboriginal legends and spirituality. Young Steff is influenced by Western culture when she watches Neighbours on TV, however, she is still sensitive to the spirituality conveyed through dying Nanna. Nanna’s eventual death represents the loss of Aboriginal roots for Steff.
Young Steff experiences another level what it is to have a family than just having roots. She is abused by the three important men in her life–her father, her brother and her boyfriend:
STEFFis holding her yellow dress. Her brother grabs her by the hair and is pulling her
BROTHER. Myall little black bitch!
STEFF. Don’t touch me, what are you looking at? (Rankin and Purcell 85)
This male induced oppression is an oppression of power and patriarchal order (Meaufort 109) which is expressed by the duties women have “up home there’:
LEAH. … I wasn’t allowed to box, because I was a girl. Up’ome’der, all the girls got to do was cook, clean and look after the kids. (Rankin and Purcell 29)
This is not uniquely Aboriginal, since the oppression of women by men has been known in many cultures. Leah’s boyfriend teaches her even more explicitly what it is to be a woman:
BOYFRIEND. You being a smart bitch [punch], big notin’ your fucking self [punch], little pretty bitch [punch], little pretty bitch [punch]
The BOYFRIEND hits her, knocks her to the ground. As he yells he tries to get to her face. She hides it from him, protecting herself.
BOYFRIEND. Give us your face…give us your face…I said give us your
face…give us your face! (Rankin and Purcell 111)
What is important to know is that it is again another family member who Steff seeks comfort with. After being beaten up by her boyfriend, Steff tries to find comfort with her daughter Jess but it is clear she is not able to provide her all the affection her daughter asks for. At this moment, Steff behaves like her mother once did.
Steff’s mother Flo is depicted as a woman with serious alcohol problem. When Steff is little, Flo does not provide her with the affection Steff requires because she spends a lot of her time in a pub. Steff thus needs to take care of her old and weak Nanna:
We are back in the pub. Flo is very drunk.
FLO. Hey! Where you been bub, eh? Come here and dance with your mother!
STEFF. Mum. I’m tired. Got school tomorrow. Don’t be sittin’ there bein’ stubborn. Mum, I wanna go home!
FLO. You just wait there! Wait here! I can’t talk about goggling my drink. (Rankin and Purcell 59)
At this moment, Flo does not care for Steff and neither does for her mother, Nanna. On the contrary, she tells Steff to do so:
FLO. Hey! ‘Ere bub, you forgot about Nanna. You better go and give her a feed, eh? Put Nanna on the pot. Gorn, gorn bub. What’s the matter? You go home and fry up some eggs. ... (Rankin and Purcell 55)
Steff, on the other hand is very caring when her mother is drunk:
LEAH. Steff slept in the same bed as her mum until she was fourteen. But she didn’t sleep much when her mother was drunk. Steff thought she might die.
STEFF. [whispers] Mum…mum…you breathin’? (Rankin and Purcell 63)
The constant emotional stress later becomes unbearable for Steff and she is looking for a way of escape. She imagines a pony–a present she received from her grandfather as a child–and its dream-like quality connects her with the Aboriginal ancestry (Meaufort 109). Her imaginary rides on the pony help her once get over the emotional distress and also save her life when she seeks a suicide as the only possible escape:
STEFF. Here bub, on Mum’s lap…see that big old gum tree. I’m going to crush Jess between my body and the steering wheel, so she’s dead first, my little one. But by the side of the car, galloping, is grandfather’s pony. Steff’s there, summer frock blowin;, riding him bare back. … Steff will be riding him forever…up’ome’der.
Brolga dance, flying off and coming to a stop.
I’m slowing…the car’s slowing. … Should’ve been wrapped around that tree. Fucking pony saved me. (Rankin and Purcell 117)
The scene with the pony shows that the world of dreams is interconnected with the real world. This is the actual climax of the play. It is the point when Steff becomes more assertive and decides to leave and go to Sydney. Here she changes to Leah, who finally settles the problem of her own identity by realizing she does not care if she is “white” or Aboriginal, she is who she is:
A bit of this? [Does a traditional dance: Ngurrinynarmi] Too Black?
She thinks for a moment and then sings in a very white voice, with white choreography, one line from a patriotic Australian advertising jingle.
Walking to centre stage, she has an idea.
Ah whatever. (Rankin and Purcell 121)
The words “Ah whatever” express her reconciliation with who she is and that she really does not care.
3.4.2. Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal Relationships
Box the Pony touches on the problem of the Stolen Generations which is conveyed by Steff’s Grandmother. She passes on the story of the Aboriginal oppression by the non-Aboriginal Australian population to Steff by drawing on her memories about the life in the mission camp:
NANNA. … Put me on big train, went for long time, up and down, … New home land now. Tin yumba, dirt floor…ooh but he spotless clean, here sssshhh…bossman, bulliman comin’…top camp, middle camp, bottom camp. … Corroboree every Friday night. Good times, sad time…hard times… (Rankin and Purcell 57)
The tragedy of the Stolen Generations children is also expressed by the song “Run Daisy Run” which introduces bit of lyricism to the otherwise bitterly satiric work (Meaufort 109). The song presents the story of Daisy who is told to run away from the white men on horseback who come to take the children away. It is again full of sorrow, depicting the forced removal of children as a heart breaking experience.
The other issue arising from the Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal coexistence is racism. Leah encounters racism when she first comes to Sydney:
LEAH. … Had to live somewhere, right? So I go to a real estate agent. ‘G’day…and true’s god, the woman behind the counter looks at me and says, ‘We haven’t any money, we haven’t any money, take whatever you want.’
So I took a one-bedroom flat.
See, blackfella not greedy. (Rankin and Purcell 33)
She describes Sydney as racist but it is the discussed use of irony that she uses to mock the situation. She also dramatises another encounter with a white woman:
LEAH. … Another time, I’m walking down the street and this lady comes out of her gate and, true’s god, it’s like a bloody cartoon. She grabs her bag and goes…
As WHITE WOMAN frightened by seeing a bleckfella up close, she catches her handbag to her chest and blinks, stopping in her tracks as if she fears LEAH might hit her.
like I was going to hit her or something… (Rankin and Purcell 36)
Again, she mocks the whole concept of racism and laughs at the white people when she wants to do coffee in Sydney:
LEAH. These gubba fellas just don’t do coffee on the footpath, their dogs, which they treat like children, do gunung!
Wiping her feet as if having trodden in gunung.
That’s filthy. That’s stinkin’, that’s dirty that! And they got a cheek to say blackfella dirty!
One time, I see this woman ….she’s the woman who [was afraid of LEAH before]. And I’m thinking, white woman can’t be wandering around in my story! That’s cultural imperialism! That’s bloody racist! (Rankin and Purcell 67)
Purcell’s transitions from a storytelling and musing about the story itself give an insight into how Leah perceives the black/white culture cohabitation. However, when coming to work in the slaughter house as Steff, she is being scrutinized by the staff. The scrutiny is with sexist and racial subtext:
LEAH. The men from the slaughter house would look down through a blood-spattered window to see who was working. They called:
BLOKES. Eh come and look! New blood on the floor!
Steff is startled by all that is going on around her.
WOMAN. Who’s meat is this? Are you with us Jedda, this ain’t no bloody dreamtime, you know. S’pose you’ll go bloody walkabout on us soon, eh? (Rankin and Purcell 97)
Steff’s is demeaned as a woman, being looked upon through a window and called as “new blood” by the men. Her Aboriginality is also attacked by the woman she works with. Steff is startled by the things around her and since being inactive for a moment, the woman inappropriately uses the term dreamtime to call her apparent daydreaming moment.
Box the Pony is an important play which challenges many aspects of contemporary Aboriginal society, being it family issues or racial ones. It is about an escape from the cycle binding generations of women in Aboriginal families. Leah manages to escape her future by leaving to Sydney where she achieves fame as a successful writer, singer and performer.