Ernie Blackmore is an Aboriginal author who now works as a Lecturer at the Woolyungah Indigenous Centre at the University of Wollongong. He is a member of the Stolen Generations and he experienced the childhood full of violence and abuse (Blackmore 12)20. His life story is reflected in the play Waiting for Ships. This play tells the story of an Aboriginal boy from when he was four years old till early adulthood. Many of the recurring issues of Aboriginal people are dealt with in this play. Poverty and crime play their role here as well as alcohol abuse, domestic violence and the themes of the Stolen Generations. Last but not least the play deals with the question of identity as it regards the light-skinned Aboriginal people in Australia (Blackmore 12). The time frame of the actions of the play is the present and the location of the plot is set “anywhere a person can go in the pursuit of peace from the demons created in another lifetime” (Blackmore 191). The one and only actor in the play is a man in his sixties called Wally. The play is a monologue, Wally recounts the events of his life, impersonating four other characters–Young Wally, his Dad and his Mum and Mrs Daley. This aspect of the play, having only one actor, is similar to Purcell’s Box the Pony. It can be seen as an attempt to make an inexpensive production, or it might suggest that both the characters of Leah and Wally are on their own during their struggle for identity, and having no other actors in the plays just underlines the absence of a helping hand in the search for it.
3.5.1. Poverty and Crime
Poverty has been discussed as something omnipresent within contemporary Aboriginal society. All the families in the analysed plays face it. Wally’s family is not different in this aspect. The family is not rich, which he documents on what they eat:
Before he is taken away from his home in the beginning, it is only his mother providing for him and five of his brothers and sisters. This is also the official reason why Wally and his brother Gordie are taken from home:
WALLY. We’d been took from our Mum. Because she was looking after all of us kids on her own, and there were six of us at the time. Anyway, the Aboriginal Welfare mob reckoned we was at risk and charged us as being neglected children. The court said it the best thing for us. (Blackmore 193)
It has been shown by historical and sociological research that taking the children away was not the best thing for them. The theme of the Stolen Generations and the official justification for these removals will be elaborated on in the next subchapter.
Later on when Wally is a young adult, he and his friends are into stealing. As Wally comments, all of his friends have personal experience with imprisonment by the age of eighteen:
WALLY. [In the voice of the boy.] I think we’d all been in jail at least once. In my case I’d been locked up three times but just for petty shit, nothing serious. (Blackmore 221)
He gets into stealing after he is kicked out of his home by his despotic father. Later on Wally and his friends are supposed to rob a bank, but a lucky coincidence has it that Wally is not involved. He oversleeps, his friends rob the bank without him and call him “too fuckin’ unreliable” to “do more jobs” with him. This destroys and saves his life at the same time. Being “unreliable” and thus not invited to other raids, Wally is disappointed. However, as he recollects his friends who later either commit suicide or are killed in police custody or in prison, he is grateful that this rejection saved his life (Blackmore 222). The theme of the deaths in custody is not elaborated on in this play, but a simple reference to it is given to remind the audience of this problem.
3.5.2. Family Relationships – Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal Relationships
The issues of family relationships and Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships dealt with in this play are discussed in one chapter only, because they are too interconnected here and breaking up into two separate chapters would not be easy to follow.
Wally is taken from his home at the age of four, together with his brother Gordie. He is a light-skinned Aboriginal boy, his father is an Englishman who has gone to fight in the World War II. It is not poverty or the insinuated neglect that are the reasons for his removal. Actually the justification for these practices of removing “half-caste” or light-skinned Aboriginal children was to “breed them out”, believing that if all of these children are separated from their “full-blood” communities and integrated in non-Indigenous communities, the total number of Aboriginal people would decline leading to absolute disappearance of these people from Australia (Blackmore 231). Colin Tatz in his AIATSIS21 research paper goes as far as to call these practices genocide.
After being removed from their mother, Wally and Gordie are taken from Sydney on a train and bus and dropped somewhere in the bush, outside a shop, where they are left alone:
WALLY. [In the voice of the boy] … it was rainin’, like I said, and it started to get dark and as the darkness settled in I was shivering. … Gordie managed to get me quieted down for a bit until the bloody lights in the store behind us snuffed out, and we were left in complete darkness. Now, I was really worried. I didn't like the dark much and we was out in the bush on our own. In our whole lives we’d never been alone before, let alone out in the bush. (Blackmore 193)
Being left alone, only with his brother, at the age of four in the dark somewhere in the bush is one of the examples of the acts of harsh treatment of the “stolen” children. After that, children were often introduced to an environment with no connection to their previous experience. And as removed from their homes, the children felt “the abasement of the self, because without a point of reference the children often accepted that they were to blame for the separation” (Blackmore 233). This dissociation and improper or cruel treatment of the “stolen” children is proven to be the basis for post-traumatic stress disorder, distorted thinking patterns and emotional disturbance (Briere 177). In his work Dissociation in Children and Adolescents, the psychologist Frank W. Putnam claims that if the dissociation and the physical, emotional or sexual acts of mistreatment happen early in a person’s life, the occurrence of avoidance strategies is likely to happen. Such individuals then often use alcohol or drugs to insulate themselves from the traumatic experiences of the past (171). Wally survives this trauma of separation but as Blackmore argues and compares his own life story to the character of his play,
at a deeper level one is able to see the impact of this loss of identity–the denial of the boy’s identity by another, the denial of identity by the self and finally, the denial of overall identity as a social construct enabling the central character in the play to live life as neither a representative of Aboriginal people nor as a white man. (Blackmore 240)
The despotic father figure dramatically contributes to Wally’s self denial. Several years after being removed from his mother, Wally is brought back home. However, what he had remembered and expected from being home did not fully prove to be true. The major problem in his family is his violent father. As stated above, Wally’s father is an Englishman and Wally himself inherited his father’s skin colour. However, for his father, this seems to be a problem from the moment he comes to pick him up from Mr and Mrs Daley, a white couple who are fostering Wally:
WALLY. [In the voice of the boy.] He pulled back a bit, looking at me as if tryin’ to figure out if Mrs Daley was ‘avin’ a go at him or if she was tellin’ the truth. He looked at me closely again before he said, “That’s not my son”, he argued. …
An argument sortta got started then with the man saying he’d know his kid anywhere. When Mrs Daley wanted to know why, he said, “The kids bloody mother’s an ‘Abo’. All the other kids are darkies”. An’ for the first time I realised that the colour of my skin was not what it should a been. (Blackmore 204)
In this scene, Blackmore draws on his own personal experience. This is a very disappointing moment for young Wally, seeing his own, long-anticipated father neglects him only for the colour of his skin. In the past, the skin colour was used to assign people to particular ethnic communities, Wally’s father anticipated Wally to be black so he could allocate him to the group of Aboriginal people. Finding Wally is white, he might have felt “obliged” to feel some affection for him, but he definitely dismissed this feeling by his behaviour later. Again, there is a parallel to Purcell, who also has a white father and an Aboriginal mother. Both of the characters (Wally and Leah) as same as the playwrights (Blackmore and Purcell) experience the in-between identity, finding themselves in the “third space”, being neither fully Aboriginal nor white, which is rather difficult for them to accept. This was true for thousands of “half-caste” children who could not define their identity. Blackmore also suggests that his father’s denial led to his anger and anti-social behaviour in the years to come (Blackmore 244).
Wally feels rejected twice, first by his family when he is taken away from his mother for–at least according to him–no obvious reasons, and secondly by his father. Moreover, there are more disappointments to come when Wally leaves Mr and Mrs Daley, i.e. that returning home would not be a return to a happy place:
WALLY. [In normal voice] … eventually after packing my few belongings into a small bag I left the Daley’s to go to a place that would cause me as much trauma as any I’d so far experienced in my brief life. (Blackmore 205)
The trauma to come is again connected with the despotic father figure who does not show any affection for the children. He is often angry without any obvious reasons and lets the others know that:
WALLY. [In the voice of the boy] … He was angry. I didn’t have a clue why, but he made it pretty clear he wanted to be left alone when the [sic] told me to “fuckin’ piss off’. It was an early trademark of the man. (Blackmore 207)
Wally’s father is one of the many “white” men who form a relationship with an Aboriginal woman and have children with her, fathering them “with little or no care as to the fate of their offspring. … It was these children then that suffered some of the worst kinds of experiences of separation and it was these children, who speak through the “voice” of that small boy Wally in Waiting for Ships” (Blackmore 236). Blackmore himself draws a direct comparison between himself and Wally and the other thousands of children with the same fate. His father’s authority in the family is not natural but induced by the threat of violent response. When the family are sitting at the table having dinner, his despotism is apparent:
WALLY. [In the voice of the boy] No one was allowed to speak at the table ... And as quiet as it’d been while me Dad was there, as soon as he left everyone started talking at once. (Blackmore 208)
Alcohol is something that greatly contributes to the rising violence of the father. Wally calls his father angry when sober and a raver when drunk:
WALLY. [In normal voice] He smashed plates and slammed doors but up to that point he hadn’t hit anyone except us kids who got beltings on regular occasions for “doing the wrong thing”, whatever that was. (Blackmore 212)
At this stage Wally does not know what the problem is. When he gets unreasonable beating, he often thinks he has done something wrong, again he blames himself for his father’s anger and, getting no explanation, such blame persists and gets more ingrained. At that moment, Wally does not know his mother is having a baby in the hospital:
WALLY. [In the voice of the boy] I went to ask him where Mum was and he hit me across the head and said. ‘Go and wash your dirty fuckin’ face then get some breakfast into you before I belt you one’. … I didn't know what was goin’ on or what “wrong thing” I’d done this time or why it was always my fault when anything went wrong. … “She’s gone to the hospital”, my sister said, looking at me as if I was a complete nong. I still didn't get it. “What for?” I wanted to know. “She’s having a bloody baby”. (Blackmore 212)
It seems that the fact the mother is having another baby fosters the anger of the father. For him, another child is just more noise in the house and more food eaten, as he does not care for his children at all.
As already mentioned, alcohol is one of the greatest problems as well. It is not only the father who drinks but the mother as well. Domestic violence becomes an everyday issue in Wally’s family. On one occasion, when the mother comes home drunk, the father beats her as well, only because she drinks with some women he does not like:
WALLY. [In the voice of the boy] Her crime was that she’d been drinking with some other women … It appears as if Mum had no right to be with such people.
Unfortunately my Mum had had too much to drink to know to keep quiet and she started in on lipping him back and he didn’t like it. … [Then he] lifted [her] from that chair and thrown across the room … By the time all this had happened all of us kids were standing around the room watching in horror as he then began to beat up on her with his fists. (Blackmore 214-5)
Here, I would like to make a general comparison between the father/mother relationship and the Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal (or the colonized/colonizer) relationship. The father here is an Englishman and as such he represents the colonizer who oppresses the Aboriginal mother. He shows his supremacy and dominance by violence and wants to decide what people the mother can and cannot see. The mother represents the oppressed Aboriginal, who is unable to resist the dominance of the father. And she is not only oppressed as an Aboriginal person, she is also oppressed as a woman. Another parallel to Purcell’s Box the Pony is found here. Purcell also mentions the Aboriginal women to be “doubly colonized”, i.e. oppressed by both the white society and by the patriarchal order.
Wally’s answer to years of experienced and witnessed violence is that he starts drinking at the age of 12:
WALLY. [In normal voice] Everybody else did by this time and I discovered that drinking made me feel better about myself although all too soon I was virtually out of control on the streets. … I changed very quickly after I started drinking and like most of my brothers and my sister I didn't want to hang around home for long. Like them I was looking forward to being old enough to look after myself. (Blackmore 216)
Actually it is his father, who “helps” Wally leave home early. At the age of fifteen, Wally starts to realize he is gay and tries to hide it. When he has sex with a boy he likes, his father finds out and almost kills Wally, who must be taken to hospital due to severe injuries caused by the beating. After his release, he ends up on a street, living in a squat, because the father does not allow him to come back home:
WALLY. [In the voice of the 15 year old boy/man] … despite my fairly desperate attempts to defend myself he beat me until he was unable to hit me again. He dragged me out into the lane behind our house and left me there. … I never went back home after that. I was nearly fifteen. … I found a “squat” that night which became my “home” for a few weeks. (Blackmore 219)
This situation brings Wally to a career of a prostitute, which lasts two years.
However, in the plight of the violence he suffers from when still at home, there is his mother, a character he loves and tries to have a special relationship with.
WALLY. [In normal voice] But the “special” times spent with my mother, the times when she was sober, continued and became the core of our relationship. (Blackmore 216)
Their relationship is evidently stigmatized by the broken ties in the family induced by the father. Wally and his mother try to develop emotional and proper relationship but it is not possible:
WALLY. [In normal voice] … I’m not sure of the implications but there was an elusive “something” I was looking for, for myself, and … whatever that “special” thing was, or is, I believe she needed it too. It was as if it was always on the other side of the room. It was there to be had but could never be reached. It may have been that “something” missing that contributed to her drinking and later my own alcoholism and drug addiction. (Blackmore 216)
Still, the mother is a person thanks to whom Wally knows some family ties and she is his link to the spirituality of the Aboriginal peoples.
Having been removed from his family, neglected by his father, exposed to daily violence and alcohol problems of his parents, Wally develops anti-social behaviour. As Blackmore based the character of Wally on his own life story, he himself spent certain time of his young adult age living in the streets. What was most difficult for him was to deal with his bi-racial qualities. Being a red-haired man, he eventually developed avoidance to “Blackfellas”, although he could never deny being attracted to the spiritual side of his own people. He tried to live with his Aboriginality, later as a white person, but then he realized, with the “never-ending sounds of the clapsticks of [his] mother’s cultural spirituality and [his] own spiritual self” who he really was. But it was not until 1995 when the Family Court of Australia finally recognized the reality of the thousands of children from multi-racial families and acknowledged the iniquities done to them, that he came to terms with his Aboriginal self (Blackmore 245-7). In this play, through the voice of Wally, he tries to echo “the cries of thousands or hundreds of thousands of children who, throughout history, and from across the worlds, have been stolen from their parents” (Blackmore 229). The play provides an insight into such child’s feelings and helps the readers or theatre-goers understand the pains and personal crises such child has to face.