The 1940s - Racism and Intolerance

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During the war the NTL was visited by speakers from the American Red Cross and US servicemen, especially African-Americans unwelcome elsewhere, frequented its clubrooms. Corporal Will Lee Lubovsky, who as Will Lee became Sesame Street’s Mr Hooper, conducted acting classes at 36 Pitt Street while stationed in Sydney in 1942.

Musician Jimmy Somerville, who composed for NT 1945-8, during the war played piano in a dance band at the Booker T Washington Club in Durham Hall, Surry Hills, set up for Negro servicemen. According to police (who checked women wanting to join the club for VD) the men were well-behaved, had plenty of cash and were keen to spend it.

Junoesque Norma Polonsky, nicknamed “Greta Garbo”, confronted a waiter and swept out of the Hotel Australia when she and her husband Stan took a black sergeant there for a drink and nobody served them.

In Ben Bengal’s All Aboard, workshopped in 1948, racial tensions are aroused among white passengers when a Negro soldier and his mother board a train. Reference is made to the non repeal of the Jim Crow laws which until 1965 segregated blacks from whites in places such as schools, public transport and restaurants.

Deep Are the Roots, a study of racial prejudice in America’s Deep South, was staged in 1947 when lynchings were still happening:

Questioned by her sister Alice (played by Dinah Shearing), Genevra (Barbara Brunton-Gibb) defends her friendship with Brett Charles, an African-American:

Genevra: No, he didn’t force me. I asked him to go. We went walking down by the river.

Alice: At night! All alone! Walking!

Genevra: Yes.

Alice: You don’t think anybody will believe that? You don’t think I can believe it?

Genevra: Why not?

Alice: You’re trying to protect him.

Genevra: Of course I am.

Alice: Why? Why should you defend him?

Genevra: Because I like him.

Alice: Nevvy! Nevvy! You couldn’t have wanted him to touch you.

Genevra: That’s what you’re bound to believe, isn’t it?

Alice: My God, you must have tried to stop him.

Genevra: Pretty soon you’ll be saying something worse. Rape.

Director Jock Levy also played Brett Charles, “blacked up” as he had been in Of Mice and Men. (It was not until recent years that the New managed to find appropriate ethnic actors.)

The limitations of the theatre’s technical equipment were demonstrated by backstage operator Tom Salisbury having to put a mark on a gramophone record and place the needle at the precise moment a crucial train sound effect was needed. Unable to pay the professional royalties demanded, the theatre had to cut the Deep Are the Roots season short and for years had trouble getting rights for works from the USA.

Closer to home, George Landen Dann’s Fountains Beyond focused on Aboriginal people living on the outskirts of white society, their old way of life gone. In the play a half-caste is offered work in exchange for supporting the flattening of a traditional indigenous resting ground for a children’s playground. Four of the seven Caucasian actors wore body make-up.

Jim Crawford’s Rocket Range concerns tribal Aborigines moved off their land in Central Australia to make way for a defence facility.

Just after the play was first staged in 1947 what became known as the Rocket Range Bill was passed by the Chifley government, protecting it from boycott or other hindrance by communists and others opposed to the testing ground for Australian and British missiles.

Music for Rocket Range was composed by John Antill and weapons borrowed from Axel Poignant. The Caucasian cast, including Reg Lye and Cedric McLaughlin, wore full body make-up, with the exception of Bruce Bull who played a policeman.

Kajabbi brings news that the white man whom he was going to invite to a corroboree has been killing animals and using the initiation ground as a lavatory.

Kajabbi: I asked him what he wanted on our tribal grounds. He said “This place not tribal ground. This place belong big gubment feller now … belong Prime Minister.”

Namalka: Gubment feller? Prime Minister? Who’re they?

Gimbin (testily): They must be warriors or elders of this rascal’s tribe.

Namalka: They can’t be warriors. Warriors don’t steal tribal territory. Women perhaps – but a tribe’s whole territory – no!

Following the resumption of nuclear testing ten years later Rocket Range was revived. In response to a protest telegram from NT, Minister for Supply Howard Beale sent a press release stating that Australia was the only country in the British world with wide empty spaces and “You can get a higher Geiger counter reading from your wrist watch than after an A-bomb test”.

In May 1957 an Aboriginal family, unaware that the indigenous inhabitants of the Maralinga area had been removed, was found near the crater formed by the “Buffalo 2” explosion the previous October, taken to a decontamination centre and showered. The pregnant woman gave birth to a dead baby. Australian authorities went to great lengths to keep the incident secret.

Rocket Range was presented as a Workshop in 1951 to highlight the jailing of Lawrence and the exile of Fred Waters from the Darwin compound. The indigenous men were striking over wages and citizenship rights.

In Renegade, staged in 1940, a New York rabbi is involved in a confrontation between garment workers and their employers. A plea for tolerance, the play touched on Douglas Credit, a model of monetary reform viewed by some as anti-Semitic. In Australia the Douglas Credit Party won over 4.6% of the Lower House vote in the 1934 federal elections. Appealing to small businesses and those suspicious of banks, it was most popular in Queensland.

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