Black Swan Theatre Company
Heath Ledger Theatre
reviewed by Scott Rheede
Boundary Street is a play that ought to have been written decades ago. In its at-times shattering frankness, it focuses unblinkingly on a dark (no pun intended) aspect of Australia’s social and political history. It’s a play that ought to be required viewing particularly by high school and university students, many – perhaps most – of whom could well be largely unaware of those tragic times.
It is also worth bearing in mind that although South Africa’s notorious apartheid laws were promulgated after the Nationalists won government in 1948 (which remained in power until the late 1980s when Nelson Mandela’s release from prison ushered in the new, so called ‘rainbow’ nation), a very restrictive colour bar had been in existence for very many years. Australia’s colour bar, too, in both official and informal terms, had for years brought misery to a significant but largely powerless constituency.
It’s a curious co-incidence that Reg Cribb’s play comes out at a time when a documentary series on SBS reveals just how severe Australia’s colour bar was. And it is hardly a secret that South African apartheid was considered acceptable – and worthy of emulation – by significant figures of the Australian establishment. But that is seldom mentioned above a whisper these days.
Boundary Street’s story is briefly this: it is World War II and one of the many USA warships (come to tackle the Japanese in ferocious and bloody engagements) is docked at Brisbane. Numbers of its complement are African Americans (then known as negroes). But there’s a move afoot on the part of Australia to prevent black servicemen coming ashore and, quel horreur, possibly mingling with whites. But, after the emphatic intervention of no less a personage than US President Franklin Roosevelt, black servicemen are allowed to come ashore – and this is where Cribb’s play begins.
Much of the action is set in a night club-style environment. There’s a band in the background with, as leader, James Morrison on trumpet and also, discreetly, on piano. I cannot praise the work of this ensemble too highly. With extraordinary skill, its decibel levels are adjusted to on-stage action in the most sensitive and meaningful sense. Visually, sonically and stylistically, the band scores high throughout. Morrison is beyond reproach. The band’s presence is a crucial factor in evoking the mood of the era.
Choreographically, too, there’s much that is admirable. As the dancers do their jive routines, they positively radiate authenticity as those in the audience who were around in those tumultuous times would instantly recognise. And they certainly know how to strut their stuff.
These aspects of the production, significant as they are in evoking and maintaining period authenticity, are really side shows, as it were, to the main game which evokes a period that very many people would like to forget on either side of the terrible divide that brought so much misery to people who had done no wrong but had the misfortune to have been born on the wrong side of the colour divide – and, for too many, that hurt continues.
Reg Cribb has a near-faultless ear for dialogue. He hasn’t put a foot wrong and the same applies to a large cast. The latter serves Cribb well, breathing life and authenticity into his lines.
If Boundary Street doesn’t become an Australian classic, I would like to know why. This stamp of period authenticity is near-faultlessly maintained. And there’s not a weak link in the casting. Each makes a significant contribution to the whole. I watched, riveted, as we saw, in all its cruelty, the terrible damage that racism wrought not only on those at the wrong end of the colour spectrum but on Australian society as a whole.
If a production of Boundary Street comes your way, don’t miss it. It has every prospect of becoming an Australian classic.