The play ‘Blue Italian’ plates up some unpleasant truths about our treatment of migrants and refugees

Blue Italian & Nil by Sea
Plays by Katie Pollock, Directed by Rachel Chant, Produced by Peter Fray
Sydney, April 29-May 17

My father was born in Queensland but his parents migrated to Australia from Sicily in the 1920s. They were joyous occasions when we would travel to Ingham, cane country, in Far North Queensland, to visit my grandparents, by this stage retired from farming.

My grandfather – Leonardo D’Angelo, Nonno to his adoring and adored grandchildren – was a Carabiniere, a member of Italy’s military police force, before he migrated to Australia. A gentle and softly spoken man, I would like to think he wanted no truck with Benito Mussolini’s fledgling fascist state, but I never got to ask. My grandmother – Rosaria, Nonna – was a strong and independent woman, who loved to be surrounded by family.

Nonno became a naturalised Australian in 1931. He felt it was his obligation to become a citizen of his adopted country, even though he knew he was not welcome by his Inglese neighbours. The Queensland government lamented the flow of southern Italians, who were considered to be racially inferior, to its northern canefields.

A 1925 Royal Commission concluded that while northern Italians were “law abiding and honest” (and unambiguously white), their swarthy counterparts from the south were “less likely to be assimilated into the population of Queensland”. The fledgling Australian parliament, meanwhile, grudgingly placed southern Italians (and other southern Europeans) beyond the reach of the White Australia policy (and Queensland’s unilateral attempts to ban them) by declaring them “white aliens”.

When WWII commenced thousands of these “white aliens” were declared “enemy aliens”, my grandfather among them. Despite being an Australian citizen, he spent two years in an internment camp in Cowra, NSW. My grandmother ran the farm with my father and aunt, both of whom were still at school and mercilessly bullied and beaten by students and teachers alike as enemies of King and Empire.

If my grandfather resented the humiliation and injustice of internment, he never said so. My grandmother, on the other hand, never forgave Australia for what it did to her husband. I think about my grandfather in that camp. What thoughts went through his mind? Did he regret migrating to Australia, or was this simply the price that he was prepared to pay for a better life?

I was 12 when I visited my grandparent’s little house in Ingham for the last time (in fact, Nonno died while we were on the road, a day short of arrival). I remember the distinctive Queensland cane furniture; the black and white photos of friends and family in faraway Italy that lined the walls, but also of crowded picnics in dusty Australian settings; the colour-tinted photographic portrait of an ancient and slightly scary Italian couple – apparently my great-grandparents – above a doorway; but most vividly of all, I remember the proud display of Blue Italian dinnerware.

All in blue and white

I had never before seen such crockery and they fascinated me, the idyllic, bucolic scenes that always seemed to reveal something new … a shepherd and his flock, his dog, a woman washing clothes on the water’s edge, mysterious ruins, the glimpse of a village, people going about their business, a castle in the background, glorious clouds, beautiful flowers … and an unmistakable sense of peace, tranquility and far away. All in blue and white. When I see those patterns today they take me straight back to my grandparents’ home.

Not that I knew them as “Blue Italian”. I didn’t know that’s what they were until several weeks ago when I saw the play promoted on Facebook. And yet I instinctively knew what the play’s name referred to. (I looked up Blue Italian and found that this “iconic English design” has been in continuous production by Spode since 1816.)

The moment I heard of this play there was an immediate and very personal connection. The poster of a young girl, barefoot, in a simple dress, holding two battered suitcases (“ports” my Queenslander father still calls them) looking back as a path before her wends its way through Australian bush. That girl could have been any of the thousands of young Italian girls who made their way to Australia, perhaps to join relatives while the rest of her family saved enough to make the journey themselves. This was my mother, who was 15 when she came to Australia from Sicily in the 1950s, her parents and siblings – my grandparents, uncles and aunts – not joining her for several years.

What I was reading into Blue Italian, based on these few clues, was very much from my own experience. Like all good theatre, this play will touch people in many different ways, possibly unexpected ways. The political relevance of the play was unmistakable, but for me it was also a very personal journey.

This powerful and moving one-act play, of just 30 minutes’ duration, is set in an “unknown destination”. For everyone in the audience, and certainly for me, the destination was Australia. In any case, the themes are universal. They will resonate in any country that takes immigrants. And they apply equally to official migrants and, with searing contemporary resonance, “illegal” asylum seekers.

What was remarkable about playwright Katie Pollock’s work was the ability to get into the minds (and hearts) of these wanderers, and to simply and starkly convey the hope, fear and desperation of people who find themselves in faraway and unwelcoming environments. Are they the aliens, or are we?

Chaos, displacement and rejection

The play, performed by four actors in an intimate setting, at ground level, amidst the chaos of a jumble of black and yellow traffic barriers, orange lights flashing, is a rapid-fire exploration of longing and belonging, the desperate search for somewhere to call home when far away from home, innocent hope that is met with the inexplicable anger of unfeeling officialdom and unwelcoming strangers. They endure the pain because the desire for sanctuary is so much greater than the obstacles placed before them at every turn; even greater than the pull of memories of loved ones left far behind. (The play takes its name from the girl’s memories of eating her nonna’s soup from a Blue Italian bowl.)

The play is not presented as a linear narrative, which heightens the sense of chaos, displacement and rejection that migrants must feel in a new land, particularly a land that manifestly does not want them there.Let alone how asylum seekers must feel. “Go back!”, “Access denied!”, “Wrong way!” Who are these barriers for? Anyone who is not us. But who the hell are we?

I wondered about the sacrifices my grandparents made to build a new and better life not just for themselves but for their children and future generations of their families; the barbs, slights and humiliations for no other reason than their difference; of the everyday embarrassments of joining the wrong queue, entering the wrong door, boarding the wrong bus; the hurt of being told to “speak English” and “Go back where you came from”, of being called “wog” and “dago”. And every day they would rise from their beds, knowing that they would have to endure the same again, with few helping hands to ease the way. And they would keep getting up until things got a little easier, a little more familiar.

‘She’s very beautiful for an Eye-talian’

My mother, a resilient and intelligent woman, recalls that her introduction to Australia was not quite so jarring: unlike the stereotypical swarthy Sicilians who so alarmed the Queensland government, she was fair-skinned and blue-eyed. “They all thought I was Inglese, and when they discovered I wasn’t the old women would say, ‘Ooh, she’s very beautiful for an Eye-talian’.” (My mother made it her business to learn English as soon as she could.)

As an imperfect but overwhelmingly successful multicultural society each new wave of arrivals is looked upon with suspicion and resentment, but in time they become valuable members of society, and then it’s somebody else’s turn. Blue Italian provides a glimpse of how poorly these “new Australians” are treated before they go on to settle and contribute unwaveringly to their adopted homeland – but we certainly don’t make it easy for them.

And then there are the asylum seekers. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Ministers dismiss asylum seekers as “economic refugees”, “queue jumpers” and “illegal migrants” we can only marvel at such heartless arrogance and willful vilification. These wretched people are so desperate that they are prepared to risk their lives and those of their families, braving uncertain sea journeys in the quest for a better and safer life. Even if Australia can’t offer refuge to all who seek it, surely we can treat these poor souls with dignity and respect.

The companion play to Blue Italian, Nil by Sea, also a one-act play and performed by the same four actors, is based on the tragic story of Jose Matada, whose body was found on a London suburban footpath in September 2012, his body smashed and containing no identification. The young man, from Mozambique it subsequently emerged, had stowed away in the wheel recess of a British Airways aircraft departing from Angola. He fell out, most likely already dead, when the aircraft’s undercarriage opened in preparation for landing at Heathrow airport. Texts sent by the man, who died on his 26th birthday, referred to his hopes for a better life.

Nil by Sea features residents discussing – with a combination of casual disregard and growing empathy – what level of hardship it would take to compel someone to take such desperate measures for a better life. Indeed.

The Blue Italian-Nil by Sea combo was produced by Peter Fray, who as well as being an emerging impresario is a prominent newspaper editor. He is deputy editor (news) of The Australian and is a former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and editor of the Canberra Times and the Sunday Age in Melbourne.

I am in awe that a busy deputy editor of a national daily newspaper can find the time – and clarity of thought – to produce plays. As someone who is in the process of writing my family’s story, with Leonardo’s story at its heart, both the play, and Fray’s clearly boundless reserves of energy, give me heart.

Kudos to Peter Fray and his outstanding creative team: Director Rachel Chant, assistant director Samantha Hickey, lighting and production designer Benjamin Brockman, sound designer Tom Hogan, physical coach David Jackson, and the actors Jennie Dibley, Nat Jobe, Alex Malone and Sarah Meacham.

Blue Italian-Nil by Sea
Leichhardt Town Hall, Sydney
Runs until 17 May 2015
Tickets $30 adults/$20 students and pensioners
Bookings http://www.trybooking.com/hfho

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