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

Was Miriam Margolyes right that people don’t like Jews? We need to talk about anti-Semitism

On the ABC’s Q&A program recently, actress Miriam Margolyes, not known for her reserve, made two incendiary remarks that instantly set social media alight and provided plenty of fuel for heated office-corridor discussion the next morning.

One pithy remark was in response to a question from the audience, near the end of the program, about her views of Tony Abbott. “I think he’s a tit,” she said with exquisite diction and lethal precision. The audience was in disbelieving but approving uproar.

But Margolyes’ comment of deeper significance and lasting reverberation was on the subject of anti-Semitism, a subject often considered too sensitive for robust debate or frank assessment.

As a questioner from the audience pointed out, racist attacks against Jews do not seem to elicit the same kind of spontaneous sympathy and support for Muslim Australians in the wake of the Martin Place siege in January, which gave rise to the #illridewithyou social media campaign.

For Margolyes – a British-born Jew, now an Australian citizen – there was only one response:

“People don’t like Jews. It’s not comfortable to say that and it’s not comfortable to hear it, but I believe it to be true.

“After the Holocaust it was not fashionable or possible to be anti-Semitic…but because of the actions of the state of Israel and the appalling treatment of the Israelis towards the Palestinians, and the settlements that have been built in contravention of the United Nation’s rulings, and the support that has been given by American Jews and Australian Jews to what is going on in Israel, anti-Semitism has again reared its horrific, ugly head and anti-Semitism is as unacceptable as anti-Muslim feeling.”

It was a controversial sentiment, but it’s one that many Australians would agree with. However, it’s not the kind of sentiment to be expressed in polite society. But is Margolyes right: are the actions of Israel the reason for the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world, including Australia? (So great in Europe that Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has urged European Jews to emigrate to Israel. “The State of Israel is your home,” he says.)

It is true that opposition to Israel’s stance in relation to Palestine has galvanised growing and increasingly strident support for Palestinian statehood and condemnation of Israel. But that’s more likely to be the subject of blogs, scholarly articles and newspaper opinion pieces.

At the risk of sounding elitist, the intricacies of the intractable Israel-Palestine standoff are unlikely to be the catalyst for the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, the outpourings of searing anti-Semitic invective directed at anyone going about their business simply because they are wearing a yamaka or a fedora hat, the bullying of school children, and the cowardly assaults.

A problem that Australians prefer not to talk about

At least Australia has been spared the menacing fascist street marches that are now almost commonplace across Europe.

But that is not to say that anti-Semitism is not a problem in Australia, albeit a problem that many Australians deny, or simply prefer not to talk about. There will be self-conscious remarks about the old-money Melbourne Club not permitting Jewish members – a claim the club vehemently denies by pointing out the names of prominent Jewish members – but it’s a touchy subject nonetheless.

A Melbourne businessman and prominent Liberal Party identity once told me that he deliberately chose not to join the Melbourne Club for that reason.

“Behind the closed doors, the old Melbourne Club view of the world is that you don’t promote Jews, you don’t socialise with Jews. The way I express my disapproval of this is by not joining the Melbourne Club and not being seen at the Melbourne Club, and a lot of people like me, who have Jewish friends, think in exactly the same way.”

Even so, this normally outspoken individual declined to put his name to the comment.

But sometimes a controversy will emerge that makes it impossible to look the other way in the face of blatant anti-Semitism.

In 1998, as a staff writer on The Bulletin magazine, I covered the explosive “Gutnick tapes”, the revelation of taped telephone conversations between employees and clients of the venerable stockbroking firm JB Were & Son which exposed a series of offensive remarks about Melbourne businessman Joseph Gutnick and other Jewish investors.

The tapes came to light when they were played during a Melbourne insider trading trial. Gutnick refused to let the matter drop and secured a formal apology to himself and the Jewish community. Oddly enough, Gutnick was criticised for making a bigger issue of the tapes than it needed to be – including by fellow Jews – but as Gutnick told me, there was an important principle at stake:

“If you don’t fight language like that, it goes further. We live in a golden era with regard to tolerance, but in times of economic turmoil, anything can happen. The lesson to others, not only regarding anti-Semitic remarks, but any type of racial vilification, is that it won’t be tolerated in business.”

When I was writing that story, which included interviews with several Jewish community leaders and prominent Jewish businessmen and women, I was sympathetic but professionally dispassionate. I was, however, very moved, when I wrote a sidebar to the story which involved the reaction of a young Jewish manager to the tapes controversy.

‘Those boys didn’t speak to me again’

He told me that the incident reminded him of his schooldays and he recounted this story:

“In 1985 I was playing cricket at a Scotch College cricket camp. During the first few days I was mixing with a group of boys I’d met for the first time. On the third day of the camp, I mentioned that I played cricket for [the Jewish cricket club] Ajax. Those boys didn’t speak to me again for the next three days and I was taunted on the field whenever we played. It upset me that kids could have that attitude, and it still does when I think back.”

It was a conundrum for me then and it remains so today: what is it about being “a Jew” that stirs up such venom in non-Jews? Why would an Australian boy, who happens to be Jewish, find himself the victim of centuries-old hatreds, in a young country that couldn’t be more removed from the dark and blighted histories of pogroms, displacement, systematic discrimination and genocide?

This is where Margolyes’ proposition falls short: anti-Semitism is a constant through the ages that defies rational explanation and is connected to no one event.

In the 1980s I was a journalist at Peter Isaacson Publications, at the time the largest independent publisher of business titles. The urbane and modest Peter Isaacson was – and is – a war hero (he was a World War II fighter pilot, flew dangerous missions over Nazi Germany, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and on his return to Australia flew his Lancaster bomber, Q for Queenie, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge) and a media trailblazer. Last year he was inducted into the Media Hall of Fame.

Working for Peter remains a defining time in my career. I was only a few years into journalism when he appointed me editor, at age 26, of one of his national publications that set me on my way as a business journalist.

I really didn’t think about it then, but it would horrify me to think that anyone would see Peter first and foremost as being Jewish. Peter is a proud Jewish community leader, but he is so much more. And Peter himself, whether in his workplace, or anywhere else, could not abide any behaviour that smacked of intolerance, racism or discrimination.

In 2002, Isaacson had a very public stoush with then editor of the Crikey site, Stephen Mayne, over an article in Crikey which he felt had gratuitously referred to Larry Adler and Louis Moss as “Hungarian Jews”.

“I do not care whether you publish this letter or not. It is a protest about your unnecessary identification of the religion of Larry Adler and Moss as Jewish,” he wrote.

‘He’s a Jew you know’

“I do not recall, in the two years I have subscribed to Crikey, of reading the religious identification of any Anglicans or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics or Plymouth Brethren or any of the multitude of other religions. Why specifically identify those whose religion is Judaism or any other religion UNLESS the identification has a bearing on the report? What you have done is to disregard one of the prime ethics of journalism.”

A clearly very angry Isaacson demanded that Mayne instruct his editorial staff ”not to use a person’s race, colour, creed or sexuality as an identifier UNLESS such use is imperative to the meaning of the story”.

I get where Isaacson was coming from, because I know people who, when referring to someone who happens to be Jewish, feel they must identify him as such, irrespective of the context. A friend of mine has this habit: “I worked with Max a few years ago – he’s a Jew – and he was a bloody good salesman…” When I take issue with him his riposte is always: “Well, it seems you’re the one who has a problem with him being Jewish.”

Is my mate anti-Semitic? Probably not. Maybe. Who knows? But what is it about being Jewish that it cannot go unremarked? Is it a harmless cultural tic, or does it signify something deeper?

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently reflected on the death of four Jews in the Paris kosher supermarket during the murderous “Charlie Hebdo” terrorist rampage in January and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

“In the long and blood-soaked history of Europe’s Jews, the death of four more in a Parisian kosher market is, at best, a footnote. But they were not the accidental victims of the terrorists’ wrath, not just merely in the way or in the line of fire. They were singled out for who they were and not for what they had done,” he writes. “They were killed for being Jews.”

The terrifying aspect of anti-Semitism is that from this volatile well of ancient hatreds, which has irrationally and inexplicably transported itself to one of the youngest nations on Earth, Australia, some similar horror might easily emerge.

In these times of dread and uncertainty – unnecessarily fanned by opportunistic politicians and excitable commentators – who would blame those Jews who fear what the darkest minds among us may be capable of? Who would blame those Jews who toss those words around and around in their minds: “They were killed for being Jews.”

No wonder that for some Jews even the relatively innocuous – whether it’s the insults of a racist stockbroker or gratuitous references to someone being Jewish – casts such menacing shadows.

There are no answers here. Perhaps many more questions need to be asked. Certainly some frank discussions need to take place. Just because we’re too uncomfortable to talk about anti-Semitism doesn’t mean it hasn’t set deep roots in our society. And a little empathy and understanding wouldn’t go astray.

We can’t will anti-Semitism away. We know it’s not that simple. But perhaps we can make a promise to our better selves that no matter what trials and challenges lay ahead, no one will be singled out for who they are.