Play Black Diggers to shed new light on Anzac history of Indigenous Australians

The Aboriginal actors holding hands and laughingly singing the quaint song Hokey Pokey are bonding just as their fighting ancestors did during World War I and II.

"I've never worked with an all-male cast before. They are nine strong Aboriginal men and the sense of a bond around the story is really exciting," says director Wesley Enoch during a break in rehearsals of Black Diggers at the Queensland Theatre Company.

Mr Enoch, with playwright Tom Wright, has been developing the play for the Sydney and Brisbane Festivals as part of Australia's commemoration next year of the centenary of WWI.

Mr Enoch hand-picked the actors, and it was not until they were contracted that some of them discovered they had ancestors who were diggers.

"Looking at the script you wonder why, what would push you into it?" asks Brisbane actor Eliah Watego, who had three generations of his family fight for the Australian Army.

"But we've talked about the reasons. They lived on missions and had no money. All of it went to the protectors. They weren't even allowed to be citizens and this was a chance to make money and prove that you were someone who deserved to be in Australia."

What the young actors struggle with is the way their forebears were treated on return to Australia.

"Some of them got their medals taken away. The money that they were paid was taken away," Watego said.

Mr Enoch spoke with many descendents of the diggers, including those at the South Australian community of Raukkan where the local church is decorated with stained glass windows commemorating 21 Indigenous soldiers who served.

"Our myth-making as a country is such that we often like to forget our Aboriginal history. So when you tell a story like this, people say: 'What? There were Aboriginal people at Gallipoli?'," he said.

He uncovered many sad tales of mistreatment of the diggers who had equality in the Army but none on their return.

"There are plenty of stories of the protector taking the children away from the mother because father had gone off to war. The protector then confiscated all the money earned and saved and put it in the protector's bank account," he said.

Another descendent who helped with the project is Jackie Huggins, whose grandfather was wounded in Belgium during WWI, and whose father was a prisoner of the Japanese and forced to work on the Burma railway during WWII.

"I quite often would feel really angry but also anxious about it," she said.

"But also a searching question about why did they do this when we weren't even citizens of this country? What did they owe to this country? Or what did this country owe to them?"

Some of these questions may be answered when the show has its world premiere in January.

Black Diggers runs at the Sydney Opera House January 18-26 and the Brisbane Festival next September.