Maggie Stone – White people and their white money. (Theatre Review)

Maggie Stone

Darlinghurst Theatre Company

30 September – 21 October. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Robert Catto

In August 2001, after the Tampa affair and censure from the Norwegian Government on grounds of violation of human rights, the Australian Government introduced The Pacific Solution which saw asylum seekers detained on Nauru before entering Australia and seeking political asylum. John Howard, the instigator of this controversial strategy was voted back into office on 9 October 2004. In December 2004, on Boxing Day a tsunami decimated Indonesia. Australians privately gave three hundred and fifty million dollars within the first two weeks of the disaster and much more through public charities – an outpouring of cash to a troubled nation the likes of which this nation has never seen. When Tim Costello (World Vision Chief executive) was asked why Australian’s gave more at this time than any other, he said “… mainly, this was totally undeserved suffering.” It is equally conceivable that it was a guilt offering over our freshly voted in, human rights violating position on asylum seekers. Australian’s had become more deeply cruel to foreigners than they had ever been in the history of our nation. It is the period (except for right now) that we gave less in foreign aid than ever before. According to Tim Costello, the right to give is completely dependent upon our opinion on what the recipient deserves.[1]

I was standing in a line at a small IGA a year or so ago. A woman I would describe as ‘unkempt’ was making a purchase at the counter. When asked for her money, she came up short by about four dollars. She turned to the woman behind her in the line and asked “Do me a favour love. Shout me the difference?” the woman asked “What are you buying?” she examined the purchases, spotted cigarettes and said “No. I’m not giving you money to buy cigarettes.” The charity of four dollars was dependent upon what the money was for. It reminded me of the favoured joke, “Don’t give that homeless person your money, they will only spend it on drugs.” To which the comedian replies “But I’m only going to spend it on drugs, so I should give it to them.”

This begs one of the central dilemmas and questions in Caleb Lewis’ Maggie Stone, currently showing at The Darlinghurst Theatre. What exactly are you buying when you “give” your money to someone? Why do we feel that giving money buys us the right to decide what the recipient can and can’t do with the money? When Maggie Stone (Eliza Logan) refuses Benedict Deng (Thuso Lekwape) money, it is to exercise her power. Power over whom? Over what? Later, when she discovers what the refusal actually cost, she wants to make it up in guilt. But how do you pay for that kind of aggression? What can you give that absolves that level of judgement and abuse of power? How much money will it take to purchase absolution? When Georgina Spack (Anna Lee) makes obvious her odious and unpleasant charitable contributions, isn’t Maggie the same? Both women are seeking absolution from something when they seek to give to Amath Deng (Branden Christine). Georgina will give “help” in the form of supervision and offering things Amath doesn’t want or need. But she balks at real help, such as offering her son a job or guaranteeing her loan. Maggie withholds money out of judgement for where she has been in life. When she decides to give, it will be to change her own life. She takes from herself and gives because she realizes that Amath Deng is a better human being than Maggie Stone will ever be.

It has long been my contention that if white people are going to make theatre about poor people from foreign lands (here or otherwise) they need to speak to white people about their problems, not paint the Other in any sort of light (or try to say anything else about them). In Maggie Stone Caleb Lewis gives us a perfect example of why this is so valuable. Predictably, his depiction of the Deng’s is flawed (but helped by the faithful assistance of Moreblessing Maturure as cultural adviser). But his depiction of the white people is horribly on point – as much so today as eight years ago when he wrote the play. Our understanding about the Other in our land might be slightly improved but our attitude to foreign aid and our individual donations is worsening. In an age when our rich are getting richer, we collectively and individually give less than we ever have.

Maggie Stone is one of the few ‘white writer’ plays (and one of almost no Australian plays) that addresses the issue of donations and charity. Thankfully it does is in a deep and interesting way that is appropriately complex and educative. Director Sandra Eldridge calls forth wonderful performances in her cast, particularly from the enigmatic Eliza Logan who plays a terrifyingly recognizable Maggie. Caleb Lewis makes it clear that we give money to redeem ourselves, and it has nothing to do with what the recipient does with the money. Through Maggie Stone, we see that we give as an investment in humanity, a devoted materialist belief that humans can and will help themselves if they are given a chance; if we just get out of their way. We give money because no matter how much we have, we will always need more and giving is the only way to create a sense of abundance and surplus. We give money because we haven’t done enough with it, and maybe someone else will do better. This marvelous production of Maggie Stone by The Darlinghurst Theatre Company helps us see that most of all we give because it is unthinkable not to.  Go and see it, and take your friends. Then go out for a drink and talk it out into the night. You won’t be sorry, and you will see something about yourself.


[1] It is also well known that giving to disaster relief is less cost effective than giving to public health programs. See details here.