Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this article refers to someone who has passed.
Images: Toni Wilkinson, courtesy of Black Swan Theatre Company
Opening night of Black is the New White presented by Black Swan Theatre Company and I’m sitting amongst a diverse audience with no empty seats visible. It’s exciting to see large scale audience diversity: Theatre royalty and first time theatre-goers, actors and academics, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people coming together to be entertained.
I’m patient but excited, waiting to experience my first Nakkiah Lui play. I’ve been following Nakkiah’s work since Season One of Black Comedy; she is a creative powerhouse, brave and intelligent Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman. The evening is a memorable experience—and I am fortunate to record a small part of it—having been invited to write this unorthodox review of Black is the New White for the Westerly.
Before it began, actors Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn) and Tony Briggs stood before us to dedicate the show to fellow theatre performer and their dear friend, the late Ms Ningali Lawford-Wolf. Mr Briggs shared “she had a beautiful smile and infectious laughter…”. I was taken back to my first Yirra Yaakin Theatre experience which starred Ms Lawford-Wolf alongside Mr Kelton Pell performing together in Solid—an important piece of Western Australia Aboriginal theatre history.
Back to Black is the New White and I am conscious of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, being diverse in many ways, however conversations relating to money, culture, race, politics and beliefs are universal themes and often lead to heated discussions (if they take place at all) within my family of origin and other family systems we connect with.
Caryll Churchill, playwright and feminist once said “We need to find new questions, which may help us answer the old ones or make them unimportant, and this means new subjects and new form.” I believe theatre can be a dynamic medium to explore difficult subject matter, safely. This play bravely explores the important contemporary theme of Aboriginality and privilege in an upper middle class context.
From the moment I took my seat, my imagination was captivated by Renée Mulder’s set design: sleek split level modern home—scarcity of clutter, light wooden flooring, a central staircase, the framed natural rockery, with a pensive cello and an unlit Christmas tree. None of my Aboriginal family have homes that look like this. However, there were aspects of myself, family and friends throughout the play which were more than familiar: jet setting luxury loving Gen X, a techno obsessed patriarch, the self-sacrificing matriarch full of unacknowledged potential, as well as the once was legend sports hero and the when it’s compatible faith seeker.
In addition there were many themes that resonated: the struggle of urban cultural identity, the fight to create art full time, conflict about working for money or meaning and intergenerational legacy traps!
Nakkiah Lui’s creativity knows no limits, with her signature use of language, physical and situational comedy intersecting with dance and gestures. Her characters consistently inverting stereotypes while the script was fast paced, witty, sexy and thought provoking, making me laugh with such veracity that I cried…
All this was brilliantly directed by Paige Rattray (Associate Director of Sydney Theatre Company) and executed by a dynamic cast who worked seamlessly together throughout.
The Narrator, ‘Spirit of Christmas’ (Luke Carroll) is charismatic, groovy, lyrical and captivating. It was hard not to watch what tricks he was up to—there were moments when I thought I was seeing The Cat in the Hat showing us sneer, cheekiness and colour.
Nakkiah shares in her program notes that she wanted to write “something that didn’t come from a place of sorrow or from oppression where the actors would have to re-hash that intergenerational trauma all through rehearsals”. She wanted to deliver something instead, about “hope and happiness.” All the cast appeared to have immense fun throughout the show, along with the audience. I believe she succeeded. The closing moments led to a crescendo of thunderous applause with audience rising together, as the cast gathered on the staircase with the Spirit of Christmas having the final say with gesture. The cast came out three times. I felt like I had witnessed another important and celebrated moment in Aboriginal theatre in WA, with many others as well.
Barbara is a playwright with maternal Aboriginal ancestry of Yawaru and Gija descent. Her paternal heritage is Territorian with grandparents of Czechoslovakian, Castellorizian and English.