One of the most celebrated and popular comedies seen in Sydney in 2017 came from, in a roundabout way, the city’s western suburbs.
“Growing up in the west made me want to be a writer in the first place,” says playwright Nakkiah Lui. “Writing has always been my way of showing what it’s like when you don’t see yourself represented on the stage or on TV or in the media. I think living in the west can kind of make you as an artist. There’s a frustration and anger that makes you wanna have a say. It makes you hungry.”
Lui’s hunger to show the complexity and breadth of Indigenous experience resulted in her play Black is the New White, a sparkling domestic comedy premiered by Sydney Theatre Company in its Wharf 1 Theatre in May 2017. It was immediately hailed as one of the best new Australian comedies of recent years: “Pitch-perfect performances all round … thought-provoking, joyously entertaining,” said The Daily Telegraph; “Deliciously funny,” said The Australian; "Big social issues with a whole heap of goofball," wrote The Guardian.
For Lui, who did most of her growing up in Mount Druitt, the experience of watching her comedy come to life and speak to the broadest possible audience was a highlight of her burgeoning career. “What I learned most was that comedy is one of the strongest tools a writer has,” she says.
“As an Aboriginal person, it’s hard as a writer to sit in a place of tragedy every time. And I mean really hard. Ultimately for me, every story has to come from a place of truth but sometimes you have to find the lightness and the brightness in life. That’s not to diminish tragedy or sadness, but sometimes you have to find another way to get through to people.
“Theatre is an art form for audiences and they are coming to a show with very open hearts”
“Theatre is an art form for audiences and they are coming to a show with very open hearts,” Lui adds. “If I can give them something they haven’t experienced before, show them another perspective, and still make it joyous … that gives me hope as a person, too.”
Black is the New White is an exercise in flipping expectations. The action takes place in the glamorous holiday home of Ray and Joan Gibson (played by Tony Briggs and Melodie Reynolds-Diarra), Aboriginal community leaders who have everything most people could want from life: status; money; a beautiful home (or two), and a successful family doing well for themselves.
The play opens at Christmas and both of the Gibson daughters are in town. Charlotte is a lawyer approaching professional and personal burnout. Rose is a successful fashion designer married to Sonny (Anthony Taufa), a former rugby star and born again Christian.
But before the turkey can be carved, Charlotte has a few things she needs to air. First, she wants to quit law and go study in New York City. Second, she would like to introduce her family to her fiancé Francis, a penniless composer of experimental classical music - and a whitefella.
There’s enough there to set the festivities on edge. But then the doorbell rings. It’s Francis’ parents Dennison and Marie (Geoff Morrell and Vanessa Downing). Dennison is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and for decades has been one of Ray’s staunchest political opponents.
It’s not long before the gloves come off, before one man is stripped of his racial identity, and before the turkey becomes airborne in one of the best food-fights ever staged.
The production at Riverside (the show arrives from dates in Brisbane, Sydney and Wollongong before transferring to Canberra) reunites many of the original cast but with a twist: for the Riverside and Canberra shows, Lui will be playing the part of fashionista Rose.
How does it feel to be acting in a play you also wrote? “Oh my goodness, it’s so weird,” Lui laughs. “But it’s really fun. I feel incredibly lucky that the people in the cast are all my friends now and that Paige [Rattray, the production’s director] had me in the rehearsal room all the time when we were at the STC so I know the whole show.”
Lui is no stranger to the boards. She performed in her second full-length play Kill the Messenger at Belvoir in 2015 at director Anthea Williams’ insistence. She’s also done some small screen work, too, starring in the ABC TV shows Black Comedy and Kiki and Kitty (which she also wrote).
“I love acting,” Lui says. “It’s really fun for me and really scary, too. But I like doing things that scare me. I think it makes me a better writer and I love watching the ways actors work.
“I think it even makes me a better person. You can’t be neurotic and self-indulgent when you are acting. You have to listen to other people and be generous and be in the moment, and those are things a lot of playwrights struggle with because writing is actually a lonely job.”
Lui does admit to feeling a touch of “imposter syndrome” in a company featuring some of the best comic actors in the country.
“They’re all so good!” she laughs. “I almost have double imposter syndrome now because you always feel that as a playwright and now I’m an imposter actor. But this cast is like a family and it’s going to be lots of fun. These are my best mates.”
Being able to experience an audiences’ mirth is critical for a comedy writer, Lui adds. “It’s such a cliché but it’s true, comedy is a two-way relationship. When you sit in an audience for your own play or if you are acting in it, you instantly see what an audience likes. When you are a writer, it’s the most amazing training ground there is. I don’t understand why more writers don’t act, just to see how audiences respond to their work.”
Like many of the characters in Black is the New White, Rose has evolved. “During rehearsals and the first season, characters become so different to the ones I wrote down on the page. I really love Rose. She’s really certain of herself and her identity and her politics and she is incredibly loyal and loving. She’s in fashion and she’s kinda aspirational but still very down-to-earth and she’s not afraid to hold her ground. She’s a total older sister.”
Shari Sebbens plays younger sister Charlotte, the burned-out lawyer. “You know what’s really special for me?” she says. “Seeing black people in love on stage. It’s really special for me and something we hardly see.”
Sebbens says she can’t wait to get back into it. “The other thing that no one really anticipated until opening night was the audience response. It was so overwhelmingly joyous and vibrant. We were kind of shocked at first. Some of us had never experienced that kind of reaction before - seeing people being thankful for our stories. A lot of audiences have seen our tragedy and our pain, and they’re thankful for us sharing that, but to be instinctively loved and liked? It was the first time it had ever happened to me as an Aboriginal actor.
“Every night we came off the stage totally high, like ‘is this what white actors feel, when they get to do comedies and stuff all the time?’ We’re always telling our grief stories, and they absolutely have a place, but this is a really nice next step to take.”
When they’re not on stage together, Lui, Sebbens and actor colleague Miranda Tapsell (who plays Rose in the Brisbane, Wollongong and Sydney seasons of Black is the New White) share the mike for a popular podcast with a provocative title: Pretty for an Aboriginal.
“Yeah, that was Nakkiah’s idea,” Tapsell says. “I think it came out of us talking about dating all the time and how dating, when you’re Aboriginal, is kinda different because of how you are perceived sometimes.”
Tapsell recalls a time she and Lui met in the foyer of the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney [NIDA] in Sydney. “We both had a glass of red wine, and as we were chatting Nakkiah asked do you think people notice us with this wine? And I was thinking exactly the same thing like, oh yeah, I feel really awkward about drinking in this space, and Nakkiah said yeah why do you think that is? So that was the start of the whole conversation, really. We talk about race in Australia because we live it. It’s just a concept for a lot of people, but for us, it informs our whole lives.”
Lui, Sebbens and Tapsell are dreaming up a second series of Pretty for an Aboriginal now.
“A lot of people have been surprised by the way we talk about certain issues in the podcast, things people often feel uncomfortable about,” says Tapsell, who is best known for her television role in Love Child. “We’re able to talk about those things in a really jovial way. It’s not that we’re undermining or trivialising anything that Aboriginal people experience in Australia, but we are able to make a lot of observations that draw people in. We’re not aggressive, we’re not combative, it’s actually funny, because we’re pointing out the absurdity of racism.”
The podcast and Black is the New White share some territory, Tapsell adds. “These stories show smart, educated, intelligent Aboriginal people. I think that is refreshing to see. It shows another side to Aboriginal people and challenges perceptions in general.”
Tapsell remembers seeing Black is the New White’s first season. “I was the loudest one laughing in the audience,” she admits. “I went with my cousin and she was just mortified, I was embarrassing the hell out of her. But I just loved it because it reminded me of every romantic comedy I liked when I was a kid, like Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral, all the Richard Curtis films. Those films are so white, so seeing black people in that kind of story was beautiful.”
Despite the play’s success, Lui says she has to work harder than her non-Aboriginal colleagues in the industry. “I am an Aboriginal person, a woman and a writer and I don’t take any of those things lightly,” she says. “If I’m going to write, then I need to be saying something on whatever platform I have. And that can be hard because I don’t see my white peers having to do that very often, unless they are queer or female or a person of colour. You don’t see many white men doing it.”
Writing comedy isn’t just about providing diversion, says Lui. It’s about showing truths. “To write a comedy is to talk about things like wealth or race or with my new play Blackie Blackie Brown [which opens at the STC in May] about the effects of colonization and how you deal with the trauma that has been inflicted. That’s a comedy too but it’s one that doesn’t ignore the circumstances of the Aboriginal community. It just expresses them differently.”
Lui sees signs of a shift in attitude, however, particularly in the major state theatre companies.
“What stands out to me in the 2018 seasons is the amount of trust people like [STC artistic director] Kip Williams have put in their artists. When you are a woman and an Aboriginal artist, and when a lot of your work centres on those things, some artistic leaders find it hard to identify with your work and to believe it will find an audience. I think we’re starting to get to a point where we can all look beyond that.”
Lui attributes her success to “luck and people around me being interested in what I have to say.” Just as important, she says, is that she’s been able to take risks and build an audience interested in her work. “I’m a firm believer that if you can see it, you can be it,” she says. “If you don’t see women playwrights getting programmed and don’t see people of colour getting programmed then those people will stop making work. But you can see our society is changing now and that people, whether they are black or white, need to see themselves.”
Black is the New White plays at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 21-24
This article first appeared on AUDREY Journal