[CW: one spoiler]
If good theatre gets us pondering, Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White comes crashing into the imagination like a runaway train. It is spectacularly good theatre, intricately intelligent theatre. It is so fantastically funny that inhibitions (like me being that person with the too-loud laugh) fall away.
The casting is perfect, the wardrobe is perfectly assembled, the choreography hits every note. I have never seen a better set piece than the violence-prevention family conga line (go see it for this alone). Given the joyful sound of the audience clapping along, superbly directed by narrator Luke Carroll, I was not alone there.
Lui has written that cleverest of comedy, the kind which works at so many levels that you could go along with old friends or your mum or a group of students and have as wonderful a time with any and all. When Charlotte (Shari Sebbens) the native title lawyer introduces her fashion designer sister Rose (Kylie Bracknell Kaarljilba Kaardn) to her white boyfriend, Rose skips through the accepted niceties in rapid time to the crux: “but where are you really from? You’re white, you must be from somewhere”.
Along with the rest of the (mostly white) audience, I cringe in recognition and can not stop laughing. It is an inescapable truth that when moving through the worlds of Sydney, of Black and white Sydney, there is one social requirement above all others: have ready a coherent answer to the question ‘where are you from?’
Black is the New White defies singular classification, but it is above all an ensemble piece. The cast, the set, the script – all are the star of the show. The set sends out signals like a lighthouse: a kitchen-dining-open living space hosts most of the action, but it is the wooden staircase, on which the women’s heels tap out identity morse codes, that gets me thinking. Black culture tends towards inclusiveness inasmuch as whiteness tends toward hierarchy and exclusivity, and here the Upstairs/Downstairs evocation is miles and miles from class-ridden white ways. This staircase is a good staircase, to borrow a phrase, and the framed black-and-white photos at its foot reflect family, community, and history, the title of the play and its core themes.
The script delivers lines about holiday houses which tell us this is no stereotypical Black family. The Gibsons are Black, and ensconced in middle class comfort – here is the spoiler – thanks to the speech-writing skills of mum Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra), speeches which shored up the post-sporting-great political career of dad Ray (Tony Briggs). This is a closely kept secret for much of the play.
In a glorious metaphorical mirror, the white family are beneficiaries of a grandparental trust, a trust which ensured the gnawing emptiness of white mum Marie (Vanessa Downing) and shored up the political career of white dad Dennison (Geoff Morrell).
Cue meritocracy mythology motif, where black dad Ray touts the value of hard work with disturbing complicity. The irony is that Ray would be a rare case of myth meeting truth – he has worked hard for everything he has, including the holiday house – but for the unacknowledged speechwriting talents and hard work of his wife.
This incorporation of intersectionality – what scholars call the intersections of oppression, in this case racism and sexism – is so neatly done it takes my breath away. Every year, when feminist legal theory week rolls around (I teach jurisprudence), I agonise over how best to present work by black feminists when my interpretive lens is, by definition, white.
But I digress (to centre myself, as white feminists are wont to do. Lol. etc.)
So. The two dads, old parliamentary foes, have recently rekindled their animosity on twitter, a digital platform which has also sent one of those Joan-authored speeches viral. If the in-jokes to black and white Australia are breathtakingly accurate, the social media in-jokes are the 21st century topping. Especially when the online dating activities of tottering Stepford-wife-like Marie take hilarious twist after daring turn.
It is from the yet-to-be announced engagement of Charlotte and Francis (James Bell) that Lui draws out her richly layered theatre of the farcical, the slapstick, the tragic, and the absurd. The soliloquies to black community, the intellectual struggle between culture and class, academia and law, politics and media, are gripping in their depth and accuracy. ‘How can we change the law if we can’t even change the conversation?’ asks Charlotte, and the question hangs in the air. How, indeed? The seamlessly narrated storyline and rapid one-liners are just as stunning. When Dennison demands of Ray ‘Is it because I’m white?’ the answer is ‘No. It’s because you’re a cunt’.
The nods to the classics (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Love Actually) and recognisable Aussie cultural oddities (footy hero turned merchant banker) pile up so quick – almost too quick to take in – and with pinpoint accuracy. As a hilarious exchange about WAGs and handbag husbands unfolds, Dennison harrumphs in Wildean homage ‘a handbag?’ His literalist take is funny enough as a stand-alone moment, but when ex-footy hero Sonny (Anthony Taufa) discovers his true ancestry, we are reminded that the dénouement was signalled by this smartest of scripts.
As an irregular theatre-goer, I probably missed other similarly delicious details. I can say that the play is [David] Williamsesque – and I mean that in the most complimentary possible way. It skewers the white theatre-going classes, but the real achievement is Lui’s fearless engagement with racial identity issues that perennially emerge, continuously unresolved, in Australian discourses and public debates.
I can not praise Black is the New White highly enough, and recommend it to anyone who can get along to see it. This show is unquestionably one of the best evenings of entertainment I have ever enjoyed. I say that as a person who has enjoyed ensemble comedy at the same venue (many a Wharf Revue) and Black art across the country (Black Arm Band at the Sydney Opera House, Archie and Ruby at the Armidale and Tennant Creek Showgrounds…) I am an enthusiastic, if too seldom these days, audience member.
Black women’s voices
To borrow a phrase, so many Black women share so much with so many, like Leah Purcell and her superb Black Chicks Talking (2002). For me, that amazing production connects to the 1997 Festival of the Dreaming ( I missed Box the Pony – don’t ask) leading up to the Sydney Olympics. I cry every time footage of Cathy Freeman winning is replayed. My daughter was breastfeeding when Cathy won that race, and she and her brother have won many an Athletics gold trophy since. I know in my heart that the Festival of the Dreaming and the Sydney Olympics and Black excellence today were intended to be connected, and are connected.
For instance in late 2013 we went to the opening of Corroboree Sydney at the wharves under the Bridge. There was Leah Purcell, artiste extraordinaire. Redfern Now had just screened, and both my kids were allowed to sit up late and follow its stories. Leah took a moment to say hello to them. We were star struck that night at the Pier, and have been ever since, seeing her work directing incredible productions like Cleverman (age permitting).
There are two perspectives that I think should be in this post because, as is often the way of these things – a kind of social media confirmation bias – in the days leading up to seeing Black is the New White, I clicked on two articles which mentioned the brilliance and bravery of Nakkiah Lui.
One is Blak Critics: Flipping the Power Play in the Arts by Timmah Bell in Overland Journal, where Bell outlines the endemic problem of white dominance, as well as some exciting developments towards shifting that status quo:
A twenty-eight-year-old Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman is creating dynamic black theatre and television – painfully absent not that long ago – but there are only white people to review it. Her career rises, and we watch in frenzied adoration, finally seeing ourselves represented in ways that celebrate our humour, spirit and complexity. But the work itself is still valued through a white lens. As many Aboriginal artists, designers and writers have suggested, these critics want our work, but on their terms. Our views on our own work and how it should be positioned within white institutions is often neglected.
It should go without saying that Aboriginal artistic excellence is as creative and enduring as it is undervalued. What Bell then reports encapsulates approaches that are advocated by Aboriginal people across multiple fields in multiple ways, while simultaneously being specific to the skills and professionalism of Black artists:
Indigenous-run and -led festivals are beginning to reshape the operational structure of the sector. The inaugural First Nations Festival Yirramboi, led by creative director Jacob Boehme, is starting to flip the power play. One of the key principles of the festival was the establishment of Blak Critics, a program supporting nine Indigenous writers (including me) with a public platform for creating critical review and conversation, from our perspectives… Participating in Blak Critics was an opportunity to destabilise mainstream practices. It was a space and program where our voices, values and cultures were centered… From the first workshop new methodologies started to emerge. Muruwari playwright Jane Harrison quickly observed that we need to move away from the ‘softly softly’ approach too often used by white critics writing lukewarm, gentle reviews out of fear of being seen as racist, as if we lack the professionalism to handle rigorous judgment. But of equal importance was permission to critically engage with Aboriginal work with honesty, and in a reciprocal way, which would build and strengthen the artist’s work, not hurt or reduce them to a star rating.
Another is State of the Nation by Nayuka Gorrie, who writes:
In ecology there are things called bio-indicators. They tell us about the state of a particular ecology. For example, the presence of sensitive macroinvertebrates in a water body suggests that it is healthy and clean. It is my belief that women are one such indicator for the state of the nation. We are some of the most vulnerable people in the country; more likely to experience sexual abuse, family violence, are less paid and utterly underappreciated. We are at the intersection of different oppressions; being black and woman. Even more so if you are a trans woman, queer, poor, criminalised or have a disability.
Gorrie describes being a black woman in Australia and thus black womanhood. In being part of a conversation with black people that critiqued the ABC comedy ‘Black Comedy.’ In particular the critique was of tidda Nakkiah Lui… she writes, When I pushed on this the people giving the criticism just said she took it “too far.”
These articles reflect contemporary dilemmas that are invisibilised in the mundane and consistently uncreative conversations which dominate black-white relations – which dominate all conversations – in this country. From our politicians to the panellists who comment on their follies, from the white academy to white science to every white institution, the dominant narrative is unhelpful, predictable, destructive, and dull… and built on colonial tropes and lies that refuse to die.
Compare this to the Aboriginal voices, the voices of women like Nakkiah Lui and Leah Purcell, of Timmah Bell and Nayuka Gorrie. These women speak a clear sense for anyone whose ears are open. Compare this to tired old phrases and trite observations like ‘cut-through’ – for example, ‘the electorate has stopped listening’, or ‘the government needs to cut through with its message’.
Irregular, seldom – these are the words I choose to make clear that I am not an expert on the arts. The one ‘professional’ role I ever held was to observe the making of a play by Milk Crate Theatre, a company I came to have the greatest respect for, as a researcher on a cultural studies project. This inspired explorations and reflections in many directions (my usual role is a lecturer in law).
One detail I stumbled across at the time is that the theatre of Dionysius on the Acropolis is named for the god of grape and grain (ie wine and whiskey). So what? you may ask. Well, Dionysius is anglicised to Dennis, and when Dennis was beatified (made a saint) he became St Dennis.
The contraction of St Dennis is Sydney. This is the kind of thing that lawyers like me love. To get to see Black is the New White at the Wharf, this most Sydney of things to do, a Black theatre production that is asking and answering the big questions about Black and white Australian identity, an identity that insists on what white Australia forged while awash with grape and grain (hello Rum Corps), and promptly projected its crimes onto Blackness (there was no wine nor whiskey here before 1788), beneath the lights of Sydney Harbour, at the Sydney Theatre Company…
There is meaning to be distilled here, and distilling meaning from cultural experience is what cultural researchers do.
Among the most ancient of crafts, there is a special place for theatre in the human memory, and this is a microcosm of the physical spaces where theatre is done. A theatre may appear deserted, sitting quietly on its city block or in a suburban street or perched on a pier over Sydney Harbour. Its best moments are ignited by those marvellously eclectic casts of people who are drawn to doing theatre, and the audiences who love them. But the theatre is never inert, it is always alive somewhere.
The Wharf Theatre is always alive, and for that alone I love it. It may be difficult to imagine now that the decommissioned piers along Hickson Road sat dormant for decades, so deplorable is the waste of those years. For a Sydneysider as steeped in history and as old as I am, crude neglect and criminal mismanagement is as much a part of Sydney as the glittering harbour and glorious venues, and has been since 1788.
Theatre settles itself in the collective memory of people and place. Wherever there are people, bush clearing or campfire, city or suburb, town or village or nomansland, there is theatre. It is by drawing on our collective humanity that good theatre is made.
All this is by way of saying that Black is the New White is spectacularly good, it is an unqualified triumph, and you should totally go and see it. It is also by way of saying that through white eyes (the ones I have) Aboriginal art consistently showcases the wisdom of its ancient ancestry, while coming across as fresh and new. This is an art in itself: powerful and subtle, unique and universal, contemporary and eternal. It can be done, and probably can only be done – this well, like this – by custodians of the oldest continuing cultures on earth.