Family drama … playwright Nakkiah Lui. Photo: Lee Besford
When 26-year-old Nakkiah Lui writes about Mount Druitt, she writes from experience.
The emerging indigenous playwright has lived there all her life. But this is not the only reason why her debut feature-length drama, This Heaven, rings true, says its director, Lee Lewis.
''It's a work of fiction but it is so completely informed by the real world you can believe it either has happened or will happen,'' Lewis says. ''Nakkiah is able to write this story because there are so many real events that have gone into the making of it. It's based on an accumulation of terrible knowledge.''
Written during the course of her one-year associate playwright residency at Belvoir, This Heaven is a politically charged story focusing on one family, the Gordons, struggling to come to terms with the death of their father in police custody.
Sissy Gordon (played by Jada Alberts) is about to become a lawyer, but after the police get away with a slap on the wrist - a $9000 fine - how much faith can she have in the legal system she has worked so hard to enter? On one hot night, Sissy's anger - and the wider community's - comes to the boil. The result is an act of incendiary violence.
''Nakkiah has such a fierce voice,'' Lewis says. ''There's a page right in the middle of this play that I think is one of the more extraordinary things to be written about indigenous politics in this country. It's very confronting but she sets it in such a personal way and that's what makes it so difficult to walk away from.''
Travis Cardona plays Sissy's younger brother, who is struggling with the loss of his father and his role in the events that led to it.
''He's really beating himself up, he feels himself [is] to blame,'' Cardona says. ''He was driving a car that crashes but it was his dad who took the blame and ended up in custody. In a way, the play is also about the lengths to which parents will go to protect their children and the ways it can backfire on them.''
The Gordon family's drive to ''do right'' puts them in a double bind, Lewis says. ''This is a good family who thinks things like this shouldn't happen to them. But if they protest, they believe they might lose everything they've worked so hard for. A kind of compliance comes from that, a willingness to accept the status quo.
''But when the legal system fails them, this leads Sissy to say, basically, that education and the law is a bag of sugar. It's no way to change anything. Real change? How do we even begin to talk about that?''
Lewis says her production of This Heaven will be a visually simple one. It's a play that doesn't need much to create a world we recognise.
''Once people start to add up the pictures they already have in their head of the protests and memorials we've seen in Sydney over the years, they'll get the sense of how present this story is,'' says Lewis, who believes This Heaven is also part of the same conversation being had across town, in the Sydney Theatre Company's The Secret River.
''We're both dealing with the race politics of this country,'' Lewis says.
''It's not a play to make you feel bad but it does make you face some big questions, like: does change have to come from a violent act? When do we reach a point when people consider martyrdom?
''It's a petrifying thought, but if what happens in this play actually did happen in Sydney, I don't think anyone would be surprised. And that's a shocking thought.''
Previews February 7-8. Opens February 9 until March 10, Tuesday 7pm, Wednesday-Friday 8.15pm, Saturday 2.15pm and 8.15pm, Sunday 5.15pm. Belvoir Downstairs Theatre, 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills.
TICKETS belvoir.com.au, 9699 3444, $35-$45.
TRAVEL Short walk from bus and train services at Central Station. Limited one-hour street parking available.
SHOW Injustice and racism in the western suburbs puts a local family at a flashpoint.
STARS Jada Alberts, Joshua Anderson, Travis Cardona, Eden Falk, Tessa Rose.
DIRECTOR Lee Lewis.