Black is the New White. By Nakkiah Lui. Directed by Paige Rattray. Sydney Theatre Company. March 28 to 31. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.
With echoes of films like Meet the Parents and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Nakkiah Liu's play Black is the New White sets up a situation rife with comic potential. Charlotte Gibson (played by Shari Sebbens) is a brilliant young Indigenous lawyer Her parents, retired Labor politician Ray (Tony Briggs) and Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra), a nurse and social activitist, have high hopes and expectations of her.
What they don't expect is the fiance she brings home for Christmas. Francis Smith (Tom Stokes) is unemployed, an experimental classical musician - and white. And what's more, he's the son of Dennison Smith (Geoff Morrell), a retired Liberal politician who was Ray's arch-nemesis in Parliament. And she's invited them, and Francis's mother Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra), a philanthropist and stay-at-home mother, to the Gibsons' holiday house for Christmas.
Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander writer and actor Lui says when she came to write Black is the New White, she had some definite ideas in mind.
"I wanted to write a comedy; I wanted to write a romantic comedy; I wanted to look at families," she says.
And when she was casting about for a time that provides rich humorous - as well as dramatic - potential for family interaction, she thought Christmas would be ideal, since it's an occasion often loaded with tensions as well as joy..
"I'm a massive fan of David Williamson's work - I had a look at how he has interpreted issues," she says. She wanted to bring something of the same seriocomic approach to contemporary Australia - and to depict an Aboriginal family that wasn't like the marginalised, dispossessed portrayals that tended to be shown on stage or in other media (she names The Secret River as one example) - when Aboriginal people were seen at all. Growing up, she says, she hardly saw any Indigenous people represented in the media and nobody who was like her.
"I wanted to put successful Aboriginal people on the stage - you rarely get to see those with class and power," she says.
Among the issues she had in mind to address were what it was like to be an Aboriginal person of privilege and the responsibilities this entails, the class mobility between families, sexuality, gender, and the issues around interracial marriage.
"Seventy-four per cent of Aboriginal people in Australia are married to a non-Aboriginal person," she says. But otherwise, she says, despite Australia's multicultural society, with a diversity of races and religions, "We don't have high rates of interracial marriage in Australia compared to the US and UK."
While this all sounds like weighty stuff, the play is intended to entertain as well as provoke thought, and the chosen setting was a part of that, Lui says.
"Although there are different ideas and different values... it's Christmas - there's singing, dancing, hope."
And because they're somewhat isolated, it's not so easy for some of the characters to simply leave.
"They have to sort it out."
Black is the New White has already had a successful Sydney season and is now on tour. The audience response seems to indicate it's struck a chord with audiences of all kinds.
"Hundreds of people have already seen it," Liu says.
"People are really hungry for it."
Stokes has taken over the role of Francis and Lui herself is now in the part of Rose, Charlotte's sister, but otherwise the cast is unchanged.
Playing Rose, a fashion designer who is married to Sonny Jones (Anthony Taufa) this season is the first time Lui has acted in the play. But she's an experienced performer as well as writer, with credits including the ABC's Black Comedy and Kiki and Kitty and the podcast Pretty for an Aboriginal (Buzzfeed).
She's been an artist in residence at Griffin Theatre Company (2013), playwright in residence at Belvoir (2012–2014) and a member of Queensland Theatre's National Artistic Team (2015–2017).
In 2012, she was the first recipient of The Dreaming Award from The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Arts Board of the Australia Council. The same year, she was the inaugural recipient of the Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright award.
Like a number of people in comedy and drama, Lui comes from a legal background, having graduated with a law degree from the University of New South Wales, which she says comes in handy when writing and directing.
"You can put yourself in the other person's shoes, like when you do cases - you figure out the other person's reasoning."
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