Sunday, April 1, 2018

BLACK IS THE NEW WHITE


Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui. 

Directed by Paige Rattray. Designer. Renee Mulder. Lighting Designer. Ben Hughes. Composer and Sound Designer. Steve Toulmin. Sydney Theatre Company. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. March 28-31. 2018

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

The cast of Black is the New White. Photo by Prudence Upton

After being enthralled by the Sydney Theatre Company production of Black is the New White by award winning indigenous playwright, Nakkiah Lui, I decided to make a return visit during its sadly too short season at the Playhouse at the Canberra Theatre Centre. This hilarious, sad and perceptively biting tale of race, privilege, politics, family and ambition has lost none of its freshness and brutal honesty. The cast approach the roles with total conviction and commitment to the issues that are hurled between characters during a Christmas get-together of the family of legendary black activist, Roy(Tony Briggs) with his arch political rival and nemesis, Dennison Kennedy (Geoff Morrell) , his wife, Marie (Vanessa Downing)  and son, Francis (Tom Stokes), who is engaged to Roy’s lawyer daughter, Charlotte (Shari Sebbens)  . The revival is worth the return to see Nakkiah Lui take over the role of Charlotte’s fashion designer, Rose from Melodie Reynolds-Diarra.
Tom Stokes, Luke Carroll and Tony Briggs. Photo. Prue Upton

Luke Carroll (call me the Spirit of Christmas) plays the narrator of this explosive comedy, keeping the audience up to date and glued to the action with a spritely sense of impish mischief. His cheeky delight in revealing the secrets, flaws and inevitable consequences of his characters’ follies and foibles ensures that we don’t take the characters too seriously, while Lui’s Christmas cracker paced plot compels us to consider the conflicts, arguments and consequences with an earnest consideration of our own opinion. Lui sets her audience up for a rollercoaster ride of laughter, tears and judgement. Her plot twists and turns, arousing comedy in one instant as a naked Francis surprisingly appears before Charlotte’s astounded father (Tony..) and mother Joan (Kylie Bracknell – Karrljilbra Karrdn )and then creates inevitable tension when the uncomfortable young suitor attempts to shake the father’s hand. Lui then releases the tension with a series of comical gaffes and politically incorrect jokes that do nothing to relieve the atmosphere.
Anthony Taufa, Nakkiah Lui and Geoff Morrell. Photo: Prue Upton

Black is the New White is a play for our time with issues and human relationships for all time. It would be easy to dismiss the play as riddled with clichés. Privileged black girl, Charlotte is in love with white struggling composer boyfriend, Francis.  Aboriginal leader with a Martin Luther King complex, Roy, reaps kudos from his black wife, Joan, who writes his speeches for him. Francis is the son of Dennison, white former liberal minister, racist, mysoginist and intolerant of his son’s classical avant-garde musical talent and survival on a Trust Fund, set up by his grandparents. Sisters Charlotte and Rose are chalk and cheese, and Sonny, Rose’s husband, Sonny (Anthony Taufa) has turned to Jesus after his preacher father’s death and wants to become a missionary, while Rose wants to keep the race alive with beautiful black babies. Cliché or not, the plot splendidly exposes popular attitudes, prejudices and family conflicts with razor sharp wit, incisive irony and a delicious dismantling of façade with a swipe at bloated ego and hypocrisy.  The audience stops laughing long enough to take stock of serious implication. Shakespearian in its antitheses, Black is the New White  brings tidings of comfort and joy as we see opposing forces collide and in the end thaw and resolve into amnity and family conviviality and acceptance. This is after all a morality fable and it all ends happily ever after.
Tom Stokes,Vanessa Downing,Shari Sebbens, Geoff Morrell and Tony Briggs


Black is the New White is a minted coin of conciliation. It shows what is, and what could be in a land of Epiphany. Realization flies about the stage as Christmas food is flung in all directions during a cathartic abandonment of rivalries and resentments. Unfulfilled Marie comes out. Sonny learns that as the revered Aboriginal captain of the Wallabies he was actually Tongan and Ray and Dennison resolve to create a treaty to right all wrongs. The stuff of fairy tales? Perhaps, but the power of Lui’s play is the vision to see what is and prophesy what might be. That is what makes this new play a scintillating, provocative and revelatory comedy of manners for all Australians. If laughter is the best medicine, then Black is the New White has cured a thousand wrongs and administered the power to initiate some rights. Perhaps then we can make white and black right together.
Directed playfully with infectious joy by Paige Rattray, cast and creatives revel in the vitality, humanity and intelligence of this romp into taboos and the issues that keep us apart and possibilities that could bring us together. Lui knows too well the seriousness of her theme, but has the wisdom and the talent to understand the power of laughter to lead blacks and whites towards a brand new day.
Black is the New White has left Canberra but if it passes your way on its tour, it is a new Australian play not to be missed!

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