Thursday, March 29, 2018

Black is the New White

Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui.  Sydney Theatre Company at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, March 28 – 31, 2018.

(This production premiered at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney on March 1, 2018.  The original production premiered at Wharf 1 Theatre on May 10, 2017.)

Director – Paige Rattray; Designer – Renée Mulder; Lighting Designer – Ben Hughes; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Toulmin; Voice and Text Coach – Charmian Gradwell.

Ray Gibson – Tony Briggs; Narrator – Luke Carroll; Marie Smith – Vanessa Downing; Dennison Smith – Geoff Morrell; Joan Gibson – Melodie Reynolds-Diarra; Charlotte Gibson – Shari Sebbens; Francis Smith – Tom Stokes; Rose Jones – Nakkiah Lui (replacing Miranda Tapsell for the Canberra season); Sonny Jones – Anthony Taufa

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 28

There is a special sense of coming together in this new form of comedy of manners.  It is both a romantic comedy, but also a questioning comedy.  What does it mean to be ‘black’ or ‘white’?  Lui’s highly sophisticated writing says it’s very funny.  Standing ovation kind of funny.  Seriously exciting kind of theatre.

Looking at Black is the New White from the white side, as I inevitably must, I see a picture which reminds me of when I was a £10 invading Pom some 60 years ago.  I was fascinated then by my culture’s 18th Century cartoonery and social commentary pictures.  William Hogarth comes to mind.

             An Election Entertainment featuring the anti-Gregorian calendar banner "Give us our Eleven Days", 1755

I came to understand that to see the whole picture, I had to accept equally all the diverse characters in Hogarth’s typically crowded scenes – from the grotesque to the ‘normal’; from the low class to the high.

L-R: Anthony Taufa, Vanessa Downing, Luke Carroll (above), Shari Sebbens,
Geoff Morrell, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, Tony Briggs, Miranda Tapsell, Tom Stokes
in Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui

Joan Gibson's Christmas speech
Photo: Prudence Upton

Nakkiah Lui’s picture of today’s middle class in Sydney – black, white and Tongan – is as humorous a view as Hogarth’s and brings me up to date.  Though I was an unwitting invader at the age of 14, I feel better about being here now, thanks to the many Aboriginal playwrights and performers whose work I’ve seen (and some reviewed here and at ) from the days of the National Black Theatre in Redfern which I attended in 1973, through  Jimmy Chi's 1990 musical Bran Nue Dae and many others, to Nakkiah Lui. 

The first work of hers I reviewed, Kill the Messenger (February 20, 2015) was beyond impressive.  Black is the New White thoroughly establishes her place among our great writers on the Australian stage.  She makes the crossover between cultures understandable and acceptable.  Lui is an enormously generous writer.

The quality of the production of the play goes without saying, after last year’s success at Wharf 1, though I would have liked to have seen Miranda Tapsell (not to disparage the author’s performance here in Canberra).  I first noted Tapsell’s acting while she was still at NIDA, in Dallas Winmar’s Yibiyung ten years ago, with Wesley Enoch directing, and later in Louis Nowra’s Radiance, directed by Leah Purcell, and would love to have seen her here in such a different role.  Tapsell’s story alone shows where Indigenous theatre is travelling.

Luke Carroll, Miranda Tapsell, Anthony Taufa
Photo: Hon Boey

In this rehearsal picture, you see not only Miranda Tapsell (Rose) and Anthony Taufa (Sonny), but an important figure in the background, Luke Carroll as The Narrator.  From her Indigenous culture, Lui has clearly drawn upon the storytelling tradition in this dynamic character, but also on the idea – regarded as new when Tennessee Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie last century – of a member of the family standing aside from the action to explain to us outsiders what is really going on inside.

While Tom tells much of his own story in The Glass Menagerie, director Paige Rattray writes of Black is the New White, in answer to the question  “What can the narrator be and what can’t it be for it to work well here”,  The improvisations were useful.  We pushed that character to see how far he could be involved in the world of the other characters.  We found a few little moments of overlap, but it’s actually much better if he is outside the reality, observing.  He’s more connected to the audience than he is to the characters.

I found The Narrator especially important in two ways.  The first is as a simple device for changing scenes as one bit of the story ends and another begins.  But this character knows all the little details of the family members’ behaviours, do’s and don’ts, wishes and real intentions.  He is absolutely Aboriginal, though so well dressed in ‘white’ suits.  He moves as if dancing (including with a front-row audience member!) and talks with a glint of humour in his eye.

I found myself imagining The Narrator as a kind of ghost-figure, but the opposite of a Kadaitcha (the harbinger of death).  This Narrator is the epitome of life, both romantic and questioning – but never with rancour.  Observing, yes – but to me, at least, he is much more, connecting the audience to the characters.

If there’s a parallel in my culture, it must be in the independent clownish philosophers in Shakespeare’s plays, but never with the cynicism of a Jacques.  It’s at this level that I place Nakkiah Lui’s art.

Director Paige Rattray with playwright Nakkiah Lui during rehearsal
Photo: Hon Boey