Black is the New White is Nakkiah Lui’s latest play, following last year’s well-received Kill the Messenger. In that play, directed by Anthea Williams for Belvoir, Lui performed as herself on stage, both as a character and as chorus. At the end, she turned to the Belvoir audience and spoke directly to them:
I wrote this. I wrote this for you. […] You wanted this. You paid for this.
After a play in which we had witnessed the deaths of two Aboriginal people at the hands of negligent public servants, this was a challenge pointedly aimed at the mainly white, middle-class Sydney theatre audience: why did you pay to watch this story of black suffering? Are these stories of everyday tragedy a kind of entertainment for you?
It also felt like a cry of frustration at the limited conversations that contemporary theatre might allow us to have about race. In the new play, the central character of Charlotte Gibson (Shari Sebbens), a successful but already burnt-out young Aboriginal lawyer, asks her white boyfriend,
How can we change the law if we don’t change the conversations we have about race?
But where Kill the Messenger carefully traced the difficulties of story-telling and communication, Black is the New White brilliantly, joyously and irreverently launches itself into making compelling and knowing use of theatre tropes, even clichés. Lui deploys various dramatic modes, from rom-com films, through comedies of manners, to farce, all in the service of tightly-wound comic dialogue and action.
We are brought into the world of the play by a narrator figure, played by the delightful Luke Carroll. The programme notes reference Alec Bawldwin’s arch voiceover in The Royal Tenenbaums as an influence here. But the play has a Christmas setting, and the narrator says that he would rather be called, “the spirit of Christmas”. At times, he seemed more like a mischievous latter-day Clarence, the guardian angel character from 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.
The world of the play is also deftly established by Renee Mulder’s set, where stylishly expensive mid-century modern furniture mixes with carefully positioned Indigenous art. This is the holiday home of a wealthy Aboriginal family, living in the shadow of an overbearing, but charming father: Ray Gibson (Tony Briggs), a former politician who has made both his reputation and considerable wealth as an advocate for the Aboriginal community.
Into this situation is launched not only the daughter Charlotte’s white fiancé Francis (James Bell) but, also, his parents. His father is Dennison Smith (Geoff Morrell), a former right-wing politican with disappointed ambitions, a neat blazer and the tendency to namedrop “Tony” whenever he can. Vanessa Downing’s performance of Dennison’s long-suffering wife - all Quentin Bryce hair and suppressed sexuality - is hilarious.
All of the assembled families, including Charlotte’s sister Rose (Kylie Bracknell; Kaarljilba Kaardn) who objects to Charlotte dating a white guy, and her ex-Rugby playing husband Sonny (Anthony Taufu), are set on a collision course with that most fraught of family occasions: the Christmas lunch.
The clash of the two families derives from the two fathers. Ex-political rivals, in their retirement they have been reduced to petty twitterspats. But the conflict between these two old and increasingly irrelevant political warriors also reveals deeper fractures in the Gibson family. Is it possible to be cut off from your community by the paraphernalia of wealth - golf clubs and virtual reality headsets - and still claim authentically to represent that community? This is Lui’s central question, a question about being both Aboriginal and middle class.
This is not a question that gets answered by the play, but it is asked insistently and from multiple perspectives. The last line of the play adroitly reopens the question of whether it is wealth, rather than any real reconciliation between the families, that provides a path towards the play’s happy ending.
Although the play references a number of different modes, the dominant one is the comedy of manners. Lui helps us see this with a heavily signposted reference to the most famous stage-prop from any comedy of manners: the handbag that, in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, reveals a key character’s origins. In Lui’s play, this is delivered in full Edith Evans-style glory by Geoff Morrell.Prudence Upton
The comedy of manners is a particular type of play that can be traced back to the mid-17th century, and the point of it is usually to satirise middle class politeness: what is, and what is not, acceptable in middle class society?
In classic examples, such as Richard Sheridan’s School for Scandal, the plots turn on the revelation of socially unacceptable secrets. More radical examples such as Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest can go much further than this, undermining the values upon which middle class society and culture (including the comedy of manners itself) are built: family, status, your name and your land.
What Lui’s new play does really well is show us that all of the genres that she is referencing - rom-com as well as comedy of manners - have always been seen as white by default. But now that, as the title says, “black is the new white”, the key tropes of these genres can be rewritten and re-purposed.
In the old comedy of manners, wealth and privilege were often nothing more than backdrops to offset the brilliant action and brittle dialogue.
In Lui’s play, the action is just as scintillating, frenetic and funny, but it is the assumption and consequences of wealth and privilege themselves that are under fire.
Black is the New White is running until June 17.
Authors: Huw Griffiths, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Sydney