Nakkiah Lui has emerged as one of the country’s sharpest contemporary playwrights. In November 2019, local audiences will finally get the chance to experience Lui’s work on a South Australian stage with romantic comedy Black Is The New White.
“My grandma used to say, ‘what can you do if you can’t laugh?’,” Lui tells The Adelaide Review. “I think that to myself every single day, and to me laughter is really important – laughter is love, it’s so innately human.”
Laughter and love form the crux of Black Is The New White, the 2015 ensemble comedy that has emerged as the Black Comedy and Kiki and Kitty writer/actor’s biggest hit. While Lui’s recent stage work such as 2018’s Blackie Blackie Brown and this year’s How To Rule The World have taken inspiration from pulpy revenge narratives and Canberra politics, Black Is The New White draws from the canon of romantic and ensemble comedies like Meet The Fockers, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary
“I love films, the first job I ever had was at a video store in high school,” she recalls. “I used to love going to the movies, I used to watch movies all the time. I love reading, and theatre, but I’m also a massive film nerd.”
While riffing on the recognisable tropes of the Nora Ephron-style Hollywood comedy, Lui playfully broaches conversations about politics, sex and race through that mostly-universal experience: the awkward family dinner.
“Politics is a huge part of my work, but I always think that the things we think of as ‘political’things, like race, sex, gender and class, they’re not political issues, they’re human issues because we live them every single day, every single one of us,” she says. “I like to explore the humane aspect of that, and use laughter as a way to tell stories.
“Stories that have laughter, that ask questions, that let you talk about things you might not otherwise get to talk about because you’re doing it with a smile and a laugh. I think that’s really important, I think this play does that.”
Black Is The New White’s upcoming State Theatre Company season will see the central role of Charlotte – a young Aboriginal lawyer bringing her white boyfriend home to meet the in-laws – performed by Miranda Tapsell, a regular creative foil of Lui’s who is currently enjoying a huge year on the back of her own AACTA-nominated romantic comedy Top End Wedding.
“Miranda’s my best mate, she’s my best friend,” Lui says. “We often joke about how it would be great to time travel and become best friend sooner, when we were kids.”
Last week Tapsell also earned her second AACTA nomination of the year for her breathtaking turn opposite Lui in the finale of ABC morning TV parody Get Krack!n. Co-written by Lui alongside Get Krack!n stars Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan, the episode was a funny-yet-devastating read on Australian morning television and media culture that also bravely satirised their own public personas, from Tapsell as the always-smiling, “uncontroversial”, commercial-TV-friendly Aboriginal personality, and Lui as the outspoken, “angry Aboriginal woman” on Q&A.
“When she got the script she didn’t want to change a word, she was willing to do all of it,” Lui says of Tapsell’s embrace of the episode. “Something I think is so special about what I get to do, and even watching Black Is The New White now, is that you see performers take on your work so willingly, and perform it in a way that gives it another life… it’s just mind-blowing.”
It was a move made even bolder by the frequency with which Lui’s work and words – and those of prominent women of colour more broadly – are co-opted and stripped of context to become culture war fodder by the more reactionary parts of the media landscape. Barely a week after our conversation, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt invoked the pair’s performance as another sign that the ABC is “tipping into barbarity” in the wake of last week’s censored Q&A episode.
“I felt I could do that because she was willing to do that, and I wanted to play with that idea,” Lui says of Tapsell. “You know, when you’re asked to do commentary ‘as an Aboriginal person’, it can be quite serious, and you can come out quite angry. And there’s good reason to be angry, and I quite often think that being angry isn’t a bad thing because it means people care. Frustration comes from a place of passion, so if you’re angry it’s probably for good reason.
“But quite often your public discourse gets caught up in that, and my work actually does something very different – I love soppy love stories, I like laughing, and I like family dynamics. Most of all I like telling jokes! So it was a really good opportunity for me to show I guess a different Aboriginal person in media than what it’s like to be put into the ‘angry Aboriginal woman’ box. Which kind of hurts sometimes.”
Aside from preventing creatives like Lui from enjoying the breadth of opportunities that white and non-Indigenous writers and performers often navigate with ease (“I like eating cheese! I want to write a story about an Aboriginal person who likes eating cheese,” she jokes), that box is an ultimately reductive one that sells the empathy, humour and generosity of Lui’s work – and its audiences – short.
“I think that Australia’s a very interesting country,” she reflects. “I love it very much, there’s a lot of things I really like about this country – and one of those is our sense of humour. And I think Australians can be quite kind and quite caring, and we have stepped up and made changes when we needed to – look at the 1967 referendum, the first wave of refugees from Vietnam.
“We’re a country that can step up, but I think in a lot of ways the myth of Australia, of who we’re meant to be, who we’re told we’re meant to be… you’re taught not to be empathetic, because if you actually start to think about what this country’s founded on, from the invasion and genocide to the settlers being forced to come over here purely because they were poor… those are things that we haven’t rectified at all with who we are.
“Then we’re told that now if you were to at all try and address these things that makes you un-Australian? How can you not address these things, if you have empathy or kindness and caring, which I think a lot of Australians do. The fact Aboriginal communities are still trying to make this country a better place, isn’t that a great act of kindness?
“This idea that if you question things you’re ‘anti-Australian’, if you try to change the rhetoric around certain words that makes you ‘PC police’… I think it’s super at odds.
“The only thing I can think of to be a part of changing that is by telling stories that are inclusive, and don’t offer didactic answers.”
And, of course, by making people laugh.