Black Is The New White review by Shannessy Danswan
Black Is The New White is a new kind of old-school Christmas rom-com, where family feuds are a given and romantic mishaps are a must. Amongst the comedic terrain of Nakkiah Lui’s farce lies a deeply vast historical landscape of Indigenous identity in a whitewashed post-colonial society.
Ray (Tony Briggs), an Indigenous left wing politician and patriarch of the Gibson family finds himself in a heated Twitter war with his arch-nemesis and right wing politician, Denison Smith (Geoff Morrell). In classic rom-com fashion, Ray’s successful solicitor daughter Charlotte (Miranda Tapsell) brings home a Caucasian man who is quite the opposing ‘professional’; an unemployed experimental classical cellist, to be exact. Francis (Tom Stokes) arrives at the family Christmas party desperately seeking approval and earnestly ensuring he doesn’t offend his potential in-laws – but lo and behold – miserably fails.
As the name of the play suggests, Lui traverses expectations and turns stereotypes on their heads (i.e. making the white boy the displaced one for a change). Clever in her ability to convey this non-confrontationally, Lui’s writing is quick, witty, and allows non-Indigenous Australians to navigate her often-complex ideas by exploring the universal intricacies of human relationships. Still, she attains to her focal characters’ voices and inserts many quips that only an Indigenous person can really understand. This made me reflect on how important it is to see yourself mirrored in art, and how I have never had to question whether I will see a young, lower-middle class, straight, cisgendered white woman represented on stage or screen; further reaffirming how often Indigenous people have been massively underrepresented in Australian film and theatre.
Given that this is indeed a comedy about rich Indigenous people, Lui doesn’t directly delve into the heaviness of the poverty in which many First Australians live. But rather, utilises Charlotte as the moral compass of BITNW through her recurring provocations towards her father’s egocentric ethics. Despite likening himself to ‘Martin Luther King’ and reminding everyone that this is ‘his land’, Ray is challenged to acknowledge his tendency to be ‘all talk’ rather than action. This is verified later on as Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) his vivacious, intelligent, and humble wife admits that she wrote all of his successful speeches. Lui challenges the representation of middle-aged women multiple times throughout BITNW. Particularly through the humorous but heartfelt ‘coming out’ of Denison’s wife, Marie (Vanessa Downing).
Lui continues to break stereotypes through the representation of the absolutely stunning and hilarious Rose (Tuuli Narkle), a white-looking Indigenous Australian designer. We gain a glimpse into her world of insecurity and fear due to her mixed appearance. Humorously, her partner Sonny (Anthony Taufa) struggles with an identity crisis of his own as he finds out he is actually not Aboriginal at all, and rather very Tongan. Focussing on one’s sense of self in conjunction with displacement and longing, Lui explores fear as a predicate for love and acceptance.
Black Is The New White exceeds expectations with the use of a trusty and quirky Narrator (Luke Carroll) who proudly breaks the fourth wall and provides keen insight into the characters’ inner emotional worlds. This proves to be rather helpful in moving the narrative forward, particularly due to the cast’s inclination to delve more into comedic timing rather than dramatic tension.
That being said, Paige Rattray’s direction is fantastic and allows her actors to utilise physical humour in a larger-than-life way. This sees Ray and Denison fighting one minute and daggy dad dancing the next, eventually leading to an ‘ebony and ivory’ treaty that finds the pair coming to a witty and touching mutual respect.
Reneé Mulder’s gorgeous set is remarkable with modern designer décor and Indigenous paintings that meet in the space. Through visuals alone we can acknowledge the collision of the Gibson and Smith families’ worlds. Steve Toulmin’s classical/jazz sound design and Ben Hughes’ natural lighting effectively reflects and further enhances the Gibson’s world of Indigenous background and Western cultural influence.
With more to discuss than my word count can accommodate, Black Is The New White is rich with comedic value, inherent political/social commentary, and important reflections of Indigenous life in modern Australia. Given that the story’s integral message is so specific and important, it’s unfortunate that the second act feels compromised by a concoction of open-ended dramatic events that lead to a very quick and cliché culmination.
But maybe that was the point?
Direction – 4/5
Acting – 3/5
Set – 5/5
Writing – 4/5
Images: Jeff Busby