Please note, this story contains the name of someone who has died.
Wickedly funny and packed with poignant political and social commentary, Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White is a play designed to swirl complicated questions of humanity around the head while flooding the theatre with laughter.
Black is the New White, written by Gamilaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman Nakkiah Lui and directed by Sydney Theatre Company’s Associate Director Paige Rattray, tells the story of successful Aboriginal lawyer, Charlotte Gibson (played by Miranda Tapsell), as she brings her white, unemployed, composer fiancé, Francis Smith (Tom Stokes), to family Christmas for the first time.
Charlotte’s parents, Joan and Ray Gibson (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra and Tony Briggs), have found themselves enjoying a comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle thanks to Ray Gibson’s career in politics.
The Gibsons have a second daughter, Rose (Kylie Bracknell [Kaarljilba Kaardn]), a successful fashion designer, and son-in-law, former footballer and current banker, Sonny Jones (Anthony Taufa).
Francis’ parents, Marie and Denison Smith (Vanessa Downing and Geoff Morrell), also live a comfortably upper middle-class life as a result of Denison Smith’s career as a conservative politician.
When the families meet for the first time during the holiday season, all hell breaks loose in true Rom Com style.
Accompanied by a narrator who refers to himself as the ‘Spirit of Christmas’ (Luke Carroll), Black is the New White has few moments that won’t make you laugh uninhibited or provoke deep thought.
Tribute to a trailblazer
The play’s opening night at Perth’s Heath Ledger Theatre saw a special moment from actors Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn) and Tony Briggs as they dedicated the show to their colleague and dear friend, the late Ningali Lawford-Wolf.
“She had a beautiful smile, a very infectious laugh,” Mr Briggs said, visibly emotional.
The actors reminded the audience that the good times and laughter they would share tonight, would be with and for Ms Lawford-Wolf.
Set design from Renée Mulder matched the play’s exploration of complex, historical themes in a modern setting, with streamlined shapes and light décor, infused with Indigenous art, objects and patterns.
With cracking one-liners like “You are the silver lining of colonisation,” it’s easy to see that Nakkiah Lui has a firm grip on how to inject humour into the politics of privilege, class and interracial relationships.
A play with plenty of intelligent dialogue and dissection of issues, Ms Lui manages to infuse a very real humanity within the conversation, allowing viewers to see how Aboriginal issues manifest in day to day lives.
A play with universal themes
Leading lady, Larrakia woman Miranda Tapsell – known for her roles in Lovechild, Top End Wedding, and The Sapphires, among others – shone in the role of Charlotte Gibson as a young, successful lawyer and, frankly, a black feminist icon.
Ms Lui’s dialogue paints Charlotte as an intelligent, articulate woman who is actively trying to be more aware of her privilege as an Aboriginal woman living a privileged life of wealth as a result of her former politician father.
Ms Tapsell’s performance brought Charlotte to life and many a laugh from the audience – it’s easy to see how the actress has won two Logies for her previous work.
Speaking to NIT in the lead up to opening night, Ms Tapsell said both she and Ms Lui are “huge lovers of Rom Coms,” so Ms Tapsell jumped at the chance to play Charlotte in the Perth leg of the play.
While Ms Tapsell is aware that aspirational characters can potentially be detrimental to marginalised groups, she said she supports all that Black is the New White portrays.
“I truly believe that if Aboriginal people can see an Aboriginal lawyer, they can believe that they can be an Aboriginal lawyer,” Ms Tapsell said.
“[Every character] in the show has all of these incredible ideas and they stand by them wholeheartedly. That’s what makes their Christmas together so contentious.”
“At the heart of it, everyone knows what it’s like to disagree with family members, so it has many universal themes.”
Questioning privilege and celebrating Aboriginality
Like the character she plays, Ms Tapsell is acutely aware of her privileged platform.
“It’s one of those really hard things where I’m incredibly aware of how fortunate I am to be given the platform that I have, to have an incredibly supportive Aboriginal family, and a supportive non-Aboriginal family as well,” Ms Tapsell said.
“I’m always learning from wonderful artists around me like Nakkiah [Lui], who is my best friend.”
The actress said she continues to question herself and her position.
“If you have all of this privilege – what do you do with it?”
“I do believe in bringing my community with me … that’s how we get to equality,” Ms Tapsell said.
“I believe that’s not just something that should be left with me … as an Aboriginal woman. It needs to come from my fellow non-Indigenous peers, particularly women.”
Ms Tapsell’s strong stance on assessing the privileges we possess translates well to the character she plays.
Discussing the choice to have Black is the New White as a Rom Com, Ms Tapsell said it’s important to show off more than one genre of Aboriginal storytelling.
“I believe there’s space for more dramatic stories about Indigenous histories, but I also believe that there should be space to show Aboriginal humour and love,” Ms Tapsell said.
“That’s something I know so well within my own community and I know that that’s common in a lot of Aboriginal communities. I know very funny Aboriginal people.”
“That’s how we get through harder times. We have the ability of laughing at ourselves and with each other, and also really celebrating each other.”
The multiplicity of Indigenous voices
Black is the New White is an intersectional, nuanced representation of the multifaceted lives of Indigenous Australians, reflecting on race, politics, class and privilege through the lens of the Romantic Comedy.
At the play’s end on opening night, the audience had no hesitation in delivering a long, standing ovation paired with a deafening applause for the cast.
“[Usually] people don’t treat the Aboriginal gaze with a lot of nuance,” Ms Tapsell said.
“They take one Aboriginal person’s opinion a lot of the time and take it as gospel, rather than hearing multiple voices.”
Afterwards, opening night speeches were given and Noongar Traditional Owners were acknowledged for their attendance, with Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn) asking any Noongar Traditional Owners in attendance to partake in a big group photo with the cast, a sign of respect.
For those still to see the play, Ms Tapsell said audience members should be “ready for anything and everything.”
“I really hope that this play gets everyone in the mood for the festive season … making time for family … thinking outside of yourself – what do the people you love need?”
Black is the New White is showing at Perth’s Heath Ledger Theatre in Northbridge until September 22.