Nakkiah Lui’s camp adaptation of a cult sexploitation film dives headfirst into cultural appropriation and identity politics, with hilarious results
The conversation about what is and isn’t appropriate hums continually on our newsfeeds, in the media and in our daily social interactions: which jokes are off-limits; which topics should and shouldn’t be spoken about; who is allowed to speak out. What actions/words are in ‘bad taste’?
The question of ‘bad taste’ comes to mind often in Nakkiah Lui’s latest play – and never more so than the moment our protagonist Ginny Jones (Bessie Holland) finally makes her debut at Blaque Showgirls, the most glamorous and authentic Aboriginal burlesque club in all of Queensland. Together with two other ‘topless’ dancers, Ginny, wrangling an emu costume, sashays, struts and dips across the stage to the beat of a song that recalls traditional Indigenous music, but is pumped up by a thumping eDM bassline. Behind her, the word SORRY appears, letters blazing in an impressive pyrotechnic display.
Is this bad taste? Definitely. But that’s precisely the point. Through a disingenuous, high camp lens, playwright, activist and actor Nakkiah Lui exposes raw truths about race in Australia, and flings open the floodgates of identity politics, examining both with laser precision.
The play opens with the blonde, fair-skinned Ginny performing at a low rent local talent show. She’s a small town girl with big dreams; the biggest one being to become a blaque showgirl in Brisvegas just like her mother, who died when Ginny was young. Unfortunately, the talent show is not going well. Rednecks in the crowd are calling her “inside out coconut” and jeering at her (regrettable) dance moves. You see, despite her Aryan looks and the rejection from her eye-rolling “tribe”, she identifies passionately as Aboriginal. If only she could dance at Blaque Showgirls, Ginny thinks, then she’d be able to truly connect with her culture.
But the road to self-discovery is treacherous. The sheen of Brisvegas is dulled when Ginny is robbed on arrival by two “thieving kangaroos”. And to become a blaque showgirl, she’ll have to win over slimy manager Kyle MacLachlan (Guy Simon) and trample over the ensemble’s star diva Chandon Connors (Elaine Crombie). Unsuccessful on her first audition, Ginny instead gets a job at the vaguely pan-Asian Kum Den, thanks to her new Chinese (or is it Japanese? Ginny can never remember) best friend Molly (Emi Canavan).
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, then you’ve probably seen Showgirls: the so-bad-it’s-good 1995 sexploitation film which flopped at the box office before becoming a cult favourite. In her director’s note, Lui explains that theatre companies had asked her to adapt a ‘classic’ (read: a play by a dead white man). But as a young and politically outspoken Aboriginal woman, Lui was adamant that legitimacy as a playwright does not have to come from adapting Shakespeare, Chekhov or Ibsen – rather, that it can come from a place of subversion and satire.
So here we have Blaque Showgirls – a show where nothing is taken seriously. Ginny’s hometown is called Chitole. Her true love interest is called True Love Interest . The traditional owners of the Blaque Showgirls club are Steggles Chicken – “the whitest meat”. True Love Interest proudly protects the dance of his people –“The Sacred Sacred Really Sacred Dance” –but also sells fake “Certificates of Indigeneity” on the side.
Here, on an ever-shifting clinical white stage (designed by Eugyeene Teh), Lui has created a space where race is, quite literally, a performance. To be Aboriginal, Ginny just needs one of True Love Interest’s certificates and the right attitude (the validity of her Indigenous bloodline is hardly even the point). Emotional moments play out in broad, exaggerated strokes of acting, which are even more over the top than Ginny’s huge fake brown nipples (a prerequisite for being a blaque showgirl).
This is queer theatre in full force, disrupting the status quo, unravelling steadfast notions of gender and the ‘authenticity’ of culture and race (hello, Andrew Bolt) with a no-fucks-given wit that wouldn’t be out of place in South Park. As a regular dramaturg for queer provocateurs Sisters Grimm, Lui is comfortable in this space, aided by one half of Sisters Grimm, Declan Greene, as dramaturg.
Once Ginny achieves her dream, the play begins to fold in on itself in a domino effect of quick-fire gags and short vignettes, deftly (if at times erratically) directed by Sarah Giles (MTC’s Straight White Men). Unfortunately some jokes start to run a little ragged, and towards the end, the action loses focus. And as the stage becomes littered in the show’s own detritus – glitter, dirt, errant boomerangs – Blaque Showgirls runs the risk of becoming so parodical that it loses sight of any underlying meaning at all.
That is, until sidelined queen bee Chandon delivers a searing, furious tirade to Ginny about what true discrimination really feels like. It’s a welcome shift in tone, and at this point, the audience – overwhelmingly white, middle-class – is so disarmed that the impact hits even harder.
Even if you leave aside her recent triumph on Q&A, it’s abundantly clear that Nakkiah Lui is a vital force for change in Australia, and a writer who knows what’s she’s doing. We want more.
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