Introducing the first play to bow within the Malthouse’s Beckett Theatre in more than two years – Aran Thangaratnam’s Stay Woke – dramaturg Mark Pritchard reminded a balmy courtyard crowded with jubilant returnees that the word “woke” was not a new one coined in the age of progressive, TikTok-ing Gen Zs.
Although it's often hurled back at them as an insult by pundits on the right, the term actually hails from the Civil Rights movement in the US. Activists, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, implored folks to wake up to the injustices inflicted on African-Americans and stay awake. As he said in 1968: “One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change.”
The complexities of our times, which have brought both great strides forward and depressing slides backwards on racial equality, are sent up in mischievous style by doctor and playwright Thangaratnam in his sophomore play. The first to be directed IRL by Malthouse artist in residence Bridget Balodis, whose term has been stalled by lockdowns, Stay Woke is a crowd-pleasing ripper.
It casts Green Room Award-winning Dushan Philips, an eminently charismatic presence, with equally impressive newcomer Kaivu Suvarna. They play crankily estranged brothers Niv and Sai, who have somewhat reluctantly agreed to a snowbound getaway on Mount Buller for the weekend. Snowflakes drift serenely beyond the glass wall of set designer Matilda Woodroofe’s wonderfully realised, boho Airbnb cabin.
It’s the perfect setting for a claustrophobic airing of fraught family fault lines, and it’s not long before the bros butt heads. Niv, a somewhat full-of-himself app start-up entrepreneur and *newsflash* vegan isn’t talking to their Sri Lankan-born parents. He also harbours a not-so-subtle grudge against younger brother Sai, whom he considers their favoured golden child. Some of this ridiculously hangs on who got given a brown leather jacket, the sort of small fry issue that can so easily set fire to sibling rivalry.
Niv’s non-binary partner Mae (an enjoyably snappy Brooke Lee) is a corporate anti-racism consultant who is worn down by the seemingly never-ending nature of the gig. In dire need of a “chill” break, they hope to smooth out the wrinkles between the brothers. Mae’s a lot more accepting of Sai’s younger partner, Kate (Rose Adams), whom they’re meeting for the first time. Kate’s a well-meaning soul but prone to egregious foot-in-mouth disease regarding race and gender diversity. Niv goes nuclear when she reckons it’s cool to share old pics of herself in brownface dressed up as Aladdin character Jasmine. Reader, it is not. The fact that her dad’s a cop doesn’t go across well either, particularly when the all-round awks fest, ably kept just the right side of chaos by Balodis, descends, via waaaaay too many illegally procured Xanax, into disaster. Props, too, to lighting designer Rachel Lee’s rapid-fire blackouts depicting multiple flash-forwards into the silly hours.
This darker moment is relatively fleeting in Thangaratnam’s fast-paced and witty play. He rejoices in confronting white audience members with a snowdrift’s worth of jokes burying them under their privilege, not to mention shaming them for apparently being the only folks who love Radiohead song ‘Creep’. But he also has plenty of fun at an increasingly apoplectic Niv’s expense and paints in a little more nuance around Kate’s cringeworthy no-nos than might be expected.
Far from a deep dive on these issues, it’s a smart move by Thangaratnam to broach dismantling systems of oppression via comic relief in Stay Woke. In the sound hands of Balodis, the message cuts through, and the tight ensemble shines. Daniella A Esposito’s deft sound design also works a treat, weaving chart bangers in with a fresh electro score that shifts seamlessly from the Malthouse sound system to the sort of tiny and tinny speaker servicing many a house party.
While nothing’s tied up in a neat bow, Thangaratnam allows a bit of optimism that the brothers, brilliantly portrayed in this testosterone tussle by Philips and Suvarna, might find peace. Here's hoping this awakening will stick.