When Nakkiah Lui pitched her new play to Sydney Theatre Company, then-artistic-director Andrew Upton said “So it’s like Romeo and Juliet”. “And I was like ‘Um it’s more like Meet the Fockers’,” she recalls, laughing. “I think that sums up my place in theatre.”
She may be a deft hand at self-deprecation, but Lui is one of the sharpest minds in – and commentators on – Australia right now. Her career trajectory began with sharply observed Sydney-set plays This Heaven and Kill the Messenger (Belvoir 2013 and 2015), and spun into op eds in The Guardian, blazing appearances on Q&A, and the popular sketch comedy series Black Comedy (on which she worked as a writer and performer).
This year demonstrates the breadth of the 28-year-old’s horizon: her comedy Black is the New White premieres at STC in May; she’s making her mainstage directing debut at Queensland Theatre Company with an Australian adaptation of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon in September; and she just finished shooting on the short-form ABC iview comedy series Kiki & Kitty (which she wrote and starred in) about a young woman and her vagina. She's also working on a film adaptation of Kill the Messenger, and a book of non-fiction stories.
“What I love about theatre is that it’s a living experience, and the insight it can provide because it lives within that room with the audience,” she says. “It provides a huge amount of empathy. And socially at the moment, we’re so influenced by generalisations and [other] things trying to force us from our empathy.”
Black Is the New White is a family holiday rom-com, in which a smart and successful young Aboriginal lawyer brings her surprise fiancé (unemployed, white, experimental classical composer) home to meet her parents.
When STC launched their 2017 season last year, they compared it to Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, starring Sidney Poitier as the successful young black man who has to run the gauntlet of a dinner with his fiancé’s white parents. Lui says it’s a reference point, but not exactly comparable: “This is certainly not a play about reverse racism.” Rather, this is her exploration of “the intersection between cultural identity, racial identity, oppression and privilege, and what it means for Aboriginal people – especially given that their identity is so politicised.”
Lui was inspired by several intersecting issues and conversations, including the growth of the Aboriginal middle class, and the spike in interracial marriages. “In the last Census, 76 per cent of Aboriginal people who got married were married to people who were not Aboriginal,” she tells Time Out. “That really intrigued me, because Australia doesn’t actually have huge rates of interracial marriage.”
Within the tight-knit community in Mount Druitt where she grew up, and her own family and extended family, she has noticed changes first hand. “My mum grew up in a tent, and my dad didn’t even use a proper toilet until he was ten years old,” she says. “Now me and my sister live inner-city lives and are university educated.”
As a fan of the family holiday rom-com (The Family Stone and Meet the Fockers are favourites) Lui saw the genre as a good fit. “I wanted to explore all these ideas in a play that was quite joyful, frankly,” she says. “A lot of Aboriginal work comes from a place of death and trauma. And I’m guilty of that too.”
She describes her 2015 play Kill the Messenger (which she also starred in, at Belvoir) as emotionally draining. “It took me a good 12 months to get over doing that work. [This time] I wanted to create work that had joy and warmth and celebrated family. I want it to be genuine in its emotions – while also being quite critical of ideas of aspiration and success, and how we embody our oppressors in some ways.”