Shari Sebbens stars in Nakkiah Lui’s comedic contemporary Australian answer to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Read our interview with Nakkiah Lui about Black is the New White.
You’re meeting your new fiancé’s family for the first time. What’s the worst thing that could go wrong? Having them stumble across you stark naked.
In Black is the New White, the laugh-out-loud new offering by Sydney Theatre Company, Nakkiah Lui takes the ‘dysfunctional family Christmas comedy’ and gives it a further, ball-crunching twist. Charlotte Gibson is a successful Aboriginal lawyer from a wealthy family; her fiancé Francis Smith is a white musician whose experimental classical compositions don’t bring in an income. When he comes back to her family’s holiday home to meet the Gibsons – who are like royalty within their community – for Christmas, Francis is exposed in more ways than one.
With the likes of the ABC’s Black Comedy and Malthouse Theatre’s Blak Cabaret and Blaque Showgirls, Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander Lui has built a career on offering up sometimes uncomfortable truths about race and gender relations in Australia, through humour. Her previous full-length play in Sydney, 2015’s Kill the Messenger, was a frank look at institutional racism that nevertheless included comedic elements within its arsenal. With Black is the New White, Lui is back at the firmly comic end of the spectrum.
The play was conceived, in part, through Lui’s own experiences as a university-educated, inner-city dwelling law graduate. Smarting that only one depiction of Indigenous Australia ever seemed to grace the nation’s stages and screens – that of suffering and disadvantage – Lui wanted to show a different, but just as valid, Aboriginality: the upper-middle class.
As a framework, the festive-season family dramedy is a perfect fit for her subject matter, in this case spiced up by the Narrator (a cheeky Luke Carroll), who adds a sprinkle of magic. Yes, there is nudity, confusions, squabbling, break-ups (and make-ups), and the requisite Big Reveal. But what sets Black is the New White apart is Lui’s ability to weave pressing conversations about privilege, race, gender and class into the narrative without ever losing sense of her characters or labouring the point.
The action centres on a series of conflicts – between husband and wife, siblings, and in-laws – recognisable to anyone who has ever had a family. There’s Ray Gibson (a brilliant Tony Briggs), who sees himself as an Aboriginal Martin Luther King, albeit one who likes golf, Twitter, and a quality merlot. His long-suffering wife, Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra), puts up with his inflated ego and somewhat childish tantrums whilst running the household near single-handedly and (unbeknownst to anyone else) writing his speeches.
Then there’s Ray and Joan’s daughters, fashion designer Rose (Kylie Bracknell) and lawyer Charlotte (Shari Sebbens), who have different versions of black pride. Whilst Rose insists that one must marry into the community to produce “beautiful black babies”, Charlotte wants to change the nature of the national conversation by completing a PhD in cultural studies at Columbia. Her decision to wed Francis, who is not only white but is in no way a provider, runs against the expectations for upwardly mobile women from oppressed minorities.
Other characters join in, including Rose’s sweet but goofy football-playing celebrity husband, Sonny (Anthony Taufa), and Francis’s parents, Dennison (Geoff Morrell) and Marie (Vanessa Downing). Dennison, a retired conservative politician, is a wonderful foil to Ray, his long-term enemy. A dance-off – revealing the childishness of the two grand patriarchs – is particularly funny.
But, despite confident direction by Paige Rattray, Black is the New White fizzles in the second half. Not only is it overly long, but a slushy, sentimental ending takes the play from clever spoof to silly. What’s more, the leads lack the pathos to make the play’s central relationship – that of Charlotte and Francis – the kind deserving of a Hallmark ending. Sebbens is not quite sympathetic enough as a crusading lawyer (often coming across brattish and ungrateful) and her fiancé is played so wet by James Bell I feared you might have to scrape him off the stage floor.
Still, Black is the New White, with some tweaking, has vast potential. And in a production with this much heart and joy at its core, it’s hard not to come away feeling good. When the Narrator encourages the audience to join in a Christmas song – despite it being May in Sydney – not many could help but clap along.