Is there anything Nakkiah Lui can’t do?
The playwright, commentator, actor and director has done more in the five years since her first play than most artists manage in a lifetime. She’s written plays that dig into Australia’s darkest corners with the utmost seriousness and fearlessness. She’s written and appeared in the boundary-smashing Black Comedy. She’s written an Indigenous rom-com. She’s directed the Australian premiere of one of America’s most provocative recent plays about race. She hosted one of last year’s most popular new Australian podcasts. And that’s just the tip of an almighty iceberg.
Now she’s taken the superhero genre – and melded it with the tropes of revenge thrillers and blaxploitation flicks – for a play posing difficult questions about how black and white Australia can move forward, and whether reparations can ever truly be made when we’re all living on stolen land. And she does all this in one of the funniest comedies written for the Australian stage in years.
The hero is Dr Jacqueline Black (Megan Wilding), a young, “mild-mannered” Aboriginal archaeologist who struggles to stand up for herself and is relentlessly bullied by her boss. One day on a dig, she discovers the skull of her great-great grandmother (played in a projection by Elaine Crombie), whose spirit tells her the truth of the massacre that nearly wiped out Jacqueline’s entire family. She transforms Jacqueline into a kickass superhero called Blackie Blackie Brown and sets her on a mission to kill all 400 descendants (all played by Ash Flanders) of the three white men who slaughtered her family.
Several weeks before the play premiered, that basic synopsis attracted the attention of Rupert Murdoch’s news.com.au (definitely not a publication known for its interest in the arts). One of the website’s finance journalists published an article that seemed designed to stoke the outrage of its readers (Nayuka Gorrie argued the article was race-baiting in Guardian Australia) and imply the play was glorifying violence against white people and stirring so-called “anti-white” racism. That’s certainly what many of those who left comments on social media seemed to believe.
Of course, the play is far more complex than any synopsis could suggest, and although Blackie Blackie Brown’s mission starts off easy enough – many of her victims are every bit as racist as their great-great grandparents – she soon encounters some sticky moral dilemmas about the nature of revenge. One particular scene, with a victim who definitely doesn’t deserve to die but wants to do her best to be a good ally, is the funniest few minutes I’ve experienced in a theatre in years.
The laughs rarely let up thanks to killer performances from Megan Wilding and Ash Flanders. In her Sydney Theatre Company debut, Wilding shows extraordinary versatility and skill – one minute she’s dropping a zinger with laser-sharp precision and the next she’s delivering a difficult and dark monologue with great pathos and integrity. She’s the type of leading lady who you’ll follow through a journey of hilarious highs and gut-churning lows. Flanders is an absolute riot in a cavalcade of caricatures – effete KKK members, smarmy politicians and evil corporate henchmen – and he sets the tone of the play perfectly in an opening monologue as a foppish white man who has just returned from a night of “powerful” Indigenous theatre. Yes, the challenges to what will be a predominately white audience start pretty early on in this show.
Declan Greene is the perfect director for this material: his work with Flanders as queer duo Sisters Grimm has always played with genre, and he has a great sense for deeply thorny political comedy. Everything is tightly wound and every reference is on point. He also keeps the tricky technical elements in check – including superb and integral animations by Oh Yeah Wow, and a superhero-worthy soundtrack by Steve Toulmin.
What’s truly astonishing about this play is that while it’s a hugely entertaining genre spoof, it’s also constantly challenging. Just as she did in Kill the Messenger, Lui is poking at Australia’s open wounds and asks everybody to consider what their place is in a country that was founded by an act of theft. Just how complicit are we in the atrocities of the past when the legacy of inequality and violence continues?
And just as in Kill the Messenger, she doesn’t have the answer to every question she poses – instead, like all great playwrights, she untangles the knots for us, lays out what she’s discovered and says: “Well, what do you think about all this? What are you going to do?”
Blackie Blackie Brown is a fictional character and, given her flaws, maybe not quite the superhero Australia needs. But if the work of a superhero is to speak truth to power and challenge the forces that oppress, then Lui is one of the closest figures we’ve got.