Black is the New White

Madeleine Copley | 08/02/2018

Nakkiah Lui's Black is the New White was a sell-out hit in its premiere season; having made its way to Brisbane, it's not difficult to see why.


It is unsurprising that Black is the New White, penned by the woman who has written some of this country's more successful recent comedies, should be funny. The wry sense of humour which suffuses Nakkiah Lui's debut play proves to be both accessible and thought-provoking. Lui draws upon the conventions of the rom-com, which is - as Benjamin Law (QTC's responding artist) notes - perhaps the whitest of all genres to create a sprawling comedy of manners which poses questions about race, class and gender relationships in modern Australia.

The premise of the play is simple: Charlotte Gibson (Shari Sebbens), a successful (if somewhat burnt out) corporate lawyer is engaged to Francis Smith (James Bell). Bell’s performance, expertly capturing his character’s gaucheness when confronted by his articulate and assertive future in-laws, is a good foil for Sebbens’ more serious character. The irony that Francis, an impecunious experimental classical composer, subsists almost entirely on handouts (from his family trust fund) provides the kind of wry satire which is constantly simmering under the surface throughout the play.


If Charlotte is anxious about introducing her white fiancé to her family when they reunite for their first Christmas together in two years, those anxieties pale into comparison against the prospect of introducing the happy couple's parents to one another - not least because the families have already met: Charlotte is the daughter of Ray Gibson (Tony Briggs), a well-known Aboriginal Labor ex-politician whose arch rival happens to be none other than Dennison Smith (Geoff Morrell), Francis' father and former conservative politician.


Whilst their husbands engage in pointless Twitter debates about such worthy topics as the merits of various lettuce varieties, Joan Gibson (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) and Marie Smith (Vanessa Dowling) maintain a politely cordial relationship (and perhaps slightly more than friendly on Marie's side). Both Reynolds-Diarra and Dowling give uproarious performances, engaging well with their characters more humorous quirks, but maintain their credulity. Completing the house party are Rose (Miranda Tapsell), Charlotte's fashion designer sister and her husband, Sonny (Anthony Taufa), who was the first Aboriginal captain of the Wallabies and now works at JPMorgan but harbours dreams of taking time off to become a missionary. Tapsell’s performance is a standout – she manages to be at once brash and vulnerable, drawing sensitively upon Rose’s insecurities in the face of her sister’s formidable intellect and more traditional successes.


From the outset stage is set and throughout the drama, the action paused or analysed by The Narrator (a perhaps neglected and under-used Luke Carroll) who functions as a theatrical version of the novel's omniscient authorial voice, dropping sly hints about the characters' various secrets, disclosing their motivations and foreshadowing events for the audience. Rather than interrupting or distracting from the play, The Narrator helps to give depth to characters who might (at times) seem one-dimensional and assists the cleverly wrought physical comedy of the piece.


The action takes place in the Gibson's beautifully appointed holiday home. Tastefully on-trend (complete with a dinner table that would be the envy of any upper-middle class matriarch and a ubiquitous fiddle leaf fig), the set is extraordinarily well-detailed and is perfectly designed to facilitate the story as it unfolds. Similarly, the costumes provide an insight into the characters' socio-economic circumstances: Sonny looks every inch the off-duty financier, Charlotte's mother would not look out of place shopping at James Street Market on a Thursday morning.


The play is well-written, blending physical humour, clever wordplay and disarming racial based humour. For [white] audience members, Black is the New White is an unsettling exercise in the potency of humour: after Charlotte properly introduces Francis after an impromptu nudie-run, he and Rose have the following exchange:


Rose: So this is the man who has stolen my sister away?


Francis: Just call me the Aborigines Protection Board. I stole your sister … like the Stolen Generation.

On preview night, shocked gasps followed this and some of the other riskier jokes before the audience’s inevitable collapse into paroxysms of laughter, highlighting Lui's confidence and skill as a writer (and the insight brought by Paige Rattray as director). If there are moments at which the dialogue between various members of the Gibson family becomes a touch too didactic or the resolution to the play is a little too drawn out such flaws are forgivable and easily overlooked in light of the play as a whole.