Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Black Is The New White

Photo by Prudence Upton
Sydney Theatre Company and Allens present, BLACK IS THE NEW WHITE, by Nakkiah Lui. At Wharf 1, Hickson Rd., Walsh Bay. 10 May - 17 June.

Nakkiah Lui has written two previous texts THIS HEAVEN and KILL THE MESSENGER, for the Belvoir St Theatre - both ending tragically, doused in bubbling political 'anger' - dealing with cultural trauma and death.

For this Sydney Theatre Company (STC) commission Ms Lui tells us in her program conversation: This time, I wanted to write something that didn't come from a place of sorrow or from oppression where the actors would have to rehash that intergenerational trauma all through rehearsals, relive their own experiences of oppression every single day. ... I wanted to write something that was just really warm and fun to write
 [I] "…also wanted to present a family of Aboriginal people that hasn't been seen before in the Australian canon - not just in the theatre, but in any form. That is an Aboriginal family who have money, who are not oppressed but who are culturally quite strong.
I feeI we have seen this territory explored in the 2014 ABC Television series THE GODS OF WHEAT STREET - revealing the Freeburn clan, which had the affectionate title remembrance, for some of us, as 'Black to the Rafters'.

It is Christmas and two Australian families - the Gibsons and the Smiths - are brought together at the luxurious summer house of the Indigenous family. It is the occasion that Charlotte Gibson (Shari Sebbens), a successful lawyer, decides to introduce her white boyfriend, Francis Smith (James Bell), a cash-poor classical musician, to the family. Nearly a throwback to the famous, familiar 1967 GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER scenario then (N.B the synchronistic use of this trope in the American film, GET OUT, now showing in the cinema), with the added complications of Francis' parents also arriving. There is strife, 'shocking' personal revelation, political stances, tears and spills, food fight farce, hugging and 'happy' resolutions all in a recognisable and friendly Romantic-Comedy (Rom-Com) formula.

Ms Lui has spent some recent time working as a co-writer/star for the ABC sketch comedy series BLACK COMEDY. BLACK IS THE NEW WHITE has the feel, for me, of the heritage of that television short form that is being, with this play, extended into a theatre long form, with a striving for an anchoring in the classic rom-com formula, that does not quite have that formula securely battened down, and is overloaded with a lot of 'friendly' but didactic political agenda: inter-racial, inter-family, intergenerational and even modern sexual polyamory 'stuff'. The play/production is quite nice fun but is really rather 'clunky'. The 2015 STC play and production of BATTLE OF WATERLOO had a more convincing surety about how to deliver its politics inside a contemporary Aboriginal family and keep the comedy character and plot formulas driven amicably and dramaturgically smoothly.

One wishes that Director, Paige Rattray, had been able to spend some more time in solving the problem of the acting, that is not always grounded, by all, in a truth of character observation, or of the stakes of the proffered situations. Some characters are truthfully observed and have the right balance of the ridiculousness of it all, some, however are 'burlesqued' caricatures of an 'idea' of the character - playing for the comedy rather than authentic character needs - some are over earnest in the propounding of the political arguments of the play - giving the appearance to be standing on a soap-box to 'educate' the audience - academic then, rather than revealing the human emotional 'need' of the character who feels that they have a 'life and death' want to say this now to secure their happiness and future. George Bernard Shaw and his plays would be an illuminating guide for the Director and the Writer, I reckon.
This stylistic diversity in the acting styles throws emphasis onto the dramaturgically fragile 'marriage' of Ms Lui's grappling with the long form rom-com and her urgent need to speak her politics.

On the other hand, on a very expansive and multi-levelled Set Design, by Renee Mulder (Ms Mulder, also Designed BATTLE OF WATERLOO, for this stage), Ms Rattray, moves her actors around with some dexterity, and solves some of the clumsiness of the exit and entrance for Ms Lui's characters to permit story development/revelation, and provides a plausible integration of an almost redundant narrator figure to permit the provision of necessary exposition when the dramatic action of the play and playwright can not find a way to otherwise deliver it.

The cast, besides Ms Sebbens and Mr Bell, includes Kylie Bracknell (KaarlJilba Karrrdn), Tony Briggs, Luke Carroll, Vanessa Downing (wonderful), Geoff Morrell, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra and Anthony Taufa.

This production has had a good general reception but, for me, as writing and playing, has some problems that more time in development might have solved. I guess you must go see for your self. Ms Lui says she wanted to put a play forward that says " here is a family that is like yours. An Aboriginal family which I think would probably go to the theatre and go to this play." I paid $86 to see this play (matinee) and bought a program that cost $10 - a total of $96. I hope she gets her wish. I know lots of people - families - that as much as they might like to go to the theatre, especially to see this Aboriginal  optimistic rom-com, just do not have the optional cash to do so.

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