Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Black is the New White review (The Wharf, Sydney Theatre Company)

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How often do we see affluent, well-connected Aboriginal characters dressed in Prada? How often do we see Aboriginal characters at the core of romantic comedies?

And how often do we see Aboriginal characters drinking expensive wine on stage in the absence of some broad, general comment on Indigenous alcohol consumption?

Nakkiah Lui’s new play, Black is the New White features everything mentioned above, and is as sweet and plummy as a Christmas pudding.

Depending on how you view it, it’s either a deeply political work, challenging the dominant narratives of Indigenous Australians on stage and screen, and an exploration of the diversity of Indigenous experiences, or it’s a piece of light entertainment with cultural and racial politics thrown in as an after-dinner sweet. Or perhaps it’s both.

Charlotte Gibson (Shari Sebbens) is a young Aboriginal lawyer and daughter of a notable Aboriginal activist and politician Ray (Tony Briggs). Ray and his shrewdly intelligent wife Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) have become very successful over the course of their lives and are now living the upper-middle class dream in relative luxury.

“Can this Christmassy interracial rom-com feel just as light as a whitebread rom-com?”

Charlotte is due to meet her family for Christmas at their beautiful holiday home, built on their native land, but has a bombshell to drop — she’s planning on marrying her white boyfriend Francis Smith (James Bell).

Francis’s family is also coming along to Christmas lunch to meet the Gibsons for the first time. But it turns out Francis’s father, Dennison (Geoff Morrell) is staunchly conservative on matters of race, and one of Ray’s former political opponents.

I don’t want to reveal more than that here, but there are plenty of narrative threads weaving together as Charlotte and Francis attempt to bring their families together and weather the storm their relationship causes.

Lui leans heavily on rom-com tropes, and tropes from dinner party comedies, and there’s a comforting predictability running through the entire play. There are lots of genuinely great laughs and a gentle subversion at play in every moment, keeping the audience well on side for the full length of the play.

Lui is constantly exploring just how neatly these black characters can fit into these whiter-than-white dramatic and comedic forms. Can this Christmassy interracial rom-com feel just as light as a whitebread rom-com? Will it be depoliticised like the vast, vast majority of rom-coms? Or does populating the play with black people, whose lives are politicised in various ways, fundamentally change the form?

Asking those questions probably makes the play sound heavier and more earnest than it really is. Even if those are the questions driving the work, it’s a wonderfully fun, crowd-pleasing experience — there are big and small laugh-out-loud moments, food fights, music, and wonderful physical comedy.

There are a couple of bumps and clunks in the writing, and although the Gibsons and Smiths are wonderful families to spend a couple of hours with, the play is a little longer than it needs to be. Some of the dialogue doesn’t ring as true as you might hope, particularly when the characters are required to state their political positions. It can all feel a little affected and expositional when characters baldly explain their outlook to fellow family members.

But there are more than a few prominent and successful white Australian playwrights who are just as guilty of substituting explicit debate for drama. At least Lui is forging into a genuinely unexplored social and political space by appropriating this form.

“One of the great highlights is the rivalry between the two fathers, played brilliantly by Tony Briggs and Geoff Morrell.”

Director Paige Rattray and her loveable, hard-working cast of nine manage to overcome some of these slightly awkward moments by injecting the characters with plenty of good humour and heart. The relationships between all of the characters are expertly drawn.

Some of the blocking doesn’t quite work on designer Renee Mulder’s large, luxurious and genuinely beautiful approximation of the Gibson family’s holiday home, particularly when there are characters watching a scene from the peripheries. But that doesn’t stop us from getting a great feel for what this setting is and what it says about the characters within it.

One of the great highlights is the rivalry between the two fathers, played brilliantly by Tony Briggs and Geoff Morrell. There’s a real sense that these two have been at each others’ throats for decades and have settled into a constant state of feuding that’s long since become truly ridiculous (for example, their bitter debate over whether rocket or iceberg is the superior green).

Melodie Reynolds-Diarra is the heart of the play as Joan — a character with so much generosity and goodwill towards her family and community, you just want to hug her — while Vanessa Downing has one of the funniest turns as Francis’s mother Marie.

Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljliba Kaardn) and Anthony Taufa are similarly funny as Charlotte’s sister and brother-in-law, Shari Sebbens and James Bell are believable and warm as the young couple at the centre of the madness, while Luke Carroll is a charismatic guide as the narrator.

Music is an important part of this production, with composer and sound designer Steve Toulmin tracing the shape of this narrative with great sensitivity and a sense of joy.

And what would this kind of play be without a healthy splash of joy? It is Christmas, after all.

[box]Black is the New White is at Wharf 1 Theatre until June 17.

Featured image by Prudence Upton[/box]

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