Nakkiah Lui’s Kill the Messenger is a play that offers no answers because there are no answers. Or at least, none easy enough to be expressed, or even explored, in one night of theatre. This is the basic caveat she gives her audience at the beginning of the play — that, in many ways, it’s an unfinished play about two deaths and the lives surrounding them.
Lui began writing a play about a young Aboriginal man she didn’t know, Paul (Lasarus Ratuere), who went seeking help in a western Sydney hospital one night for severe pain. When he arrived and asked for help, he wasn’t given the treatment he needed (or at least not quickly enough) — his history of drug abuse and the fact that he was Aboriginal were clearly determining factors for the medical staff, who were used to addicts coming in, seeking drugs. Later that night, Paul went to a local park and killed himself. It was later discovered that he had advanced cancer and would have been in intense pain.
While she was writing the play, Lui’s own grandmother also died. After a year of consistently seeking repairs for severe termite damage to her public housing home, she fell through the floor (as Lui suspected she would), was badly injured, and died three months later. It was the responsibility of the Department of Housing to repair the house, but due to a decades-old agreement, houses allocated to Aboriginal residents fell to the bottom of the list, even when they were clearly urgent.
Kill the Messenger tells both those stories, as well as Lui’s own struggle to work out what to do with those stories and what she wants to say with her theatre — all these elements intersect in the brilliantly scrappy script. After agonising over the play’s purpose and its place, Lui comes to the conclusion that all there is for her to do is to tell the story. To put it out into the world and let her audience know what happened, even if we can’t entirely grasp how or why it happened.
Despite the sheer weight of the material, Lui manages to find a levity in the work, assisted by director Anthea Williams’ simple, energetic production, and expertly balances tragedy with her knack for comedy. Lui’s first scene on stage is an awkward and funny sex scene with her boyfriend, Peter (Sam O’Sullivan). She tells the audience afterwards that she assumed Miranda Tapsell would be playing her when she wrote the scene, and that she never would have written it if she had known she would be acting it out herself.
But thank goodness Lui was cast as herself (a role for which she had to audition). It’s her story, and it’s far more affecting to hear it straight from her than it would be from a more experienced, technical actor. It’s also allowed Lui, who is a magnetic storyteller, to include longer slabs of monologue where she simply addresses the audience and fills in narrative gaps.
She’s well-supported by the entire cast, particularly relative newcomer Lasarus Ratuere as Paul. His interpretation of the role is warm and powerful, never allowing his clear frustration to boil over, and his comedic timing is exemplary. Katie Beckett’s performance as Paul’s sister Harley is heartbreaking and full of regret, and Sam O’Sullivan is the perfect sounding board for Lui’s ideas. Matthew Backer manages to engender sympathy as a long-suffering nurse, desperate to shift the blame of Paul’s death away from him.
Lui explores the relationship between white audiences and black theatre in Australia. Do white audiences go to better understand black lives? Is it poverty and conflict porn? A way to assuage white guilt? What are they actually paying for? The publicity material for Kill the Messenger calls the play a “game-changer for black theatre”. That may be over-selling it, but Lui does turn the focus on the audience-artist relationship in a new and intriguing way. She could afford to delve a little deeper in that exploration.
A bizarre and invasive piece published in Quadrant in 2013 questioning Lui’s ”authenticity” following the premiere of her first play, This Heaven, had clearly been on Lui’s mind when writing the play. And understandably so – the article questioned the very core of the stories she chooses to tell as a black woman. I can’t imagine anybody could question Lui’s “authenticity” (“whatever the fuck that is”) this time around. Her grandmother tragically died because of institutional racism. These stories, which have touched Lui’s life, are all too familiar, and it’s absolutely her right to tell them, even if some commentators would be more comfortable hearing the story of the successful, young, middle class, black playwright who made the most of the opportunities that came her way — even if there are commentators who believe tales of black oppression are “clichéd”. There are reasons why.