In Nakkiah Lui’s gut splittingly hilarious Indigenous Black is the New White, Ray Gibson (Tony Briggs), a Noel Pearson-esque former politician pleads to his successful lawyer and media commentator daughter Charlotte (Miranda Tapsell), by saying “you’re an Aboriginal person with a platform, do you know how rare that is?”
While billed as a romantic comedy, the Green Room Award winning playwright and sketch comedy star’s work does not meet the Oxford Dictionary definition of rom-com, which is described as “a general term for comedies that deal mainly with the follies and misunderstandings of young lovers, in a light‐hearted and happily concluded manner which usually avoids serious satire”.
While Black is the New White does conclude happily and is concerned with the travails of two star-crossed lovers, Charlotte and Francis, the trust fund baby of a Kevin Andrews/Fraser Anning-style conservative politician (Geoff Morell), the satire in this play is deadly, in both senses of the word.
By adopting a popular Western narrative, Lui has been able to expose capacity audiences of predominately white, middle-aged and middle-to-upper class people to themes of race politics, including the Stolen Generation, deaths in custody, white privilege and cultural appropriation, while simultaneously sending them home happy and, hopefully, educated. Beneath it all, though, lies a nagging question: can an Indigenous person in Australia only ascend to a platform by assimilating to the prevailing colonial culture, a culture that prioritises individual wealth accumulation and career success over community and connection, and if that is the case, does speaking from that platform facilitate a “cultural genocide”?
The setting for Black is the New White, like the genre, is familiar and white; a family Christmas gathering in which Charlotte’s parents meet Francis’ for the first time. The Gibson family, like a traditional Anglo-Saxon Australian family, reunites during the festive season after spending years apart to share expensive gifts purchased with income earned in successful establishment careers; Charlotte’s sister Rose, played by Tuuli Narkle, is a fashion designer in the mould of Kim Kardashian, and is married to Sonny (Anthony Taufa), a retired rugby start turned merchant banker reminiscent of Israel Folau.
The notion of Christmas, of family and relations only seeing each other once annually, is fundamentally contrary to traditional Indigenous notions of community and connection. That love and status be conditional upon how much an individual earns, how much they possess, is similarly foreign.
When your culture has been systematically dismantled for over 200 years by an occupying population, though, are the only options either to remain oppressed and impoverished or to become “coconuts”: black on the outside, white on the inside? Or is there a third way; to challenge, from a position of strength and self-determination, the imported and imposed individualistic cultural and economic system that chains husbands to wives and workers to jobs.
The time is ripe, perhaps more than ever before, for the assertion that the system that was brought to this land we call Australia, the system that has pillaged the natural treasures and left its inhabitants isolated and unhappy, does not belong here, or anywhere. Black is the New White is a rare and compelling work told by a fine ensemble of talent who undeniably deserve to stand upon their platform, the State Theatre stage.