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Playwright and Black Comedy star Nakkiah Lui has turned her politically aware upbringing into award-winning writing about Indigenous experience. By Steve Dow.

Playwright Nakkiah Lui on radicalism and family

Nakkiah Lui
Credit: Amelia Dowd

The lawn is neatly trimmed at this double-fronted fibro housing commission home in Mount Druitt, in Sydney’s outer west. Two bushes are in flower, planted when the late Joan Beale, a keen gardener, lived here.

Sitting now in the driver’s seat of her compact car, the motor running, the bespectacled playwright and actor Nakkiah Lui surveys the front yard and thinks about Joan, her maternal grandmother who she called Old Moo and who in turn called her Young Moo.

The Sydney Theatre Company recently described Lui as one of the great, urgent political writers of her generation, but she admits to struggling with social anxiety, despite her strong screen and stage persona. She says her younger sister Lowanna, a figure skater and archaeologist, is the bigger social butterfly.

“I’m extroverted,” Lui says, “but I’m not particularly social, if that makes sense.” Nonetheless, while still in her late 20s, Lui has become an important young female Indigenous voice on television, on the panel shows Q&A and The Drum. She has also created and performed in pointed comedy sketches dealing with race and women’s body image on the ABC series Black Comedy.

Yet she bridles at being pressed by publicists to meet corporate sponsors and private donors. “I don’t know how to talk to rich people,” she says, grappling for a jokey conversation starter: “So, have you tried the Maccas chips and gravy?”

She recalls climbing the spindly tree here near the footpath, and singing, “I’m a little Koori girl, I’m an Aboriginal.” She stayed at her nan Joan’s house a lot while her parents worked full-time. We have just passed a childhood friend’s house a block away, from which she would hear her nan calling her name. Lui still misses her grandmother every day. They were best friends.

“I was a fat kid, right? I was wearing ladies size 18 when I was in year 7,” she says. “This is a woman who would hold up these big bloomers and be like: ‘Are these the ones you want?’ If you lost Nan in a shop, she’d just walk around screaming your name. Like, no shame about her.” When Lui turned 16, Joan would introduce her: “This is my granddaughter Nakkiah, and she’s a virgin.”

Lui’s mother politely declined to make this trip with us from the family home in the neighbouring suburb of St Marys. She is still angry about what happened in this commission house to Lui’s nan.

One day, Joan fell through the floorboards of the home, and suffered a cardiac arrest. Complaints to housing commission authorities about termites had gone unheeded. Lui moved into the home to nurse her nan, who died a few months later.

The experience formed part of Lui’s second full-length play, Kill the Messenger, staged at Belvoir St Theatre in 2015, in which Lui played a version of herself. Joan was an offstage remembered presence in the play, but in the treatment Lui is working on as a feature film,
a version of Joan will become an on-screen character.

In the meantime, Sydney Theatre Company is preparing to stage Lui’s latest work, Black Is the New White, which sees the playwright shifting from tragedy to romantic comedy. It’s centred around a middle-class Indigenous family, a formulation we almost never see on stage or screen.

Sitting with Lui around the coffee table earlier in the family home, a conversation ensued about class, white power structures and definitions of Aboriginality. Lui’s mum, Jenny Beale, and her dad, Jack Gibson, work at the local Butucarbin Aboriginal Corporation, which Beale founded out of the boot of her car to assist at-risk youth and women escaping domestic violence.

Beale recollects taking three-year-old Lui in a pram to her first protest, sparked by the death of a 16-year-old boy, John Pat, killed in a fight with West Australian police in 1983, and whose death came to symbolise injustice against Aboriginal communities including black deaths in custody.

In school, Lui would have to defend herself as an Indigenous Australian: from the Gamillaroi people in New South Wales on her mother’s side, and Torres Strait Islander from the side of her biological father, who has played little part in her life.

During our drive later, Lui talks about the domestic violence her mother escaped. We detour past the aunt’s house where she and her mother lived for a while after Jenny left that marriage. She feels some sympathy for her biological father: she knows he was abused when he was young, and had a Chinese father who refused to acknowledge paternity.

We pass her local primary school, of which she has fond memories, circling past the fence through which friends’ parents would pass sweets from the shopping strip mall. By high school, Lui would hear “Abo” jokes every day.

“What happens is non-Aboriginal people want you if you’re different,” Lui’s mother explained. “If you’re educated, then you must be like them; you must be more white than black. You have to develop a very hard skin.”

Not so hard underneath, it transpires: earlier this year, Lui wrote a piece for Guardian Australia about the suicide of a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl that same week, and revealed much about herself.

“That Aboriginal teen I talk about, the one who saw no space for her in this world, thought about killing herself, every day, multiple times a day,” she wrote. This was raw. “I was made to feel ashamed of who I was.”

 

Nakkiah Lui was two-and-a-half when her mother met Gibson, a primary school teacher from Dubbo. He came to Sydney to obtain an adult education degree, where he met Jenny, who literally had infant Nakkiah by her side, swaddled in sheepskin and passed between students around the room, while studying at the Sydney College of Advanced Education in Haymarket.

Gibson and Beale began teaching Lui from an early age that freedom meant interrogating her world and asking questions.

“I question the Aboriginal community as much as the non-Aboriginal community,” says Lui. “Sometimes that’s hard, like you’re just walking to the beat of your own drum. Sometimes it would be easier to shut up, but I can’t. I learnt early that if you’re going to do something, do it the best that you can … I’m equally as hard on myself, if not harder.”

Beale shows me a black-and-white photograph of two men in military uniforms and slouch hats, framed in the lounge room: her late father, Fred, and his brother, her uncle George. The pair served Australia during World War II, but were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Nakkiah’s grandfather saw his brother die, ripped up the middle of his body by a steelworks conveyor belt, live transfusions failing to stem the blood loss.

Fred was not allowed to bring his sibling’s ashes back to Australia after the war ended. The Australian government not only failed to recognise his service, but Fred was prevented from returning to the Aboriginal mission he had called home, leaving him in no-man’s-land.

When Lui started school, Beale told her daughter that she and Gibson always remained seated for the national anthem because it was “racist and talks [only] about white, mainstream Australia”. But she gave her daughter the choice: it was okay to stand.

“I was so proud,” says Beale. “Her sister followed in the same footsteps: they refused. Nakkiah hasn’t stood up for the national anthem since five years of age.”

Lui, who Gibson once half-jokingly suggested as a teenager might have had undiagnosed attention deficit disorder, would argue with teachers – about history, about Captain Cook “discovering” Australia. She once stormed out of class over an argument about the range of ochre colours.

She would become an avid public speaker and debating team captain, earning a United World Colleges scholarship to matriculate at Lester B. Pearson College in Victoria, Canada, before auditioning for acting school NIDA – “I’m glad I didn’t get in; I was far too vulnerable at that stage” – and then turning to arts/law at the University of NSW.

“I thought I might become a criminal lawyer,” she says, then laughs. “Many of my relatives have been through incarceration.”

She was writing throughout her studies, and for her first, very short play Our Dreaming, Our Awakening in 2006, inveigled her parents to play the roles at Sydney’s Short + Sweet festival. The story was inspired by the death of Indigenous teenager T. J. Hickey in 2004, which sparked the Redfern riot that year.

“What it lacks in theatrical finesse,” wrote Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Lenny Ann Low, in perhaps a tactful assessment of Jenny and Jack’s acting abilities, “is more than balanced by writer Nakkiah Lui’s lucid text.” A writer was born. “My writing’s all about consequence, when it’s at its best,” she says.

Lui has a big year ahead. Her play Blaque Showgirls, a satire of cinematic clichés in dance films, premieres at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in November. She’ll direct a short film in the coming months, and later next year will for the first time direct a play, An Octoroon, for Queensland Theatre, starring her good friend Miranda Tapsell, star of The Sapphires and Love Child.

Comedy performance also remains an interest. She gained a boyfriend, screenwriter and editor Gabriel Dowrick, while making Black Comedy, but some viewers, she says, were offended by seeing an Indigenous woman controlling the narrative in sex scenes. For others, those scenes were revelatory.

Lui explains the background to her new play Black Is the New White, which opens in May.

“I went to a lot of Aboriginal theatre growing up,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of black theatre. This idea of Aboriginality so often is about this not-intellectual, intangible thing, like some cultural force within you, or something that’s from the land. At times, it comes across as performing something rather primal.

“I wanted to put on stage people who were intellectual – you don’t have to be educated to be intellectual by any means – but people who, for them, being Aboriginal is part of their lived experience, part of their family and history, not this idea of cultural being.”

Further, she wanted to know, what happens to an Aboriginal family that has capitalist values?

Whether her family considers itself middle class is open to question. Beale says she still sees herself as working class, despite being educated and the couple owning their own home.

“Environment might shape us as middle class, or whatever,” adds Gibson, “but I also see myself as a person who can think critically, who knows why I’m in this position today. I know how the world works. The poorest of people can understand those power relationships, and that to me is the real person.”

“One of the biggest players in the cycle of oppression is generational wealth,” Lui says. “You just don’t have generational wealth in Aboriginal communities.”

She turns to her parents. “God forbid, touch wood, when you guys pass away, Lowanna and I will have a bit of generational wealth. That’s so different to the fact that, Mum, you grew up in a tent, and Dad, you grew up with a father who’s a drover.

“You both had to get education later in life, with kids, and build that wealth. It’s a change in experience.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 29, 2016 as "Family ties". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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