Books

Nakkiah Lui
Black Is the New White

Nakkiah Lui is one of the country’s funniest, smartest and most deliciously outrageous playwrights. To call her a force of nature is less accurate than saying she is a one-woman cyclone. Her work – including her scripts for TV and her podcast Pretty for an Aboriginal – rips through this country’s cultural landscape, tearing down deadwood structures, pitching sacred cows into the air and laying bare a landscape that is scarred by its colonial history and strewn with the bones of massacre. And still, she makes you laugh. Even her 2018 play Blackie Blackie Brown, whose Aboriginal anthropologist protagonist literally digs up some of those bones, is as hilarious as it is provocative.

In Black Is the New White, which premiered in Sydney in 2017 and is published here as a script, Charlotte, a young Aboriginal solicitor, throws the cosy world of her middle-class family into moral and literal chaos when she brings her hitherto-secret white fiancé, Francis, and his parents, home for Christmas. Think Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but in reverse, and without any of that American earnestness. Francis, who is nothing like the suave, capable doctor played by Sidney Poitier in the 1967 film, is sweet but awkward and a probably unemployable musician. Worse, his establishment father is the long-time political enemy and Twitter foe of Charlotte’s dad, a retired Labor Party MP who fancies himself the Aboriginal Martin Luther King Jr. Francis doesn’t help his own cause when Charlotte’s sister Rose remarks, “So this is the man who has stolen my sister away?” and he jokes, “Just call me the Aboriginal Protection Board.” He makes it worse by explaining: “Like I stole … your sister … like the Stolen Generations.”

Lui has a marvellous talent for making audiences squirm and roar with laughter at the same time. No one gets a free pass, whatever their skin colour, and the play asks pointed questions about the construction of identity around race, if it ignores the issue of class. This thinking woman’s rom-com delivers whip-smart dialogue alongside food fights and cringe-worthy renditions of “Ebony and Ivory” before rolling round to its inevitably happy conclusion.

In her foreword, Lui states: “I think laughter is the heart opening the door, and the more we can laugh, the more open and bigger our hearts get.” One of the pleasures of reading a play such as this is the opportunity to catch up on all the lines you missed at the theatre from laughing too hard.

Linda Jaivin

Allen & Unwin, 208pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 9, 2019 as "Nakkiah Lui, Black Is the New White". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Linda Jaivin