I’m not usually one to go for an exaggerated, Tarantino-esque entertainment experience – but after seeing award-winning playwright Nakkiah Lui’s latest play, maybe I just needed it served up with some relatable political discourse. And an Indigenous vigilante superheroine. Oh, and a giant game of assassination whack-a-mole whose targets include Donald Trump, Lena Dunham and Tony Abbott.
In Blackie Blackie Brown: Traditional Owner of Death, which had its world premiere at Sydney Theatre Company last week, we are given generous servings of Lui’s no-holds-barred commentary on a wide range of issues affecting Indigenous peoples: such as racism, disadvantage and intergenerational trauma, delivered in a larger than life show that melds live action, cartoonish animation, video projections and clever prop work. As we’re told from the outset – in no uncertain terms – this is not a play about “reconciliation” or “forgiveness”. Instead, it’s an outrageous comedy about revenge.
At the centre is Dr Jacqueline “Blackie” Black (Megan Wilding), a mild-mannered and curious archaeologist working for a shady company on a site in the outback. Much to the company’s horror, Blackie digs up a skull, which turns out to be that of her great-great-grandmother (Elaine Crombie via video projection).
The spirit of her great-great-grandmother breaks up the high-octane satire to recall her traumatic past in detail: the massacre of her, her children and the rest of her mob by four white men. She then calls on Blackie to carry out revenge, imbuing her with super-powers and a mission to eradicate each of these men’s 400 descendants.
My own ancestors were shackled together and walked off a cliff, so the turn to a serious and painful recollection is jarring and effective. The reality of the hundreds of massacres and the bloodshed that this country was founded on is still very much an unpopular narrative, but it runs like a silent undercurrent through the lands and in the veins of those who carry on the bloodlines. These things don’t just go away. What Lui reimagines on stage effectively elicits the pit of dread in the stomach and the anguish at the knowledge of violence like this – not only for those like me who had it inflicted upon our own people, but also those in the theatre who benefited from it, who co-created and are living in the society we all share today.
Retelling these stories doesn’t change the past but it does help us to remember. There is still a long way to go before Indigenous people will be truly heard and seen, before issues such as deaths in custody, child removal and shocking health statistics are, too, a thing of the past. This contemporary reality is the context in which Blackie Blackie Brown, in all her blue-haired, bomber jacket and Aboriginal flag glory, reckons with the sense of rage that makes you consider an eye for an eye. But ultimately, as the play reveals, that kind of response will leave us all blind.
Elizabeth Gadsby’s clever set design is almost televisual, wrapping in cartoonish animation and live video character projections onto the backdrop of a slanted white floor. Designers Oh Yeah Wow and artist Emily Johnson take us fairly seamlessly from a gentrified apartment to the outback; from scientific headquarters, to an arcade game, to the middle of a kitchen. And thanks to the well-timed comedic versatility of Ash Flanders, we’re joined by a myriad of supporting characters, including a mad scientist, an evil politician and a Ku Klux Klan member.
The scope of the play does travel a little too widely at times; Lui makes valid commentary on concepts as broad as media casting, youth incarceration, political subversion and cultural appropriation, but sometimes these ideas seem a little scattered and rushed. She is strongest when she directs her trademark incisiveness and analysis towards Indigenous issues and politics. Across all the mediums she works in – be it TV sketch comedy, playwriting, or political commentary – she brings a unique voice with a lot to say, which is why it is so crucial.
But her voice is particularly powerful when it’s as accessible as this: insights delivered with comedy and wit, in a script punctuated by laments against older men in lycra, her digital sidekick system ACOON, and giant inflatable “goods” that you’ll have to see for yourself.
On the same night I saw this play, millions were watching the royal wedding, and it was impossible not to reflect on the irony. In her work Lui often seeks to dismantle the predominantly white patriarchal reality which we find ourselves in. One story of love and marriage played out on a screen and showed the ways in which influence can be slow and subtle. On the stage, we got a super-sized version of cartoonish rage against a racist machine.
As stated at the outset, Lui’s play is not about reconciliation or forgiveness; rather, it offers insight to the realities of living within a country where a great disparity still exists, with the volume turned all the way up. Hopefully the right people hear.
• Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death is at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2 Theatre until 30 June