Nakkiah Lui puts Black Is the New White on show
SMH Spectrum 14 April 2017
Nakkiah Lui takes on Australia’s greatest taboo.
Until recently, Nakkiah Lui was busy preparing for the end of the world as she knew it. She obsessed over stories of doomsday scenarios, featuring natural disasters, terrorist attacks, solar flares, pandemics, an economic collapse or electromagnetic pulse. She studied "prepping" videos on YouTube and considered stockpiling military-issue, ready-to-eat meals, confident in the knowledge that something horrid was headed her way.
An underground bunker for her apartment in Ultimo, in inner-city Sydney, was not part of her plans, though. "We just didn't have the space."
The Indigenous writer, actor and director had a very good 2016 – including a starring role in the second season of ABC TV's Black Comedy. This was proof enough that this year was fated to be very foul indeed. "I am always a bit worried about who is going to die next and who's going to get sick, so I started meddling with the idea of prepping, you know, preparing for an apocalypse," she says.
"Last year was a pretty good year for me, I was really busy with work. I got a weird rash I couldn't explain, but in the scheme of things I had a great 2016. So, I have been thinking, 'Oh my God, I am going to have a really bad 2017.' I am always waiting for something really bad to happen."
Her dog - a chihuahua-Jack Russell named Bruce - has just died of cancer. And then there's this: Lui, 28, has a cold – the toll of a week spent ice-skating for a forthcoming TV series starring her fabulous vagina (more on that later). She snuffles and snuggles into a striped jumper while the sun streams through the windows of the wharf cafe at the Sydney Theatre Company, where she is between rehearsals for her play Black is the New White.
She's also busy adapting her 2015 play Kill the Messenger into a film, along with writing a book of "creative non-fiction" and preparing to direct the satirical race comedy An Octoroon, for Queensland Theatre company. From where I'm sitting, her 2017 looks pretty decent, despite her predictions.
The Gamilaroi and Torres Strait Islander playwright's first commissioned work for the STC opens in May. It is a romantic comedy about a successful black girl who brings home a white no-hoper for Christmas. She's been raised by her parents to excel in every endeavour. He's unemployed and into experimental classical music. It's a "feel good, family rom-com", Lui says.
She recalls first pitching the plot to the STC's then artistic director, Andrew Upton. "He was like, 'So it's like Romeo and Juliet.' And I was like, 'It's more like Meet the Fockers'," she says.
The idea came, in part, from her desire to think about something other than death and destruction. "I wanted to write a play, specifically a black play, that didn't come from a place of oppression or death," she says. "I wanted to create a play that could explore race and politics and modern Australia in a way that was quite warm and joyous, and didn't come from a place of sorrow."
It all sounds suspiciously cheery, especially given the coming apocalypse.
Nakkiah Nellie We'ama Hope Lui was named partly in honour of her grandmother and partly in honour of the American soap opera, Days of Our Lives. "Nakkiah Nellie We'ama" loosely means "special one who is grandmother's daughter".
Meanwhile, her grandfather loved the TV character Hope Brady, a plucky police detective who was once held hostage in a cave and brainwashed into believing that she was the accomplished art thief Princess Gina Von Amberg, only to be then kidnapped in Paris by the real Gina and then fall pregnant, either to husband Bo, mystery man John Black or notorious crime lord Stefano DiMera (spoiler: the bub was Bo's).
"My grandfather insisted my mother call me 'Hope', so I am the only one in my family who has this weird English middle name," Lui says. "My memories of my grandfather are watching soaps with him as a child."
Lui prefers The Real Housewives reality TV franchise, about rich, brash and blow-dried women in white pants the world over. "They are such abrasive, blunt characters. I really like that. I wish I could be as blunt in real life."
She grew up in Mount Druitt, in Sydney's outer west, a short drive from Australia's Wonderland, with her mother, step-father and younger sister. "It was a tight-knit Aboriginal community and, at times, kind of idyllic," she says. "But at the same time, it is a low socioeconomic area, where there is quite a lot of poverty and oppression."
At school, she was sometimes bullied for being an "Abo" and overweight. Once, during the holidays, her mother took her daughters to see Disney on Ice. Soon, Lui was training three times a week at the Blacktown ice rink, alongside her younger sister Lowanna Gibson (who went on to represent Australia in figure skating).
Lui was an obese Aboriginal teen in a leotard, leaping about in time to the Titanic theme song. She shows me an old photograph on her phone and I see a big girl with a big smile, tight tights and tonnes of glitter. Who do you see, I ask. "I see someone who maybe doesn't believe in herself enough," she says, after a long pause.
"I was a weirdo and unabashedly strange, and got teased at school a bit. I wish I had believed that I could do whatever I wanted to do, because I feel that maybe would have saved me some time."
She traces her predilection for doomsday predictions back to her childhood, which was "conventional, calm and stale but surrounded by chaos". "I had family members in and out of jail all the time – there was always something bad that was happening. There were a couple of years there within my family when there was just so much death and feeling so powerless."
She finished high school in Canada, after winning a scholarship to study at the racially diverse United World College. While there, she wrote and performed her first play, titled Proud, about the life of a young urban Aborigine. But on returning home, she was nudged by her parents into studying law. The choice made her depressed and anxious about where her life was leading.
One day in 2008, her then boyfriend physically assaulted her during an argument. She recalls standing in front of the police with a busted lip, bloodied face and bruises, while thinking to herself: "You stupid Aboriginal girl. You are so disappointing to your community."
"It felt shameful that this had happened to me," she says now. "I felt I was nothing. I felt useless. I was very depressed when it happened and it took a long time to rebuild."
Every day, she thought about killing herself. "You do feel worthless some days and you can't explain why," she says. "I think it's really hard just being a person in this world."
Surviving domestic violence helped her find the strength to tell stories about the broader struggles of Indigenous people in Australia. Her 2013 play This Heaven, which she wrote during a playwright residency at Belvoir, is a fierce tale about an Aboriginal death in custody and a family driven to violent protest by the inadequacies of the legal system.
Kill the Messenger features the story of her beloved grandmother Joan, who died after falling through the termite-ridden floor of her home in Aboriginal public housing. Lui played the role of narrator and recalls seeing strange visions of her grandmother in the audience during the show. Joan's preventable death was the outcome of institutional biases that are rooted in the history of Indigenous dispossession, she says.
"I don't think the people telling us they couldn't fix the floor would consider themselves racist, yet somehow race can have a huge consequence in the way we make our decisions," she says. "Racism does not do justice to how complex things are. Sometimes, I think it's people feeling they don't have the ability to actually change things. And I am still figuring out how you address that."
Writing plays has offered her a means of communicating with the world and being heard, she says. But she is quickly emerging as a leading voice on racial equality, across all forms of media.
Her forthright comments on the ABC's Q&A last November, offered a powerful personal perspective on entrenched issues of racism, discrimination and domestic abuse. In March 2016, after a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl committed suicide in remote Western Australia, she wrote in the Guardian about "how incredibly worthless this country can make Aboriginal people feel".
She tells me that it "sucks" to be the bearer of bad news. "But until Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people are equal then I do feel a need to keep bringing it up," she adds. "I hope with my writing and by putting myself in a public space, I am just creating space for people to be able to talk about stuff. Because when we talk about race it is such a taboo, so often we don't want to offend."
Telling such stories can come at a cost for Indigenous creatives. In March, actor Ursula Yovich said she was so distressed by scenes of Aboriginal massacres in The Secret River that she considered quitting her role.
Lui says "rehashing past tragedies" night after night takes its toll. "It can be very cathartic but at same time very emotionally laborious to do that every time," she says. "It gets hard to consistently encounter those things because you have to so often as an Aboriginal performer or creative doing a black work."
Delving into such dark subject matter makes her feel anxious and fatigued. "I found that with all my work as a playwright and so many other works within the black canon, so many plays are about someone dying – and I was very guilty of that as well. That gets really hard as a writer sometimes," she says.
That is one of the reasons she has gradually switched from writing tragedy to comedy. Making people laugh helps bypass their defences and makes them engage with a story, she says.
Last year's Blaque Showgirls – a loose parody of the 1995 film Showgirls – followed a pale-skinned Indigenous teen's dream to join the world's most famous Aboriginal topless dance revue. Her forthcoming ABC comedy series Kiki & Kitty features her in the role of an aspiring ice skater with an anthropomorphic vagina – which she describes as "fabulous and bolshie and passionate and loud and a little bit drunk".
"Sometimes it's easier to examine things with a smile than it is to butcher it and lay it out for an audience," she says.
Dispensing with dark dramas also reflects a pleasant shift in Lui's personal outlook. She's enjoying the short commute into the city from Ultimo but returns to Mount Druitt every fortnight to see her family, not least for a bowl of her mum's bean mix. After careful consideration, she recently chose not to buy a box of "genuine US military surplus meals ready-to-eat" on Amazon – on the assumption that civilisation won't collapse just yet.
"I actually have a lot of faith in society," she says. "I think Aboriginal people already survived an apocalypse of sorts."
She's slowly learning to stop waiting for something bad to happen. "I think maybe writing comedy means that I am in a better place," she says.
"I have kind of built myself back up and thought 'I'm not that stupid Aboriginal girl. I am someone who has a lot of love around me and I am strong. And all those things I thought were off the table as a 19-year-old or 20-year-old, I now get to do that stuff and it kind of blows me away every day."
In Black is the New White, she writes about a wealthy and well-educated Indigenous family with reasonable expectations of taking their seats at tables of influence. "I wanted to subvert what people think Aboriginal people are. We don't really see works about the Aboriginal middle class very often."
Seeing her play on stage at the STC will be a humbling experience, she says. She remembers the first time she could afford to see a show at the theatre – in about 2011 – after catching the train in from Mount Druitt. "It was super intimidating. I didn't know what to wear and I started talking differently, a bit posh," she says.
She ended up wearing black pants and a "strappy top" from a Zimmerman warehouse sale. It was a special occasion, so she also treated herself to an all-body spray tan.
But you're black, I say. "I know," she says. "I'm like a black person who gets spray tans. This is making all my black ancestors very ashamed right now."
Black is the New White is at the Sydney Theatre Company Wharf 1 Theatre from May 5-June 17 2017. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS.
CLICK HERE to read this original article, 14 April 2017 SMH Spectrum