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Review/Theatre

Building bridges with laughter

15 September 2019

Review: Black Swan presents Sydney Theatre Company, Black is the New White ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, 14 September ·
Review by Jan Hallam ·

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Before the start of the opening night performance of Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White, directed by Paige Rattray, actors Tony Briggs and Kylie Bracknell (Kaarlijilba Kaardn) paid a moving tribute to Ningali Lawford-Wolf, a Wangkatjunka woman of the far-north Kimberley and all-round great actor and person.

She passed away in Edinburgh while touring with The Secret River for Sydney Theatre Company – a terrific play she helped develop from Kate Grenville’s powerful novel.

Ningali Lawford-Wolf touched many lives, not least the many thousands who saw her perform but with whom she never met, this reviewer being one of them.

How is this relevant to Lui’s fast, furious and funny discourse on race, class, politics, love and the perils of Christmas?

In the simple injunction of Briggs – to feel free to laugh often and loudly, just like Ningali, and the opening night audience took him at his word.

There is a lot of playful fun watching as young successful lawyer Charlotte Gibson (Miranda Tapsell) tries to clear a path through her family’s (mostly her father, Roy’s) expectations that she become a crusading Aboriginal leader – playing a strong second fiddle to him, of course, and his vision of himself as the Australian Martin Luther King.

Miranda Tapsell as Charlotte and Tom Stokes as Francis. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.
Miranda Tapsell as Charlotte and Tom Stokes as Francis. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

The way is especially fraught because the love of her life, Francis (Tom Stokes), is an unemployed experimental musician, who happens to be white, and not just musician white, but the son of Roy’s sworn political enemy, the arch conservative Dennison Smith (Geoff Morrell). Briggs is masterful in the role.

Chuck in the tensions between and within each set of parents – special mention of Melodie Reynolds-Diarra as Charlotte’s mum, Joan, and Vanessa Downing as Fran’s mother, Marie, who together managed to add such a classy and sassy layer of sharp-witted feminism into the already heady brew – and the audience is working double time to keep pace.

Oh, and did I mention Charlotte’s sister, Rose? Bracknell plays this glorious character – the fashionista WAG of the first Aboriginal captain of the Wallabies, the god-fearing, sweet-natured Sonny (Anthony Taufa).

Rose has a head for business and a nose for the good life but she also has deeply held views about keeping the family black and making a lot of black babies to reclaim Australia. The twist there is she doesn’t want to stop taking the Pill.

Like the ancient classics, Lui adds a touch of the Greek Chorus with narrator Luke Carroll watching over proceedings, offering a missing lighter for the cheeky spliff here and there, and some context to help the audience to keep pace… and busting some pretty neat dance moves.

And like all great comedies there is a solid trail of ideologies on display, ripe for challenging ill-begat stereotypes and cultural tropes.

But perhaps more importantly, certainly felt from this angle, Lui also wants her audience to be free to engage with the painful and complex aftermath of the Stolen Generation, the deeps cracks caused by past and present colonialism and social and political disenfranchisement of not only Aboriginal people but any one who plays differently in the playground of current Australia.

It is a powerful and sturdy bridge she builds.

Black is the New White plays the State Theatre Centre of WA until September 22.

Pictured top: Luke Carrol, Tony Briggs and Melodie Reynolds-Diarra. Photo: Prudence Upton.

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Author —
Jan Hallam

Jan Hallam has been watching theatre for a living for the past 30 years. Working for both The West Australian and The Sunday Times, she has been lucky to have experienced just how diverse and talented the Perth arts scene is. When she’s not sitting in the dark, she’s staring at the light of a computer screen as editor and journalist. She’s the queen of the sandpit castle.

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