A note from the Playwright
Nakkiah Lui is a writer/actor and Gamillaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman. She was a cowriter and star of ABC's Black Comedy. She has been an artist in residence at Griffin Theatre Company (2013) and was playwright in residence at Belvoir Theatre from 2012 - 2014. In 2012, Nakkiah was the first recipient of The Dreaming Award from The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Arts Board of the Australia Council. The same year, Nakkiah was also the inaugural recipient of the Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright Award. In 2014, Nakkiah was the recipient of the Malcolm Robertson Prize and a Green Room Award for Best Independent Production. Most recently Nakkiah won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award 2018, Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting for Black is the New White. Nakkiah is also a young leader in the Australian Aboriginal community and has contributed to The Guardian and Junkee. She has appeared on "Q&A" and "The Drum" on ABC and is a regular guest and presenter on ABC Local Radio in Sydney. Nakkiah co-hosts the BuzzFeed podcast series, Pretty For An Aboriginal, with Miranda Tapsell. Most recently Nakkiah has appeared as a regular guest on Screen Time on ABC and her latest six-part comedy series, Kiki & Kitty, premiered on ABC Comedy in December 2017.
Pictured: cast of Black is the New White. By Prudence Upton.
What inspired Black is the New White?
Black is the New White started for me as two separate conversations.
First, I had a conversation with a cousin of mine who is this fabulous, gorgeous young Aboriginal woman with her own business. She’s the epitome of an ‘Insta-mummy’. We were having a conversation one day and she started talking about her racial/political beliefs which were kind of akin to black separatism. I thought that was very interesting. I didn’t agree with her but I thought it was a really interesting conversation to be having with someone who is part of a new emerging Aboriginal middle-class, which is another thing I am very interested in. Within my own family, my Mum grew up in a tent and my Dad didn’t even use a proper toilet until he was ten. However, my sister and I are both university educated, we both live in inner-Sydney. Within just two generations in my family, there’s been a shift in those markers of class.
The second part came around the same time, when I looked at census results. Of Aboriginal people who were married, 74% were married to a non-Aboriginal person. I found this really interesting because compared to the United States and the United Kingdom, we don’t actually have high rates of interracial marriage. That statistic might also be inﬂated because people from lower socio-economic backgrounds don’t get married (weddings cost money). But it did intrigue me – who makes up this 74%?
So, I was interested in exploring modern Australia, in particular the Aboriginal community – how we identify ourselves in terms of our racial cultural background and then the intersection of that with class. What is it to be ‘successful’ as an Aboriginal person when you come from a community that is so often politicised? Look at Aboriginal people like Adam Goodes, Nova Peris and Stan Grant who have risen to prominence in their field and become, inadvertently, political.
What then led you to turn it into a romantic comedy?
I really wanted to write something funny and warm. I have had two plays on since 2013 that have been quite intense tragedies. I wanted to create something that was just really warm and fun to write.
And when I’m writing a play, I usually hear the characters in my head. In this case, I had these two characters talking to me: Charlotte Gibson and Francis Smith. So I wrote the first scene, pretty much as it is now, about two lovers who met in London having a moment together before all hell breaks loose. For them, talking about race and class is almost like an aphrodisiac. And I just love a love story.
I also wanted to present a family of Aboriginal people that hasn’t been seen before in the Australian canon – not just in theatre, but in any form. That is, an Aboriginal family who have money, who are not oppressed but who are culturally quite strong. For me, that is quite similar to what I grew up with – a regular family which was political and culturally connected to their community. In the past ten years, my parents have started to become foodies and are into wine – just the idea of seeing Aboriginal people drink on stage in a way that isn’t politicised can become a statement in itself. So I wanted to put that forward – here is a family that is like yours. An Aboriginal family which I think would probably go to the theatre and go see this play.
What I love about theatre is that it’s a living organism. That aliveness is there in performance but it’s also present and powerful in the creation of the work. I wanted to write something for Aboriginal actors that didn’t have death in it. I’m guilty of that myself, most of what I have written has had death. This time, I wanted to write something that didn’t come from a place of sorrow or from oppression where the actors would have to rehash that intergenerational trauma all through rehearsals, relive their own experiences of oppression every single day. This was about something instead that had hope and happiness in it.
You’re an actor as well and you’ve performed in some of your work. Here, the character Charlotte Gibson bears a certain resemblance – after all, your dad’s name is Ray Gibson. Are these characters avatars or are they based on fragments of real people?
I’d say they’re fragments of people. I’m actually terrible at naming characters, so I tend to use names of people who are around me, and who have some kind of connection to that story. I guess for me that must be organic and it’s actually really hard to make a name organic as a writer and it’s just part of the process, but I’ve not really thought of that before.
You would think that Charlotte is probably some kind of representation of me. I do write a lot about young, female lawyers (I studied Law). Having a character like that gives me freedom to write with that critical thinking and questioning that you acquire as a lawyer.
For Charlotte in Black is the New White, a lot of the things she believed about her father have been pulled out from under her and her sense of her identity, her privilege and her family history are challenged. She has to navigate and find out who she wants to be in this world without all of that. And find who she is as an Aboriginal woman with a non-Aboriginal partner. What does that mean for her culturally?
I’m very clear about the themes and the questions I want to address when starting a new work. I think that is probably the strongest representation of my voice. Sometimes it feels incredibly selfish to explore the questions you have about the world in such a public way but if I’m thinking about it, someone else must be too.
There are little traces of me, my family and the people I know in every character. The actors are in it too. If you get the casting right, the actors bring their characters to life in a way that you just want to keep writing for them. It’s actually really hard to stop. I wanted to keep writing dialogue because the characters and the actors were so great to work with.
Ray Gibson has my Dad’s name but is incredibly diﬀerent to my Dad. They probably have the same sense of humour and the same grumpiness but my Dad’s an incredibly humble and intellectual man. The Joan character is named after my Mum and my grandmother and she actually reminds me of my Mum a lot.
While it is a play about race and class and the idea of how a community changes, it’s also very much a story about people who are in ﬂux and have to accept change in their life and, unfortunately, we often seem to do that around Christmas time in front of everyone.
Alongside the examination of class and race there is also a generational gender divide in the play. For the younger generation, the women are very independent. But in the generation above, the women have played support act to their husbands.
Yes, I am very interested in talking about the male privilege that Aboriginal women haven’t been allowed access to. I think there are a lot of Aboriginal women who have done so much, who are the backbone of so many families and communities, who are never positioned as leaders. But I think there’s a new wave of feminism. Within my family, it’s very new. My Mother moved to Sydney when she was 16 to be a Nursing Assistant. She’s very smart but she was told that there’s no point in finishing Year 11 and 12 because she is Aboriginal. So she moved to Sydney to become a Nursing Assistant and then on to become a Nurse and continued her education as an adult. She’s even been nominated for an Australian of the Year Award. To me, she’s a feminist. But she never identified as a
feminist. I do see a lot of older Aboriginal women doing that now, and I don’t think that’s exclusive to the Aboriginal community. I like the idea of women, and especially black women like my Mother, identifying as feminist and taking a very proactive step to politicise their gender identity. To have agency and be political about who they are. It’s already there for a lot of younger Aboriginal women. We definitely have a diﬀerent agency and probably more self-determination in how we make ourselves politically heard than our mothers did.