“I wanted to present a family of Aboriginal people that hasn’t been seen before in the Australian canon,” says Nakkiah Lui.
The “rockstar playwright” does just that in her award-winning play Black is the New White, amplifying a contemporary Aboriginal voice rarely heard in mainstream cinema or on the stage.
Regularly billed as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets Meet the Fockers – and based on elements of Lui’s own life – the whip-smart comedy centres on Charlotte (Miranda Tapsell, Top End Wedding), a high-flying lawyer (“the next feminist Indigenous Waleed Aly”, her dad quips) who brings her white, unemployed “experimental composer” fiancé home to meet the family at Christmas – and invites his conservative parents along.
The show debuted with Sydney Theatre Company in 2017, selling out the Wharf Theatre. It then sold out a second season in 2018 at the larger Roslyn Packer Theatre. It’s since toured Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Melbourne, and has been declared compulsory reading by Indigenous academic Marcia Langton. It finally hits Adelaide next month, closing the State Theatre Company’s 2019 season.
“It’s been jaw-dropping,” Lui says of the hype. “I still don’t quite comprehend it … The play has taken on a life of its own.”
The story addresses themes of the Aboriginal middle class, shifting values and duty to community. Lui, a Gamilaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman, wrote the play after clocking the high rates of interracial marriage among Aboriginal people compared with the wider population.
“It got me thinking … what is the relationship between race and love, and class and love – the politics of love, so to speak,” she says. “My sister and I both have white partners, so I thought, ‘What is the effect of this on the family?’”
“I also really like love stories and comedy and Christmas,” she adds.
Lui was single when the work was commissioned, and met her now-husband in the early stages of writing. And yes, the art imitates life. Elements of their relationship – such as “the banter between the characters, and the way in which they understand each other and dote on each other” – are present in the script.
“I’m very lucky I found someone who can ask the difficult questions and tries to find a way to laugh through it,” says Lui. “There’s a line in [the play]: ‘My darling, you’re the silver lining of colonisation’. That was something I said,” she adds, laughing.
Other characters are inspired by members of Lui’s family. “In a way the play is an ode to my family,” she says. “It’s a play that came out of a lot of love. And humour.”
As well as writing and directing, Lui has starred in ABC’s Black Comedy and Kiki and Kitty (about a woman and her anthropomorphic vagina, which she also penned). Earlier this year she staged another play with Sydney Theatre Company – the political satire How to Rule the World – and she’s signed a book deal with Allen & Unwin. When we speak, she’s also developing a TV show about an “Aboriginal doomsday prepper”.
“It’s about a bunch of misfits who are waiting for the end of the world to hopefully create a new one,” says Lui. “I’m trying to talk about race and colonisation … in a way that’s fun and goofy and personal … It’s a weird time in the world. There’s a lot of fear. I wanted to look at that.”
So how would Lui go in the apocalypse?
“I don’t know if I’d want to survive it. I’m not very fit.”
Black is the New White is at the Dunstan Playhouse from November 13 to December 1. Tickets are available now.