Guy Simon has plenty to say about Jacky, in the hopes that it will help others do the same. “I want to provoke a conversation. The cost of living, your moral values, views on sex work or the idea of what a Blackfella living in the city is. And in living in the city, what have you lost? Moral, emotional, cultural currency. What are you spending it on?”

Debuting with Melbourne Theatre Company as part of this year's Rising Festival, Jacky is a story of performance: the performing of identity, culture, queerness, professional and family roles – and what happens when these personas and worlds collide.

The new play by Aboriginal playwright Declan Furber Gillick tackles challenging, provocative subject matter around contemporary, urban Indigenous experiences – tempered by touches of levity and wit. Proud Biripi Worimi man Guy Simon, who plays the role of Jacky, says humour is essential to striking the storytelling balance.

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“If you’re going to go to a really dark place, there also has to be a buoyancy in it,” Simon says.
“Especially with Blackfellas, we always find some sort of humour in the darkness. In the heart of tragedy, you always need that buoyancy.”

The story of Jacky is stripped back, with three settings and four performers, but it’s a thematically dense work. “Jacky’s a young Indigenous man who’s living in Melbourne. He’s a sex worker and he’s looking at buying his own place and setting up his life,” Simon says. “His brother [Keith] is getting into a bit of trouble up home and his mum and his sister send him down to live with Jacky for a bit and get on the right path ¬… so Jacky’s old life and new life clash.”

The play’s production was hit with Covid delays back in 2021, but Simon felt he’d now “grown up” enough to tackle Jacky. “I was sinking my teeth into deeper roles and wanted something a bit more challenging,” he says. “Now at the ripe old age of 36, I’m wanting to play strong Indigenous men who are making boss moves and are sexy.”

It’s part of an exciting movement in theatre, film and television towards representing a wider breadth of Indigenous experience, giving actors the opportunity to take on empowering roles and reflecting their own identities. "I’ve got so many friends, colleagues and brothers. We move through the world confidently, dress well … then we’d go on stage and screen, and the people that we are aren’t necessarily the people that we play. It does feel like it’s starting to change."

Although Simon is a queer man, Jacky's own queerness is mostly expressed with his client as a sex worker, and Simon is mindful of the responsibility of representation. “It’s definitely a really foreign area for me,” Simon says. “[For] queer Blackfella sex workers, there isn’t much representation out there. I’ve spoken to a lot of people, sex workers and queer Indigenous sex workers, and they feel really grateful they’re getting a voice.”

The dynamic between the brothers Jacky and Keith (played by Ngali Shaw) is a driving force of the play’s drama, and Simon and Shaw found a natural flow from the outset. “We had the same young language, we can banter back and forwards and he just feels like a young cousin or brother already,” Simon says. “I have 20,000 younger cousins or friends who are exactly like Keith, so it didn’t feel much of a stretch. And with Ngali he’s got a really good sense of humour, super friendly, and even though he’s a young actor he’s really fearless. It's fun to go toe-to-toe with the up-and-coming generation.”

Simon jumps between different states of being and personas as Jacky. Like his previous work with Melbourne Theatre Company in Jasper Jones, it’s an emotionally taxing performance. “It’s almost a style of endurance theatre; I don’t leave the stage at all and my brain is going from this scene to that scene, from this deep situation to light situation and it’s an emotional mindfuck,” he says. “When you’re out there in the world, you don’t necessarily think about the code-switching, you just do it, and this is so technical. It’s really challenging.”

For Simon, Jacky is also an opportunity to leave a legacy for Indigenous performers, and he hopes the role will live on as part of the growing wave of Indigenous-led stories in popular media. “Having Uncle Jack Charles pass away last year, I’m just thinking about his legacy and what I, as a young Indigenous artist, am leaving behind,” Simon says. “[Jacky is] this legacy of a really complex character of an Indigenous man who’s sexy and taking control. Especially now, seeing the roles Deb Mailman’s playing, and Rob Collins and Mark Coles Smith. Indigenous people leading unapologetically, that’s the landscape that’s starting to shift and it’s exciting. We all definitely want more of it.”

Jacky is on at the Arts Centre Melbourne until Saturday 24 June. Tickets on sale now

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Melbourne Theatre Company.