How much has Australia changed since the ’80s? How has schooling become more inclusive since the grungy ’90s? When Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre approached Maxine Beneba Clarke, author of award-winning 2016 memoir The Hate Race, to adapt her story for a contemporary theatre audience, these became interesting considerations.

“I realised that a lot of the atmosphere for the memoir does come from those ’80s Australian memories,” Clarke tells Broadsheet. “Like John Farnham playing on the neighbour’s radio late at night or listening to the theme song for your favourite cooking show – which is really cringe-worthy Australiana.

“The task was: how do we select? You know, what are the crucial moments? How do we tell the story of essentially being slowly eroded by racism – but also the story of Australia in the ’80s and ’90s, and all the pop culture and all of the ridiculousness of those times?”

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It seems a tall order, but Clarke may just have achieved it with her first adaption for the theatre. Before the final touches were even finalised, The Hate Race had become one of the hottest tickets in town. Judging by the standing ovation at a recent performance, it’s clear that Clarke’s memoir – which tells her story of growing up Black in late 20th-century outer Sydney – has hit a nerve.

Since then, we’ve seen four- and five-star reviews waxing lyrical about Zahra Newman’s one-woman powerhouse performance; Kuda Mapeza’s subtle atmospheric support (via both live music and small but meaningful interactions with Newman on stage); and Clarke’s choice not to attempt to deliver the entire novel, but rather hand-pick meaningful interactions that punctuate its important subtext of belonging. Or, maybe more accurately, who gets to tell that story of belonging – and how.

“I think one thing I started to realise was, maybe instead of trying to write a traditional play, which was my first inclination … that even though [a one-woman play] is a less traditional way to have it … it was true to memoir, this idea that someone, one person, is telling the story of a life,” says Clarke, who is of Afro-Caribbean descent.

“[Then] there’s this reframing of this reference to the West Indian way of telling stories, you know, this idea of ‘Gather around, I’m telling you the story, I’m deliberately hamming up the funny bits’. And I guess the idea was [acknowledging] that there is a storytelling tradition The Hate Race sits within.”

Clarke’s interpretation for stage centres around that West Indian storytelling tradition, harnessing Newman’s deft ability to transverse five different accents, as she embodies an entire cast of characters solo on stage. It’s exactly the kind of juicy part any actor would revel in – but for Clarke, it also represented an important opportunity.

“I’m someone who grew up with a mother as an actor, and the idea [was to create] a show that, potentially, multiple African diaspora women can tour or can play over the next few years – fingers crossed. That really appealed to me, you know: the idea of creating a work that really could showcase what somebody can do and what they’re capable of.

“I think there was just something about one body on a stage telling a truth. Yeah, that is powerful.”

The Hate Race plays at the Malthouse Theatre until March 17.

malthousetheatre.com.au