Nakkiah Lui is the ultimate slashie – actor, playwright, screenwriter, theatre director, columnist, TV panellist, radio host, soon-to-be published author and popular social media consumer. A quick glance at her Instagram account would suggest this super successful Sydneysider doesn’t have a care in the world: stylish shots of Lui dressed in Romance was Born on the Logies red carpet; and glamorous selfies with her trademark cherry red pout and generous cleavage.
It would be easy to assume Lui is blessed – Radio National once said of her: “If there is such a thing as a rockstar playwright, Nakkiah Lui is it” – but the 29-year-old is quick to point out all is not right within her world nor that of her Indigenous community.
As one of only a handful of female Indigenous stage or screenwriters, Lui feels keenly the responsibility to address the many issues that still affect her people, from dire health and life expectancy statistics to gender stereotyping and general inequality.
And what better way to do that than through comedy? The Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander’s mainstage work, Black is the New White is an hilarious contemporary story about two young successful middle class Aboriginal sisters – a lawyer and fashion designer – whose parents are taken aback when one of them brings home a drifting no-hoper boyfriend who just happens to be white.
“I’m really lucky that throughout my career I’ve had theatre companies ask me what I want to write,” Lui says. “Even with [sketch comedy show] Black Comedy, the liberal white male who was then-head of television at the ABC said, ‘Write about whatever you want, offend me.’”
Previous plays Lui has done for Belvoir have included This Heaven, about an Aboriginal death in custody, and Kill the Messenger, which was sparked by the death of her beloved grandmother who was fatally injured after falling through a termite-ridden housing commission flat floor. It was not a comfortable night in the theatre, but audiences were left in no doubt about the appalling inequalities that exist for Indigenous Australians.
Black is the New White premiered last May and was so successful, Sydney Theatre Company is bringing it back for a return season in the larger Roslyn Packer Theatre. In the play Lui addresses themes of the new Aboriginal middle class, changing values and even bigger questions of what it means to be Aboriginal in today’s world. While love – in particular, colour-blind love – is one of the play’s central themes, Lui says the play is more Meet the Fockers than Romeo + Juliet.
“My grandmother always said to me, ‘What can you do if you can’t laugh?’ and as a tool you can get away with so much just by having a laugh. It’s also a really great way to tackle issues. … As a person who writes about things that are really quite tragic it’s sometimes easier to do that through comedy.”
Lui made her directorial debut last September with An Octoroon for Queensland Theatre, which was described as an “excoriating comedy”. The title, a politically incorrect term that refers to a person whose ancestry is one-eighth black, is thankfully obsolete today. The same cannot be said of the racism the play tackles so effectively.
Veering in a completely different direction, Lui’s 2017 six-part comedy for ABC iview, Kiki & Kitty, detailed her relationship with her anthropomorphic vagina named Kitty (naturally). “Kitty is boisterous and compulsive and wears sequins and is always a little bit drunk on dirty martinis and they go on adventures together. It sounds like a filthy idea but it’s actually whacky and charming,” Lui says.
A regular guest and presenter on ABC Local Radio in Sydney, Lui also co-hosted the BuzzFeed podcast series Pretty For An Aboriginal with regular collaborator Miranda Tapsell (who starred in An Octoroon) featuring guests such as Orange is the New Black’s Yael Stone and rapper and TV writer Adam Briggs. (Lui and Tapsell will record an episode of Pretty For An Aboriginal live in March at the Sydney Opera House as part of the All About Women festival).
For the return Sydney and Wollongong seasons of Black is the New White, Tapsell joins the cast as fashion designer Rose; replaced by Lui herself for the Parramatta and Canberra tour.
The Sydney Theatre Company production Black is the New White is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from February 28 to March 10.
Nakkiah Lui and Miranda Tapsell record Pretty for an Aboriginal live as part of All About Women at the Sydney Opera House on March 4.
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