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 personality. A quick glance at her Instagram account suggests this super-successful Sydney-sider 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.
But the 28-year-old is quick to point out all is not right within her world and 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 Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander’s next mainstage work, Black is the New White for Sydney Theatre Company, is a hilarious 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 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 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 for Belvoir have included This Heaven about an Aboriginal death in custody and Kill the Messenger (being adapted to a feature film), sparked by the death of her beloved grandmother who was fatally injured after falling through her termite-ridden housing commission flat floor.
With Black is the New White Lui addresses themes of the new Aboriginal middle class, changing values and what it means to be Aboriginal in 2017. Lui says it’s 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. There’s a subversion in comedy, and as a person who writes about things that are really quite tragic it’s sometimes easier to do that through comedy.”
Comedy is a tool Lui frequently employs to introduce unpalatable issues. She is about to make her directorial debut with An Octoroon, a satirical race comedy for Queensland Theatre Company starring Miranda Tapsell; while her first book, a collection of non-fiction stories, will be published later this year by Allen & Unwin. The title I Should Have Told You Before We Made Love That I’m Black was sparked by a story Lui wrote post “coming out” to someone she was dating about her Aboriginality.
“People often ask in really oblique ways where I’m from or my ethnicity and sometimes you get nervous saying you’re Aboriginal because you never know what response you’re going to get,” she says. “So it’s looking at that shame that’s forced upon you that you then internalise, because it’s really hard to be brave about every decision you make every single day.”
Lui has an interesting relationship with Instagram and its relationship (for her) with another Indigenous inequality: ill health. Lui is candid in sharing her own history of weight-loss surgery, a life-saving operation she was counselled to have or risk death from being morbidly obese.
“I had pre-diabetes, I had polycystic ovarian syndrome – this is overshare but the reason I talk about it is I think it’s important. All those things are very common in Aboriginal people and in people who are overweight … and you start to hate yourself a little, you feel like a failure.” Lui posts deliberately unfiltered shots as someone learning to love herself.
She has a new six-part series coming up on the ABC, Kiki & Kitty, another comedy about Lui and 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.”
The series is set in an ice-skating rink and sees Lui’s sister, a former Australian representative figure skater acting as her body double, a deliberate irony given her sister is “a good 20 kilos lighter than me and a much better skater.”
“I’m interested in stuff that isn’t always easy, and I’d always prefer to be honest. And sometimes it’s easier to do that through comedy,” she says. “It’s going to sound clichéd but I do think there’s hope in finding joy, and in people laughing together. And it never ceases to amaze me how willing people are to listen, and laugh with you.”
The Sydney Theatre Company production Black is the New White runs at the Wharf 1 Theatre from May 10 to June 17.