Black is the New White (Queensland Theatre presents a Sydney Theatre Company production)
QPAC, The Playhouse
February 1 – 17
“Black is the New White” has been billed as being a new blend of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” which is a perhaps clichéd but totally correct descriptor of Nakkiah Lui’s fabulous new play about the discomfort of contemporary Australian life.
A joyous whirlwind romance sees successful Aboriginal lawyer Charlotte (Shari Sebbens) returning to a family Christmas at her parent’s lavish open-plan holiday home to introduce her new and very awkward experimental classical musician fiancé Francis. As the daughter of Ray Gibson, the self-proclaimed Martin Luther King of the Australian political landscape, Charlotte’s choice of partner couldn’t be worse. Forget that she is black and he is white; he is the son of Ray’s long-time, ultra-conservative rival Denison (Geoff Morrell).
Along with Dension and his wife Marie (Vanessa Downing), joining Ray and wife Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) for the festivities are Charlotte’s sister Rosie (Miranda Tapsell), returning from her successful fashion business in Los Angelas with her retired Wallaby captain husband Sonny (Anthony Taufa). Cue also charming nameless narrator/Christmas Ghost (an underused Luke Carroll) and the assembly is set to become an absolutely hilarious holiday from hell.
Act One begins with the comedy of embarrassment. With Francis fumbling through repeated foot-in-mouth politically-incorrect comments, and his failed attempts at jokes about the Stolen Generation et al often see audience members with hand-to-mouth in shared aghast reaction. The action proper centres on a bigger series of conflicts, so engaging that intermission comes as an inconvenience to a thoroughly-absorbed and wanting-more audience. And when secrets spill out as characters’ journeys of identity are revealed in its final act, they are unsurprisingly surprising.
There is a serious side too as some big ideas are played out through the complex dynamics within the everyday scenario of family squabbles heightened by the festive season. Uncomfortable questions around class, social dynamic, cultural identity and male-privilege add complexity and intellectual rigour to its food flinging, secret-spilling comedy, making for a razor-sharp modern examination of whether race is a value like other social constructs.
Writing is clever and pacy, and Paige Rattray’s nimble direction allows for later tonal shifts to sneak up upon the audience. Indeed, it is superbly directed to exploit its frenetic pace. And while everyone on stage gives an excellent performance, it the ladies’ late-in-show monologues that stand out, prompting moments of spontaneous mid-show applause. Reynolds-Diarra gives a multi-layered performance as the down-to-earth, heart-of-her-family Joan and Downing is hilarious when she breaks free of her white passive aggression.
“Back is the New White” is a very clever, original show, which appropriately left its opening night audience raving about it being the funniest in recent memory. Its edgy, energetic and quick-witted approach to a classic family comedy is modern and highly entertaining, and it is easy to appreciate its sold out world premiere season at Sydney Theatre Company last year. With confetti, male nudity, a figurative and literal lettuce war, a dance-off between political rivals and Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ anthem, it is certain to leave lasting memory of its joyfulness, but also hopefully its thematic heart about race, class and community changes.