What was your first impression when you read Nakkiah Lui's script for Black is the New White?
I was most struck by how, as an Aboriginal woman writing about middle-class Aboriginal people, Nakkiah is checking her privilege. I was really impressed and excited by that bravery. She’s really putting herself out there and I think all great artists do that.
Nakkiah does it with such charm, open-heartedness and humour. She examines her thoughts so thoroughly, leaving nothing unturned, and she uses each character to explore different ideas and points of view. Also, the way she writes about cultural identity and then destabilises it at each turn means that we’re constantly questioning what it means to be a middle-class Aboriginal person. She has a gift for self-analysis.
And her ability to follow a path of logic and then turn it on its head and interrogate it at each juncture is remarkable.
Exactly. They’re such complex ideas. There’s a great scene in the play when Rose Gibson comes home and her Christmas tradition, with her sister Charlotte, is to smoke a joint and have a chat. But things are different this time, because of the information Charlotte has discovered about her father and because she’s brought a white man home. They have the most complex conversation about cultural identity but, because Nakkiah has it happen while they’re smoking a joint, we can really slow it down and let the characters take their time. If they weren’t stoned it could absolutely fly over our heads, but because they’re slowed down we can sit with it and take it in. Each word, each idea is placed very carefully. That is genius.
You’ve been asking the cast to improvise in rehearsals at times. How does that work?
It’s a structured improvisation where we break the play down into different main events and then mini events within that. That gives the actors a framework in which to improvise. For this production, I used the improvisations as a way to let the actors figure out the space and find opportunities for comedic moments, like a surprise entrance, for example. It lets me see how the actors might move through the space and how we could tell the story spatially as well as through the dialogue.
Does that improvisation extend to the script? You had Nakkiah in the room reworking the dialogue. Are the actors taking on those characters and modulating them to their own voice?
That actually happened already through the development phase of the play here at STC. We had a workshop in December last year on the second draft of the script. Most of the cast were assembled, so what the actors did in that development helped inform the characters as they were refined.
In these rehearsals, after we’d broken the script down carefully, we noticed that there were little gaps in character journeys, so, along with other tweaks here and there, Nakkiah rewrote the last scene of the play to fill in those holes. Keeping track of eight characters is quite difficult in a rom-com setting. Their ideas around identity, race and sexuality change quite drastically over the course of the play. It’s really important to tie all of those things up because Nakkiah is so spot on with her examination of those issues. We needed to make sure that every character was either purposefully left unchanged or their realisations about themselves and each other were clear.
Black is the New White, 28 Feb – 10 Mar 2018, Roslyn Packer Theatre
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