Wharf 2 Theatre
May 17, 2018

“Your white meat is done, motherfucker!” Indigenous superhero Blackie Blackie Brown screams in Nakkiah Lui’s hilarious and scathing new play Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death. Drawing on genres from superhero films and graphic novels to Blaxploitation flicks and revenge fantasies à la Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Django – not to mention some very South Park-esque humour – Blackie Blackie Brown is the story of mild-mannered archaeologist Dr Jacqueline Black, who gains super powers and a violent revenge mission after unearthing the skull of her murdered great-great-grandmother during a dig.

The action unfolds on a white stage inset with myriad trapdoors and compartments – Elizabeth Gadsby’s set is wonderfully adaptable – that forms the backdrop for projections of high-octane artwork by graphic artist Emily Johnson, brought to animated life by production company Oh Yeah Wow. Director Declan Greene keeps all this moving at a cracking pace.

Blackie Blackie Brown, reviewMegan Wilding and Ash Flanders in Blackie Blackie Brown. Photo © Daniel Boud

Making her Sydney Theatre Company debut, Megan Wilding (who took out last year’s Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright’s Award) is fearsome in the title role, transforming from the timid (though hardly spineless) Dr Black to ferocious costumed vigilante Blackie Blackie Brown, mugging for the audience and inviting them along for a dip in the blood-bath.

But she offers more than just finely honed comic chops. Possessed by the spirit of Jacqueline’s great-great-grandmother (Elaine Crombie, who appears in projections), she delivers a devastating account of the massacre in which the great-great-grandmother was killed – this is brutal storytelling that cuts far deeper than the comically gratuitous graphic-novel slaughter of the rest of the play. One of the wonders of this work, and credit to the skills of both Lui and Wilding, is that it pivots improbably smoothly from outrageous hilarity to heartrending pain and injustice in a kind of one-two move that hits you in the gut.

Blackie Blackie Brown, reviewMegan Wilding and Elaine Crombie (projection) in Blackie Blackie Brown. Photo © Daniel Boud

It is the knowledge of the massacre (the likes of which Australia’s colonial history is littered, the University of Newcastle has mapped more than 150 here) that sets up the play’s scenario: Blackie Blackie Brown is tasked by her great-great-grandmother with killing the 400 descendants of the men who murdered her and her family.

The play is a two-hander – at least as far as live actors go – and Wilding’s comic flair finds equal match in Ash Flanders, who plays characters from an eviscerating caricature of a white theatre-goer in the horror-film-tribute prologue, to Dr Black’s supercilious segue-riding boss, the woke “Aboriginal-woman-loving” Senator Smithson, and a host of victims who fall prey to Blackie Blackie Brown’s revenge mission.

While Blackie Blackie Brown is killing the literal descendants of the men who murdered her ancestor, her victims – from Klu Klux Klan member spewing racist jokes in his Hitler shrine to footballer donning blackface – are also the spiritual descendants of colonisation, and BBB rages (in a highly stylised, satirical manner that at times involves Whack-a-Mole action sequences and a nod to the Super Mario games) against contemporary acts of racial aggression. Amidst the wonderfully multi-layered meta jokes, lovingly deconstructed tropes and joyous mayhem, the play asks serious questions about repatriation, accountability, acknowledgement and the expression of an anger that is so often shrugged off or suppressed – Blackie Blackie Brown is not one to simply “get over it.”

As her killing spree progresses, however, her victims become less starkly villainous and she begins to wrestle with the moral implications of her mission and ultimately what she hopes to achieve, before the final act swings into pure action movie-mode, Johnson’s illustrations taking on a stylised anime edge in a filmic finale.

Blackie Blackie Brown, reviewMegan Wilding and Ash Flanders in Blackie Blackie Brown. Photo © Daniel Boud

Lui’s 2016 smash hit Black is the New White, which enjoyed an encore season earlier this year, drew heavily on family Rom-Coms, its premise an inversion of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with a generous dose of Meet the Fockers, and while Blackie Blackie Brown is many things, it’s very much a love-song to the superhero film. Lui shows a deft and affectionate command of the genre even as she pulls it apart, in what is – beneath the meta-humour and biting satire – a rock-solid Hollywood superhero film structure worthy of Black Panther, The Dark Knight (echoes of which ring through Steve Toulmin’s music) or Watchmen.

The interweaving of projections and live action is complex and highly choreographed (and this is also mined for meta-humour) and while it was all pretty tight on opening night – there’s punchy rawness and energy to the staging – it will no doubt become even slicker as the run goes on. Text and images projected on the slanted floor of the stage – from sci-fi style mission objectives to television news reports – were an effective part of the eclectic wash of media, but the line-of-sight angles in Wharf 2 meant audience members were craning at times to read some of the text and this might be more effective in a larger space.

Blackie Blackie Brown, reviewMegan Wilding and Elaine Crombie in Blackie Blackie Brown. Photo © Daniel Boud

In his piece on Marramb-ik (I Am), an exhibition of Indigenous visual story-telling through comics at Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Aboriginal cultural centre, Tyson Yunkaporta wrote that the “First Nations-created characters currently emerging in popular culture have aggressively decolonising agendas,” and this is certainly the case in Blackie Blackie Brown. But through this Lui also dissects the tropes of theatre, film and popular culture, wielding them virtuosically in an irreverent, multilayered collage that will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.

Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death plays at Wharf 2 Theatre until June 30


Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death comes to Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, July 5 – 29