Nakkiah Lui has likened her new play Black is the New White, which premiered last night at the Wharf Theatre, to the film Meet the Fockers – and with a relentless barrage of humour wrung from an avalanche of awkward, cringe-worthy moments, the comparison is an apt one.
Shari Sebbens is Charlotte Gibson, a young, successful Aboriginal lawyer who has brought her unemployed, contemporary classical composer fiancé to meet her affluent family and announce both their engagement and imminent move to New York, where she has been offered a scholarship to study for a PhD. Meanwhile, her father Ray (a former politician and Aboriginal activist played by Tony Briggs) would prefer she take an offered television job so as not to waste the opportunity to be “a young Aboriginal person with a platform.”
Shari Sebbens and James Bell in Sydney Theatre Company’s Black is the New White. Photos © Prudence Upton
The scene is set with saccharine sweet banter between Charlotte and her fiancée Francis, played with puppy-dog enthusiasm by James Bell, who have arrived first at the family’s holiday house. Lui’s dialogue is snappy from the start, the couple’s affectionate sparring merrily laced with race and gender politics as they prepare to face their families.
Charlotte’s parents arrive, Ray preoccupied with a Twitter war over the relative merits of different kinds of lettuce and distracted by the whereabouts of his golf clubs, while his focussed, intelligent wife Joan – Melodie Reynolds-Diarra – carries in the luggage.
The first act also introduces us to Charlotte’s LA fashion designer sister – played by Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn) – and her rugby-star-turned-banker-turned-born-again-Christian husband Sonny (Anthony Taufa). Francis’ wealthy, white, conservative father (Geoff Morrell) and her restless mother (Vanessa Downing), round out the extended family.
The cast of Sydney Theatre Company’s Black is the New White.
Luke Carroll is the animated narrator and MC, letting the audience in on the character’s backstories and secrets – some innocuous, others potentially explosive – and sitting back to laugh at the unfolding chaos.
Renee Mulder’s set is a tastefully appointed, open plan holiday home – perfect for entertaining. A window in the living area looks out onto rocks and ferns, while upstairs (stage left) plants outside cast shadows on frosted glass. The walls are smattered with faux-casually arranged artworks and patterns of family photographs, against a colour scheme of earth tones. While beautiful and spacious, the stage is just cosy enough to evoke the claustrophobia of a family holiday.
Geoff Morrell and Tony Briggs in Sydney Theatre Company’s Black is the New White.
Director Paige Rattray paces the uncomfortable family dynamics exquisitely – the first act is a beautifully crafted, hilarious crescendo of awkwardness and tension, stoked first by Francis’s foot-in-mouth eagerness to please (a joke about the Stolen Generation fails, spectacularly, to land) and later inflamed by his father’s racism and long-held rivalry with Ray. And while Meet the Fockers might be a model and though the characters flit around the edges of caricature at times, the dialogue and shifting social dynamics are complex, Lui packing a seething mass of cultural, gender, racial, religious, class frictions – not to mention the common garden variety of squabbles typical of any family – into even the most flippant remarks.
Shari Sebbens, Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn), Melodie Reynolds-Diarra and Anthony Taufa in Sydney Theatre Company’s Black is the New White.
The fuses lit in the first act begin to explode in the second, the atmosphere taking a darker turn – and while this half doesn’t feel quite as taut as the first, Lui is quick to pivot to humour – or the occasional musical number – whenever the mood becomes too bleak, which keeps the pace cracking along, slackening only briefly in the end as the resolutions, obligatory to the genre, wind themselves up (though not in the ways you might think).
Black is the New White is a wonderfully quick-witted, sharp-as-a-tack Australian Rom Com with a lot of heart that keeps the audience laughing – or gasping – all the way.
Sydney Theatre Company’s Black is the New White is at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre until March 10, before touring to Parramatta and Canberra