Culture

Theatre

‘Blackie Blackie Brown’ at STC and Malthouse Theatre

By Steve Dow
Playwright Nakkiah Lui’s latest delivers comedy and carnage at a bracing pace

Caped crusaders of days gone by reassuringly scooped up fair damsels trussed on rail tracks or fellow gents standing upon window ledges. But what if your 21st-century superhero is an Indigenous woman, whose female ancestral spirit has empowered her to carry out a cycle of murderous payback for the slaughter committed by colonial men?

Such satire aimed at a nation’s priapic foundations might frighten drooping generals of the culture wars, who cling to a denial of history. In Nakkiah Lui’s new play, Blackie Blackie Brown, which has premiered at Sydney Theatre Company prior to a season at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, mild-mannered Dr Jacqueline Black (Megan Wilding) is an Aboriginal archaeologist working on a mass grave dig somewhere in the Australian bush. Her Livingstonesque pith-helmeted supervisor, played by Ash Flanders, zips about ridiculously in khaki shorts on a Segway, calling her “Blackie”.

When challenged, the knock-kneed fellow excuses the nickname as an affectionate play on his colleague’s surname, then compounds his insult by questioning whether Aboriginal people can even have a professional occupation such as archaeologist. (This is among several racial epithets that called to mind a shining silver breast plate currently on show at the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Colony: Australia 1770–1861/Frontier Wars. The plate was awarded by this nation’s new European overlords to an Indigenous man, Galmarra, for his skill and bravery on a mid-19th century exploratory journey north of the continent, but instead of writing Galmarra on the plate, his name was patronisingly engraved as Jackey Jackey.)

Cultural genocide by assimilation that refuses to dignify First Australians’ self-identity is one thing, but historian Henry Reynolds also tells us in his 2013 book Forgotten War that “perhaps well beyond” 30,000 Indigenous people were killed in the frontier war through the 19th century, compared to roughly 2500 settlers. This is our shared history at the heart of Blackie Blackie Brown when, having pulled a skull from the ground that conjures her great-great-great grandmother (Elaine Crombie) projected onto a cleverly constructed white-panelled stage set, our archaeologist heroine receives an assignment to kill before the next full moon the 400 descendants of men who slaughtered her forebears.

Reclaiming a slur, Jacqueline Black becomes superhero Blackie Blackie Brown, a deadly tidda with blue hair, pink jacket, red pants and an Indigenous flag where Superman would place his S. She sets about an exhaustive comic book montage of shooting, stabbing, hanging, disconnecting life support and general whack-a-mole carnage.

All of Blackie’s live stage victims – besides those seen in animation woven into the production – are played with quick-change comic alacrity by Flanders. My favourite of Flanders’s characters is one of Blackie’s fangirls, who, despite failing health and declaring herself an Aboriginal “ally”, prostrates herself on the kitchen linoleum, waiting for Blackie’s golden boomerang to come down on her neck as penance for her ancestors’ crimes.

I laughed as Blackie made her way in full Ku Klux Klan disguise to infiltrate a Hitler-worshipping, Australian alt-right clubhouse. I stopped laughing when Flanders, playing one of the club’s members, ran through a litany of violent “Abo” jokes.

You might assume that comedy as a theatrical form, precisely delivered at a bracing pace during a wild 90-minute ride without interval, somehow lets an audience off the hook over historical wrongs. It doesn’t. You laugh, but you also think, despite the direct, angry expression in the play about Indigenous slaughter being kept to a couple of short bursts.

News Corp ran a story online in early May about Blackie Blackie Brown, a piece of journalism that was depressingly literal and part of a desperately cynical volley in the culture wars. The journalist had not interviewed the playwright before publishing the piece, but based his story on the play’s synopsis, emphasising the story’s “mission to murder white descendants”. The article seemed to take issue with grants the play received from Australia Council and Create NSW, although the fact it took 12 paragraphs before listing these grants indicated an apparent lack of nerve by the publisher to make a clear argument about government funding of the production.

Perhaps the journalist might catch the parodic air if he bothers now to see the play. Blackie Blackie Brown herself doesn’t hate white people; she does admit to hating businessmen cyclists, wearing sponsor-covered Lycra that clings unflatteringly to their appendages, a joke that is a foretaste for Blackie’s onstage battle with a pair of old, veiny, pale testicles. The satire is hiding in plain sight, just like the giant, wind-filled appendages to which gravity has clearly not been kind.

Of course the story has Blackie grapple with the stupidity of perpetuating violence, but I’ll leave it the reader to see the play to grasp how this battle is satisfyingly resolved. As a playwright, Nakkiah Lui goes from strength to strength, her 2017 comedy of manners about middle-class Indigenous people embracing capitalism, Black is the New White, already enjoying a revival. Hers is an important voice, both as a female and Indigenous playwright, and she has surrounded herself with very talented players.

Director Declan Greene brings the anarchic, biting sensibility to the production previously seen on these stages with his Sisters Grimm theatre partner Flanders. Megan Wilding is a powerhouse as Blackie. Both Wilding and Flanders possess a dual dexterous physical comedy and electric, intelligent wit. The icing on the cake is the lighting and sound design and animation. This is a great team collaboration. Strap in, you’re in for a bumpy but brilliant ride.

Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death is at the Sydney Theatre Company until June 30, and will be at Melbourne’s Malthouse Threatre July 5–29.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

@dowsteve

Blackie Blackie Brown at the Sydney Theatre Company. Picture by Daniel Boud

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