BLACK IS THE NEW WHITE
BLACK IS THE NEW WHITE, Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, 10 May-17 June 2017. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - Tony Briggs and Melodie Reynolds-Diarra; below - the company
In the best possible way, Black Is The New White ticks all the boxes. Nakkiah Lui has written a classic family/romantic comedy whose antecedents include Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, The Odd Couple, Grumpy Old Men, Meet the Fockers and [insert your favourite rom-com here].
It’s a remarkable achievement: a new Australian play about contemporary life that is funny, acerbic, politically incorrect, charming, shocking, silly, intelligent and hugely entertaining. And it’s got clapping and dancing for the audience too. What’s not to enjoy, big time?
It’s Christmas, which of course means there’ll be tears before bedtime, and a lot of action before that too. Successful lawyer and TV talking head Charlotte Gibson (Shari Sebbens) is coming home to the family beach house for the first time in a while and – wooohoo – she’s bringing her boyfriend Francis (James Bell). The significance of this will not be lost on any member of the audience and when he is revealed as a struggling contemporary classical composer and cellist (code for loser) the second most obvious point of parental-child conflict is revealed. The first – the Dingo in the corner of the room – is that she’s black and he’s white.
Also coming home – from her successful fashion biz in LA – is Charlotte’s sister Rosie. As the glam young woman whose establishment is apparently more of a space than a shop, Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn) brings more than a hint of the Prue and Trudes in her wildly up-herself Ms Malaprop. While Anthony Taufa is the epitome of retired Wallaby captain-cum-bouncy oversized puppy as her hubby, Sonny.
Sibling rivalry is an expected ingredient of this kind of comedy, but when profound political argument is fed in to the mix, it leaps to an entirely other level. The action takes off even further when the father of the two girls is revealed as Ray Gibson (Tony Briggs), fabled black activist and motormouth politician who fancies himself Australia’s answer to Martin Luther King Jr – much to the continuing irritation of his down to earth and super-smart wife Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra).
As they all prepare for Christmas, with champagne and snarky repartee, the dichotomies, contradictions and razor-sharp one-liners bounce off the walls of the sophisticated tri-level beach house. It’s built on Ray’s ancestral land he says, strutting around like the brush turkeys that own Noosa, (wittily designed by Renee Mulder with lighting by Ben Hughes).
Another explosive ingredient in the ambitious mix is aspiration and in particular, Charlotte’s for herself and Ray’s for his daughter. It’s archetypal upper middle class angst and while Charlotte is concerned for the good of humanity and general decent behaviour, Ray is seeing his own legacy and grandiose sense of achievement as the natural reward for having stomped in true imperialist fashion all over the lesser people in his path. And these days he’s way more interested in his Twitter profile and an online argument with an old parliamentary foe over the relative merits of iceberg lettuce and rocket.
And it is mandatory of course, under the Rules of SitCom, that this old enemy and nemesis in the matter of salad greens should turn out to be Ray’s daughter’s boyfriend’s father, Dennison (Geoff Morrell). From the moment the former Liberal minister enters the ritzy beach house (“nice humpy you’ve got here”) these two old bulls lock horns in the breathtakingly childish way of men for whom testosterone is a god-given right and demonstrations of superiority are holy sacraments.
Political life in Canberra being what it is, however, the two wives are old friends and Joan Gibson is genuinely pleased to see Marie Smith (Vanessa Downing) again; while Marie is very, very pleased to see Joan. The scene is set for all manner of Christmas, family, catering and political mayhem and other disasters and revelations. Most of these you could imagine – and there are a lot that you could not – and they all occur over the play’s 2.5 hours including interval. There is no doubt that one’s money’s worth is to be had out of this remarkable play and production.
It begins with the pre-show music which establishes a mood and ideas of time and place that are stripped right across the show (composer and sound designer Steve Toulmin). Director Paige Rattray handles the multiple characters, story lines and potential improvised explosive plot devices with confidence and flair. The cast perform as a unified and smoothly excellent ensemble with the plot gear shifts being oiled by the Narrator (Luke Carroll). He also makes an interesting bridge between audience and the onstage families, permitting laughter (Omigod, she didn’t say that, did she?) and encouraging participation and empathy in an Australia that has rarely been portrayed before, and never so accurately and so wickedly.
It’s nothing new to say that laughter and naughtiness are a very good way of getting people to take nasty medicine – and enjoy it – and Black Is The New White is in many sly ways a dose of bitterest quinine that actually tastes like vintage Moet. Even the probably inevitable slabs of didactic lecturing are slotted quite naturally into the mouths of characters as they upbraid one another – and that’s funny too.
Any show that has male nudity, virtual reality, Vanessa Downing puffing on a fat spliff, a Dr King Christmas tree topper, crazy old geezers trying to out-boogy each other and every personal, political, ageist, sexist, racist, classist prejudice ever conceived being upturned and laughed at, has to be a winner. It’s damned clever. (And the long-suffering stage management team of Whitney Eglington, Todd Eichhorn and Jaymin Knierum should get medals.) Thoroughly recommended.