Christmas arrives early, as uproariously funny romantic comedy Black is the New White ties a big fluffy bow around the shared commonality of family politics, the delicate delineation of race relations and the earnest absurdity of woke culture.
Following a model regularly seen in London, hit play Black is the New White began life in subsidised theatre before reaching a wider audience. Sydney Theatre Company premiered Nakkiah Lui’s work in 2017, and the play returned to Sydney this year ahead of an Australian tour. The joyous production comes to Melbourne with a tight ensemble cast at the top of their game, delivering an evening of blissful adults-only joy.
The inherent risk in describing the plot is to make Black is the New White sound like a dreaded “message” play. Hailing from a very successful Aboriginal family, passionate young lawyer Charlotte Gibson has brought her decidedly Anglo-Saxon fiancé Francis Smith to the family beach house for Christmas. Ambitions, secrets and rivalries stoke a melting pot of tension, with feminism, sexual fluidity, conservatism and social media joining the central debate as to whether money or race have a greater bearing on class distinction.
It is to Lui’s great credit that all of the issues derive organically from character. There is a constant stream of “You can’t say that!” laugh out loud moments; no sooner is one sacred cow skewered then it is briskly on to the next. Far too wise to provide pat answers, Lui raises a cavalcade of questions and ultimately leaves them as post-show talking points. If there is one clear take-away message, which is surely a sound one for Melbourne Theatre Company audiences, it is a reminder to take stock of your privilege, particularly as it relates to the wider community.
Lui also shows a great flair for providing the “voice” of characters across generations and genders. Charlotte’s sister Rose has found her own success in fashion, sharing a loving marriage with footballer turned religious zealot, Sonny. Both Charlotte and Francis’ parents share a background in the public eye. Proud father Ray has big dreams for Charlotte’s own public life, also sharing with her the simmering guilt of deriving benefit at the expense of others. Francis’ sheltered North Shore parents suffer from patriarch Dennison Smith’s emotional frigidity, a hangover of his conservative politics.
Where television or film can cut to family flashbacks (which is the entire foundation of current television hit This is Us), the backstory for Black is the New White is imparted by an on-stage Narrator, played with a merry twinkle by Luke Carroll. This device loses impact as the play progresses yet neatly provides early subtext and foreshadowing.
Director Paige Rattray has infused the play with palpable joy, ensuring that the familial interactions are grounded in real heart. Terrific use is made of the broad playing space of the Gibson humpy cliffside mansion. High wattage energy reaches a peak during the infectious dance sequences and in act two’s raucous Christmas dinner food fight. Rather than have the actors go into cliched freeze positions while the Narrator speaks, Rattray generates authentic action for the oblivious characters. Rattray takes Lui’s lead in relation to displays of affection from the older generation, an aspect often ignored in traditional romantic comedies, especially movies.
Renée Mulder houses the action on a gleaming white expanse of polished concrete floors and floating stairs, providing a setting of lived-in luxury. Mulder’s costumes scaffold the personality and outlook of the characters, with fashion maven Rose sporting a particularly eye-catching wardrobe.
In the very well-matched ensemble cast, Miranda Tapsell emerges as leading lady, playing a plucky, driven character that is presumably the closest to playwright Lui. Tapsell conveys Charlotte’s dilemma over her current plethora of life choices in convincing style, avoiding mawkish sentimentality in her romantic relationship with Francis (whom she affectionately refers to as “the silver lining of colonialism”).
Tom Stokes gives Francis a gangly physicality, scoring abundant laughs with the young man’s foot-in-mouth awkwardness.
As Ray Gibson, Tony Briggs captures the entitled self-confidence of a man who expects his public success to automatically be respected in home life, fitting the play’s title by subverting this much-used stock character away from a white male. Melodie Reynolds-Diarra is an absolute delight as Joan Gibson, the adoring mother we would all love to embrace.
Looking every bit the retired Malcolm Fraser, Geoff Morrell’s Dennison Smith is the straight man to much of the comedy, breaking out in a terrific dance-off scene opposite Briggs. Vanessa Downing nails the peaches and cream persona of daffy doyenne Marie Smith, a society peach who innocently rhymes Grindr with Tinder. Marie’s presence on Tinder is a plot point that seems a bit of a stretch; at the point of Marie’s sexual revelations, the long play threatens to tip over the top, but thankfully focus is reigned back in for a highly satisfying conclusion.
Tuuli Narkle successfully captures the grit beneath the surface glamour of Rose. Anthony Taufa brigs abundant likeability and hearty physicality to well-intentioned husband Sonny.
The comedic high point of the year, Black is the New White is absolutely not to be missed.
Speaking on behalf of the company, Tony Briggs dedicated opening night of Black is the New White to Ningali Lawford-Wolf.
Note: depending on the reader, it can be taken as a warning or an advertisement that Black is the New White contains full frontal male nudity.
Black is the New White plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne until 6 November 2019.
The Black is the New White program can be read online.
Photos: Jeff Busby