REVIEW: Black is the New White (Queensland Theatre)

Cast of Black is the New White, photographed by Prudence Upton
Where? Playhouse Theatre, QPAC
When? Feb 1 – Feb 17
As responding artist Benjamin Law writes in his programme note, “Romantic comedy is the whitest movie genre of all time…race matters, especially when yours is excluded from civic life, politics, and the arts. And yes, that includes romantic comedies. How lucky we are, then, that Black is the New White is such a damn good one”.

After a sell-out season and rave reviews in Sydney, Nakkiah Lui’s brilliant rom-com has opened at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre. The play opens with two young people – successful Aboriginal lawyer Charlotte and experimental classical composer Francis – engaged after a whirlwind romance and somewhat anxious about bringing their families together for the first time at Christmas. They are right to be worried – Charlotte’s father, Ray Gibson, is a prominent activist-turned-politician, and Francis’ father, Dennison Smith, is his conservative political rival. Both men are now retired but maintain their vendetta, fighting battles on Twitter rather than on the floor of Parliament. Colliding at the Gibson’s family holiday home with their wives and children, things go as well as you might expect.
There is certainly an undercurrent of “Romeo and Juliet” but that may just be because Shakespeare cornered the market on feuding-families-kids-in-love many years ago. In truth, Black is the New White digs much deeper to look at issues of race and class, as well as how they intersect. The characters present an authentic vision of a messy, complicated family life – for example, Charlotte’s sister Rose is a jet-setting fashion designer but constantly feels compelled to compete with her more conventionally intellectual sister.
Shari Sebbens, photographed by Prudence Upton
Black is the New White is so carefully and cleverly written – I have been in awe of Nakkiah Lui since I encountered her work in An Octoroonlast year. Director Paige Rattray says of her: “She examines everything so thoroughly, leaving nothing unturned, and she uses each character to explore different ideas and points of view”. Her work creates a space where it’s safe and okay to laugh at jokes you might edge away from if you overheard them at the pub. She allows you to laugh but asks you to question whether it’s really funny, and why. As much as this play is inherently political, it doesn’t feel pushy. It takes its time, and asks the questions rather than answering them for you.
The work presents the upper middle class Aboriginal family in direct contrast with the upper middle class white family, and with this comes a discussion of privilege, entitlement, and taking the moral high ground, as well as the intersections, insecurities, and potential hypocrisies of these positions. Is culture about your DNA, or your family, or how you identify? Is black really the new white?
Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, Tony Briggs, and Anthony Taufa, photographed by Prudence Upton
The meeting of the two families is fraught from the beginning, with discussion of family, love, money, and history. As interracial and intergenerational conflicts come to a head, Christmas dinner descends into glorious madness. Another thing that Nakkiah Lui has done well is that there are no clear divisions of good and bad – every character is used to explore a different viewpoint, but no one is held up at the end as being the best.
No cast member could be singled out for accolade – every performance was exceptional. Every actor onstage had fantastic comedic timing, and the entire onstage space was used well. Shari Sebbens was dynamic as Charlotte, and had fantastic chemistry with her onstage fiancée, played by Tom Stokes. Anthony Taufa was perfectly happy-go-lucky as football-star-turned-banker Sonny Jones, husband of Rose (played by the riotously funny Miranda Tapsell). Tony Briggs brought great gravitas to the room as Ray Gibson, and Geoff Morell threw some fantastic tantrums as Dennison Smith. Melodie Reynolds-Diarra was fantastic as Joan Gibson, and I enjoyed the relationship that she created with Vanessa Downing’s quietly confident Marie Smith. Luke Caroll’s engaging narrator character was brilliant, but more like a sentient prop at times. I enjoyed the fairytale-esque feel that he gave to the story, but it sometimes seemed that his information could have been revealed in other ways.
Tony Briggs and Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, photographed by Prudence Upton
Design by Renee Mulder and lighting design by Ben Hughes created an immersive experience even from the top rows of the balcony. Sound design and composition by Steven Toulmin added to the great atmosphere – you can’t beat a catchy closing number.
It may be only February, but I’d be willing to bet this is the best play you’ll see all year. Fair warning, though – the play contains coarse language, use of herbal cigarettes, brief nudity, and drug use, so maybe leave the kids at home.
You can buy tickets here.
Further review with some minor spoilers below…
Luke Carroll, photographed by Prudence Upton
There is no death in this work, which is something playwright Nakkiah Lui was very conscious of. “I wanted to write something for Aboriginal actors that didn’t have death in it,” she said in her Playwright’s Note. “I’m guilty of that myself, most of what I have written has had death…this was about something instead that had hope and happiness in it.”
The work also addresses the issue of women as an uncredited support act – articulate and charismatic Ray has always had his speeches written for him by his wife. He denies this not only to the public, but also to himself, until Joan confronts him about the years of unacknowledged effort as “the backbone of the family”.


It also delves briefly into queerness, when Marie announces that she is polyamorous (after she and Joan are caught making out in the ruins of the Christmas dinner). There is a heated but respectful conversation and ultimately Dennison attempts to understand her desires, because he wants her to be happy and is willing to be involved with this new part of herself. The thing I loved about this event was that Joan doesn’t play dumb about Marie’s attractions or intentions at any point – she responds kindly (and things progress from there), which I think is a great credit to the writing of her character.

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