Nakkiah Lui is one of the most exciting young writers and actors working in Australia today, tackling issues of race, sex and politics with humour and heart. Maggie Journal talks to the playwright and Black Comedy star about why Australian theatre needs more than just diversity, how she feels about comparisons to Lena Dunham, and her upcoming Malthouse production Blaque Showgirls.
What do you love about making theatre?
It’s so simple and therefore there’s so much freedom with it. You start with an empty stage and you can literally make anything happen.
Your first play, This Heaven, was about a death in custody. Did you develop the play with that theme in mind?
I was working on another play, which became Kill the Messenger, when my grandmother fell through a floor and died because housing commission wouldn’t fix the floor that had been eaten by termites. I was really angry and I wrote This Heaven instead. And so it is about a death in custody, but it’s also about a family trying to escape a cycle of oppression. They’re trying to find power when everything they love is taken away from them. To me, that was the story that came out.
In your speech for I’m Not a Racist, But… you made the argument that instead of just talking about racism we should focus on unfair privilege. With that perspective in mind, what advice would you give aspiring writers about representing class and race?
Just be honest. It’s so clichéd, but write what you know. And always be critical. Question everything and never take anything as a given. It’s okay for things to be complex and it’s okay not to offer up answers.
Be brave. Something that I hear from writers, often younger writers, people who want to delve into the politics of things, is that they’re quite often afraid of offending. Well, you’re going to offend someone and that’s okay. You just need to back up what you’re saying, and that means thinking about things and trying not to be an asshole. Bad art comes from people being selfish, not wanting to question their own point of view and then being indignant.
In regards to making the audience uncomfortable, in Kill the Messenger wasn’t it your aim to intentionally mess with ideas of authenticity?
Yeah. The response to This Heaven was overwhelmingly positive but I did get some negative responses. But they were never about the work, which I found interesting. It was about me. They were questioning my authenticity given that I had an education, my parents had jobs, I went to law school and I came from a loving family. And for those reasons people were asking, ‘What does this very privileged girl have to say about Aboriginality?’
It didn’t upset me because I know I’m Aboriginal – I’m black as black can come. And my life has been affected because I am Aboriginal. But why do I have to tell someone this sob story of all the bad things that have happened to me to justify being Aboriginal? And it made me question why people see these stories. Are they fetishising trauma? Is that what they think the Aboriginal experience is? Are they just putting 50 cents in the poor box? Is that what buying a ticket is?
So Kill the Messenger was a response to that idea of ‘What does she know about being a poor Aboriginal?’ And part of it is saying ‘Here, have this story. I’ve lost my grandmother, the woman who raised me, the woman who meant the entire world to me. Here is the most painful part of me, take it. Are you happy?’
Then it was also, why the fuck are you here? And in the theatre you can hold people hostage, and I could talk to the audience. I don’t have to rant on a page, I can ask them. I sound very angry but I love the audience.
Did the fact that you acted in Kill the Messenger effect the script?
To an extent it did. I had two hats. The first week I did it as the playwright. I was still going through the script and making little changes. That is quite common when you’re doing new work for theatre. Then the acting hat would come on in the process. Acting helped me as a writer. I’d read certain lines as ‘Nakkiah’ and then I’d go to the director ‘Why did I ask this?’ It was funny. It was so meta sometimes. I would be at a table with a whole creative team and have to talk about my life and dissect it as if it wasn’t me. Maybe it was my really long way of getting free therapy.
You also had the really curious experience of having to enact your own sex scenes.
That was crazy. I tried to cut that out as soon as I realised it would be me. You know, what if they’re just having tea on the bed, maybe they’ve done it earlier and we just allude to that. Like maybe we can have some undies on the floor or something? But no, the director [Anthea Williams] wouldn’t let me do it.
Some people have compared your to Lena Dunham because you are acting out your own roles. How do you feel about that?
I like Lena Dunham a lot. I wish I came from a really rich family (laughs). In that sense, we’re really different. But I guess if that gives someone an insight into my work and who I may be, and that’s something they’re willing to engage with, then I’ll wear that. Lena Dunham’s cool. I’d love to get to make out with more hot men in my work. I want to follow that career path through (laughs).
I do get that she comes from a place of privilege and there’s a certain racial dynamic to the work she does. But just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she has to cover every single thing. I like that she presents really complex, flawed characters.
In an article for the Guardian you pondered the question ‘Is Australian Theatre racist?’ and suggested diversity in itself is not enough. Is it complexity that we should be aiming for?
Yes. I think diversity sits alongside box ticking. What is diversity? It holds white as neutral. People often ask me if I feel like I’ve been stuck in a box because I identify so strongly with being an Aboriginal writer. For me, no, it doesn’t feel like a box. The only reason I would think that is if I believed in the value system of white centric males. The people who identify with my work are not just Aboriginal people. There are a lot of people from the queer community, people who are working class or people from non-white backgrounds. A lot of women also identify strongly with my work. So yes, complexity.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming Malthouse work, Blaque Showgirls?
I came to Malthouse with an adaptation of Showgirls and said ‘Let’s exploit culture the same way we would exploit sex’. If culture is commodified and race is performed, what then happens if we totally play to the genre? I think it opens up a whole new playing field.
You ventured into writing and acting for TV with Black Comedy. Were you surprised by its success?
Yes and no. It was great. Like theatre, you want people to care and with Black Comedy that’s what we wanted to do. So rarely do we see Aboriginal stories told that aren’t around trauma or terror. My Nan always said, ‘What can you do if you can’t laugh?’ Even on her deathbed, when she could barely move because she was in so much pain, she was able to laugh.
Comedy is kind of your trademark. How do you go about writing for laughs? How do you know when something is funny?
I think if you write the truth then things are funny. If you play it for truth you get the dark laugh rather than the gag. Most tragedy is hilarious because what can be funnier than life? This is so silly, but one of the times my brother went to jail he was on heroin and he stole a car with a caravan attached to the back of it. And he didn’t realise until he was on the highway. It’s stuff like that. The things life throws at you can be so absurd.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I’m doing the second season of Black Comedy. I’m also writing a book of short stories. And I have my Karaoke Musical called Koorioke, which I’m working on for Belvoir. Plus I’ve got Blaque Showgirls happening for Malthouse and a play with Sydney Theatre Company.
It seems like an exciting time.
It is. Ultimately, I’d love to do a TV show. I always thought I’d want to do, with the Lena Dunham comparison, a show called “Black Girls” (laughs).