Every day for one year — as termites invaded the Aboriginal housing commission where Nakkiah Lui’s grandparents lived — Lui and her mother called the commission’s office to complain and beg for repairs. Nothing was done. The termites started to pour out of the walls and chew through the floorboards. Then, in 2012, Lui’s grandmother fell through the floor. She suffered a cardiac arrest and a few months later passed away. ‘That was really hard. Being in your early 20s and watching someone you love break,’ recalls Lui, massaging her hands as she talks, as if to rub away the memory.
Lui, who grew up in the same house moved back home to nurse her. Photographs show an elderly woman swollen and bruised. ‘I don’t believe she should have died. She was 80 – she had a decade [left],’ insists Lui. ‘It was also an incredibly painful death. I had to hear her cry at night.’ Now the Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander playwright is using those same photos in her new work, Kill the Messenger, which premiered at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre and runs to March 8.
Kill the Messenger revolves around two deaths. The first is Lui’s grandmother’s. The second is an indigenous man in her home suburb of Mount Druitt, Sydney. He was refused care at a hospital for pains in his stomach (later found out to be undiagnosed cancer). Humiliated and suffering he then hung himself in the park.
The play – which Lui not only wrote but also performs in – is exposing and raw. It confronts the question: Just how deep does prejudice and discrimination burrow into our public institutions? And would the house have been left to rot had the family not been indigenous?
Lui’s career launched with her debut theatre production This Heaven in 2013. Since then the 28-year-old has co-written last year’s acclaimed all-indigenous sketch show Black Comedy for the ABC as well as Sydney Festival’s Blak Cabaret, now playing at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne until February 22. By all accounts she is a rising star.
Yet Lui talks with slight youthful embarrassment about her success. She has to remind herself all the time, ‘Oh I write for a living!’, and sneakily takes snapshots of her production’s posters. Just in case her luck runs out and her streak of plays, TV shows, and sketch comedies ‘might not ever happen again.’
That seems unlikely. Blak Cabaret is a raucous, at times moving, and, thankfully, utterly un-PC jaunt through history. At the show’s centre is the outrageous Aboriginal drag queen Constantina Bush (played by Kamahi Djordan King). In this subversion of the past, Bush is a black monarch who invades a white native Australia.
Once in this strange new land, the new black queen tries to tame the ‘white savages’. She burns their costumes (thongs and boardies) and destroys their ‘sacred book’ (Fifty Shades of Grey). She hands out benefits or sweets to the audience – but only to those, mind you, who can prove that they are truly ethnically ‘white’. She takes away their children: ‘Those with teenagers, you can thank me later,’ she winks. ‘People use laughter as a coping mechanism,’ says Lui. Because if you don’t laugh, you cry.
Lui grew up in western Sydney where she was called ‘Abo’ at school. Back at home ‘I’d have to clean the entire house with Mr Sheen,’ she laughs, ‘and I remember saying: “Why is nan so obsessed with cleaning?”’ Her grandmother was raised by her father, a widower. As a single man he was afraid that his ‘half-caste’ children might be confiscated and put into care by the Aboriginal Protection Board, the body responsible for the ‘stolen generation’. Lui shrugs: ‘Being clean meant the kids wouldn’t be taken away.’
Racism continued into the 1990s. One day Lui’s own father, an academic, proudly took his brand new car for a spin only to be jailed for three days. An indigenous man with a new car? There was only one assumption, says Lui: ‘He’d stolen it’.
Kill the Messenger draws on such dark memories but injects Lui’s trademark humour. ‘When you start to question those things – no matter how tragic the trauma or violent the past – there is always going to be humour because its ridiculous,’ she says. ‘Aboriginal people were [once] literally classed as fauna and flora. There are a lot of jokes to be made.’
Still, dredging up the past is painful. When Lui gave the manuscript to her mother to read, her mother cried. ‘It’s really challenging,’ she told her. Challenging work that disrupts the status quo, can bring on the critics. Lui has detractors as well as fans.
One bitchy review on Quadrant Online of Our Heaven questioned how she could write authentically about Aboriginal communities. The inference was that, as the product of an urban middle class family (her mother was trained as a nurse) who went to law school, she could not speak for those poorer and more disenfranchised than her. Lui remains outraged and slightly perplexed by such a backlash. ‘Not being an authentic Aboriginal voice because I have an education or because I look a certain way? It just makes me really sad. What do you guys think an Aboriginal person is?’
She admits that at times her background has helped as well as hindered her. In theatres like the Belvoir indigenous playwrights ‘are not fighting for space, which a lot of people are. [I received] a kick start: I come in with a very clear voice. As a young playwright that’s not usual.’ But if getting exposure is one thing opening an audience’s eyes is another. Lui believes that ‘a lot of people are afraid to engage with indigenous theatre – especially the critics. People think: ‘We can’t question this, we can’t critique this because it is a “cultural thing”. So it doesn’t ever grow or change.’
‘Once they start getting afraid they start to switch off,’ she says. ‘We need to have non-indigenous people talking about indigenous Australia because their opinion is just as important as ours. Because, ultimately, we live in this country together.’ For all this, Lui admits that she does not know the answers. Discussion is the point, talking, debating, questioning. If she ever feels lost she remembers her grandmother. She smiles faintly and then sighs. ‘I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I just want us to talk about it and to think about it. That is what my grandmother always told me: “The only thing you have is your voice.”
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