It’s Christmas in May at Sydney Theatre Company. Nakkiah Lui’s family comedy Black Is the New White is laced with jingle bells and the thin paper crowns from Christmas crackers, and narrated by a figure who calls himself Christmas Spirit.
Charlotte Gibson (Shari Sebbens) is a successful if burnt-out lawyer. After a brief and joyous romance she’s newly engaged to Francis Smith (James Bell), an experimental classical cellist. They’ve yet to meet each other’s families, so a shared family Christmas is planned for the Gibsons’ ritzy holiday home.
One small problem: Charlotte’s leftwing father Ray (Tony Briggs) and Francis’s rightwing father Denison (Geoff Morrell) have a longstanding political rivalry – minor in terms of national politics, but major for each of the men. Their policy days are long behind them and now they’re just arguing bitterly on Twitter about lettuce. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds but everyone in the play (just like everyone at your own family Christmas) is a little bit ridiculous: caught up in an issue, a secret, or a well-worn childhood insecurity while trying to appear as their best selves.
The tension between the two families springs from the opposing political beliefs of both fathers and the prospect of forcing them together by way of an interracial family: the Gibsons are Indigenous and the Smiths are white. As the play progresses, that tension evolves into a sometimes complex, sometimes heavy-handedly didactic but genuinely fresh examination of the hierarchies of race, class, privilege and power in Australia.
Lui’s previous two plays – This Heaven and Kill the Messenger, both for Belvoir St theatre – have been explicitly political and ferocious, wrought with the systemic trauma and injustices that are a reality for many Indigenous Australians. As a writer and actor for ABC’s Black Comedy, Lui has shown us she has comic chops too, subverting sketch comedy with sly and garrulous wit. It’s exciting to see her bring laughs to the theatre as we await her next TV show – about a woman and her loud-mouthed, fun-loving vagina.
Her writing, whether devastating or hilarious, has always shown a great deal of accessible humanity and relentless intelligence. In this play and its twinkling take on the romcom form, she throws an erratic but big-hearted spotlight on upper-class entitlement and guilt; black identity and pride (and separatism); sexual repression; women’s oppression; the responsibility or consequence of success; and, more broadly, the politics of culture and identity.
All that said, it’s clearly a comedy. Lui lists the Meet the Fockers as influence, but within the DNA of the play you can also see a broader suite of family and romcom references, from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation to Wedding Crashers and beyond. A Christmas tree falls on top of someone; a food fight breaks out; family members old and new clash; a years-long feud is addressed via, of all things, a dance-off.
Holiday disasters – the things you swear you’ll laugh about “one day” – are certainly not and have never been the sole domain of rich white families with perfect teeth but it’s a new and energising experience to watch a mostly Indigenous cast of characters play one out.
Lui and her actors, led with precision by the director, Paige Rattray, have a crisp and winking sense of comic space and timing. The chemistry between Sebbens and Bell is both spiky and meltingly sweet, contrasting with the broader and excellently goofier performances by Kylie Bracknell and Anthony Taufa as Charlotte’s sister and her brother-in-law. Vanessa Downing’s physical comedy is meticulously well-observed, and Morell and Briggs are both, probably, just like your dad: achingly, dorkily, realised, all bravado and hidden fears.
Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, as Charlotte’s mother Joan, is the play’s stabilising force and voice of reason – but Lui still grants her the gift of being funny, and Reynolds-Diarra is a vital and lovable onstage force.
This is a company that’s comfortable in the middle of a frenetic and complex scene, and the actors take clear delight in the world they’re bringing to life, luxuriating in a cascade of awkward babbling or self-indulgent indignation. Everything is heightened, with a current of farce running through each scene. But occasionally the story sags under the reams of text – a judicious paring down could lift the play into new dynamism and shave some minutes from the running time.
Crucially, Charlotte and her family are the centre and moral compass of the play. The Smiths enter the Gibsons’ home; we spend more time with the Gibsons; the Gibsons have, thankfully, the majority of the complex cultural discussions, and from opposing viewpoints. This is not a story about identity politics driven by white narratives – and it’s worth noting that the background of each audience member will impact how they watch and understand the various cultural tensions that play out.
As a white critic, I can’t speak with authority on either the specificities of Indigenous lived experience or the play’s consideration of separatism and community, and nor should I. Similarly, while the largely white opening night audience hesitated to laugh at some of the jokes (which Lui was probably going for; the fun challenge of discomfort is right at the heart of her work on Black Comedy). I imagine Indigenous audiences will react differently.
Music is key to the play, led by the composer and sound designer Steve Toulmin (with an honourable mention to Peter Andre). Rattray and Lui have looked to filmic vocabulary and musicality to shape and propel the story onstage: in scene transitions and setups backed by up-tempo holiday hits, the full ensemble move across the stage setting a table or pouring drinks.
That filmic influence seems to have stayed front of mind when putting the show together; Black Is the New White would play well as a movie in its own right. The focused and knowing eye of a camera would capture the small and delightful moments that get lost within the bustle on stage: Charlotte and Francis shimmying into a sweet, fleeting kiss; the two sisters acknowledging each other’s outfits; the amused, detached way Francis’s mother, Marie (Vanessa Downing), watches the chaos unfold.
On stage, the narrator (Luke Carroll) is our camera: he pauses the action to fill in relevant backstories and tease forthcoming secrets; he tells us which cues to look out for in lieu of close-ups (we know how to read Marie’s praise of Charlotte’s mother because he has hinted at her deeper motivations); and he places objects just where they need to be for a character to find them. He’s our playful guide, even instructing – in not one but two separate points – a clap-along.
The play is structurally sound and its subplots arc toward chaotic resolution at well-juggled speed, but the denouement (each character is given an earnest, speech-driven closer) is overlong, creating that specific story phenomenon where you feel as though you’ve watched four or five different endings, only to find the play still going.
But the ultimate ending, even though it might make you groan, is the one you want from a family romantic comedy at Christmas: its neatness and earnestness feels certainly earned (if belaboured), and the characters are so well-drawn that you root for them.
• Black Is the New White runs at Sydney Theatre Company until 17 June