Witness First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee says Nakkiah Lui’s Blackie Blackie Brown is exactly the superhero she needs
I arrived at this show in a weird mindset. I caught an Uber to the theatre and the driver asked me what I was seeing. He then lectured me about how Aboriginal people need to get over the past, and how he knows that African Americans have been lying about police brutality, because he saw it in some conspiracy video.
The interaction didn’t piss me off so much as it just drained me. I am so tired of conversations in which I’m forced to educate some asshole about the atrocities that affect people of colour. Of having to justify why we’re so angry. It turned out that Blackie Blackie Brown, a show about an unlikely Aboriginal superhero, was a much-needed lift. “THIS ISN’T ABOUT RECONCILIATION,” says the projected cartoon text as it opens. “THIS IS ABOUT VENGEANCE.”
I don’t want to spoil the opening scene, because it’s glorious. But within five minutes of sitting down and watching Ash Flanders squeal and meet his grisly fate as the ultimate pompous white theatre-goer, I immediately cheered up.
In Blackie Blackie Brown we meet Dr Jacqueline Black (Dalara Williams), an Aboriginal archaeologist who discovers her great great grandmother’s skull during a dig, which awakens her great great grandmother’s spirit. Embodying her ancestor, she recounts the brutal rape and murder of her mob, her children and herself by four white men.
This is the central moment of the show. Williams is a vulnerable open wound: we can’t turn away from the graphic images that she creates for the audience. We are with her in that moment, feeling the sadness and anger that only trauma can evoke. After this powerful moment of remembrance, her great great grandmother (played by the scene-stealing Elaine Crombie) appears as a projection and asks her great-great granddaughter to avenge the atrocity.
Dr Black’s task is to kill all the descendants of the murderers, to ensure no further evil is committed. Since the discovery of the skull has also granted Jaqueline a new superpower, she transforms into Aboriginal superhero, Blackie Blackie Brown. In a hilarious fighting montage with slapstick live action and accompanied animations projected on the stage, Blackie Blackie Brown goes on a cartoon killing rampage.
Elizabeth Gadsby’s design is a bare white tiled stage, with impressive animated projections by Oh Yeah Wow that give us images of buildings, streets and houses. The action is played through videogame-style cut-scenes and epic comic book blood sprays in the fight scenes. The projections also provide a few supporting characters: everyone else is played by the two cast members, in a marathon of a performance. Steve Toulmin’s sound design shifts between badass girl rap such as Azealia Banks and Okenyo, and superhero themes, which are perfect for the very female superhero feel of the show.
The collaboration between Nakkiah Lui, Declan Greene and Ash Flanders dates back to 2013, when Lui was the dramaturg for Sisters Grimm’s anarchic The Sovereign Wife, a hit during the Melbourne Theatre Company’s first Neon Festival of Independent Theatre. It’s unsurprising it should work so well here. This production demands high energy, unwavering melodramatic performances from its cast of two, who often have to bounce off the projected actors. Neither Williams nor Flanders had any issue with this.
The performances need enormous stamina, but it honestly felt as if they could have done another two hours. They looked like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves the whole time, which was a joy for the audience. Williams has a likability and toughness that had me completely on side: the range of her performance is enviable. She delivers her harrowing monologue with heartbreaking passion, but is still able to jump back into comedy. She owns it.
I absolutely love versatile actors who can play a variety of roles within a show, and not only deliver, but revel in every character like it’s a different treat at a performance buffet. Ash Flanders was a crazy human tornado of camp, racist, manly, bogan and female characters, and I can only imagine the mad-dash of costume changes that he would have whizzed through backstage. Rebecca Ishartit, the hippy guilt-merchant, was my favourite.
At first I was apprehensive about the brutal images at the centre of Lui’s script and Williams’ performance. I feared that we would simply be dropped back into a comic book world where we are meant to merely accept a murderous rampage at the hands of an angry black woman as a joke. But I think that it was necessary for Lui to provide the bloody, historically damaging context to remind the non-Indigenous audience why we’re so fucking angry.
And you know what? It’s pretty damn satisfying to see a superhero black woman beat the everloving shit out of someone in a Ku Klux Klan outift who has been reciting all the racist jokes we had to hear in school from those shitty white kids. Judging by the audience’s cheering, they were definitely along for the ride.
The show finishes with Blackie Blackie Brown educating our oppressors: she finally decides it’s no use killing every racist asshole, because doing so only makes her the same as the colonisers who murdered her ancestors.
Blackie Blackie Brown is a great energy boost. I definitely needed it that night, and I’m glad that the cheering audience was able to appreciate and enjoy it as much as I did. I just hope that small-minded conspiracy-theorist racist preachers like that Uber driver get to see it as well. They might learn something.
Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death, by Nakkiah Lui, directed by Declan Greene. Animation and video by Oh Yeah Wow, lighting and projection design by Verity Hampson, composition and sound design by Steve Toulmin, concept artist Emily Johnson, design by Elizabeth Gadsby. Performed by Ash Flanders and Dalara Williams. Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company. At Beckett Theatre, Coopers Malthouse until July 29. Bookings
Contains coarse language, adult themes, strobe lighting, dynamic sound and violent themes and imagery. Parental discretion advised. To discuss potentially triggering content please contact Malthouse Theatre’s Box Office or speak with a member of staff.
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