Theatre review: Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death.
Nakkiah Lui’s latest play, Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death, opens with a clear statement of intent. “This is not a play of reconciliation,” we are told. “This is a play about revenge!”
The play’s avenging superhero is the mild-mannered archaeologist, Dr. Jacqueline Black. As part of a dig, she uncovers a mass grave. It is the site of a massacre, and includes the skull of her great-great-grandmother, an Aboriginal woman raped and murdered by white colonialists. A ghostly visitation (a highly enjoyable video cameo from Elaine Crombie) transforms the scientist (via an hilarious montage training sequence straight out of Rocky) into the superhero Blackie Blackie Brown. Her mission? To kill all 400 living descendants of the white men who murdered her ancestors.
Megan Wilding’s lead performance moves brilliantly between softly spoken doctor and comicbook superhero. Ash Flanders plays all of the targets of revenge with real comic versatility, from white supremacists to hapless hippies. The whole performance is framed within some superbly realised and immaculately choreographed video animations, provided by the company Oh Yeah Wow.
The whole production offers an explosive collision of genres. We get Marvel comicbook movies, with a more irreverent take than Black Panther on how that genre might address questions of race. And there are echoes of 20th-century horror movies: all those ‘80s movies, like Poltergeist, where native American burial grounds erupt into the cosy lives of white suburbia.
This restless parody of different genres continues Nakkiah Lui’s recent work for the stage. She consistently experiments with genre not just to trouble, or prick, the consciences of Sydney’s primarily white theatre-going audiences, but to skewer them head-on.
For last year’s Black is the New White, she took a blowtorch to the apparently safe genres of rom-com and the comedy of manners to expose the assumptions about family and belonging that underpin those family-oriented narratives.
More affectingly for me, 2016’s Kill the Messenger used the confessional mode of social realism to address its Belvoir audiences directly, asking what it is that they had to gain from watching stories of black suffering. It is no coincidence that Blackie’s first victim in the new play is a gay, inner-westie talking patronisingly over the phone about the “authenticity” of an Aboriginal performance that he has just seen. He (you/I) might be an ally but that doesn’t excuse any of us from complicity or from Lui’s searching eye.
Lui fastidiously refuses to rest easily on simple ideas of the “authentic” in her search to tell the truth. Rather, her work questions, with devastating irony, whether unmediated truths can ever be told. At the same time, her theatre still demands that those truths - such as historical massacres - continue to be sought out, and remembered. Her skill in moving between these very different kinds of play, whilst maintaining a clear vision and line of attack, easily marks her out as one of Sydney’s most important theatre-makers.
Here, it is revenge drama that is turned on its head. From Aeschylus’ Oresteia to Hamlet, and from the Kill Bill films to Old Boy, these stories allow us to confront questions around the relationship between justice and revenge, violence and punishment. The excesses of vengeance: when are they justified? In revenge stories, we become complicit in the violence of the protagonist. As an audience, we stand over Hamlet’s shoulder, urging the young prince to just get on with it and kill his uncle already.
At the height of the Shakespearean period’s vogue for these sort of stories, the politician and scientist Francis Bacon warned against revenge. He called it “a kind of wild justice” that kept old wounds open where they should be healed. His pious conservatism would definitely have seen him on Blackie’s list.
With Blackie Blackie Brown, the STC audience (in as much as the audience might be imagined as predominately white) is propelled into encouraging the revenge hero to kill people just like them. The play is absolutely hilarious and ridiculous fun. But as Blackie Blackie Brown goads the audience into demanding that she kill just one more of her victims, that laughter is also purposefully discomforting.
The prop of the skull, with us from the start of the play, is interesting here. On the one hand, it is part of an archaeological dig, part of the recovery of lost histories that need to be renewed and remembered. As Billy Griffiths has shown in his recent book, Deep Time Dreaming, archaeology in Australia has contributed to the renewal of Aboriginal cultural identities in the late-20th century, and like others his book contributes to a current debate around the ongoing need for a more honest reckoning with Australia’s colonial histories.
But the skull isn’t just an archaeological artefact; it is also the signature prop of revenge drama. Its presence in this play questions, as much as confirms, the possibilities of any honest reckoning with the past. It calls for a justice that is “wild” in its revelations of hard truths.
For all its raucous humour, this is an important play. What it shows us is that art - theatre; film; tv - has something vital to contribute in our drive to confront painful truths about Australian history.
Archaeologists and historians, like Dr Jacqueline Black, can tell us what happened, where, and when. But Blackie Blackie Brown and Lui’s wilder, more ironic version of truth-telling, filtered through multiple different genres and forms, makes us acknowledge the difficulties of telling those stories even as it compels us to keep trying.
Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death is on until June 30 at the Sydney Theatre Company.