Photos – Daniel Boud
“Your white meat is done, mother****er!” is a line spoken early in the piece, and moreover referenced in the promotional material. You could say it very much sets the tone for this uproariously funny, biting, over-the-top stick of theatrical dynamite being lobbed in protest over the barricades of political correctness and “safe” middle-class art.
As the play announces in its bravura graphical title sequence, “this is not a story of reconciliation” but rather a pedal-to-the-metal indigenous revenge fantasy, presented as a giddy, gaudy and glorious pastiche of vigilante-superhero narratives and American Blaxploitation cinema. This zany concoction is a combustible collaboration of young rising (some would say risen) star-playwright Nakkiah Lui with the redoubtable team of Declan Greene and Ash Flanders, respectively the director and perennial lead actor of their endlessly inventive theatrical company Sisters Grimm. Indeed, unaware of their prior work together, this initially struck me as less immediately reminiscent some of Lui’s autobiographically-tinged plays than a Sisters Grimm show, with a familiarly outrageous high camp sensibility, eye-popping aesthetic and densely intertextual parody of film genres and screenwriting tropes that have formed the backbone of much of Greene and Flanders’ hilarious oeuvre.
Yet for all their evident input, the inception of this project is unmistakably Lui’s. As much as the Sisters Grimm lads have always resolutely thumbed their noses at good taste or pulling punches (how could I ever forget the self-consciously offensive use of ironic blackface in their portrayal of a Pam Grier-esque character in Cellblock Booty?), Blackie Blackie Brown is self-evidently and by their own admission not “their” story to tell, but rather Lui’s. And her authorial voice is strongly evident, however much it may be inflected here with Greene and Flanders’ alternately baroque and anarchic style.
The play is framed like a cinematic superhero origin story, although specifically in the urban avenger subgenre of characters like Batman or especially the Punisher, while the subsequent “kill list” revenge rampage hews closer to the killer vigilante brand of exploitation movies like Death Wish and Kill Bill. Yet the greatest influence is clearly the raft of female Blaxploitation films like Foxy Brown, Coffy, Sheba Baby et al., primarily vehicles for the aforementioned ‘70s cult star Pam Grier.
The story concerns the transformation of Aboriginal “mild-mannered archaeologist” Dr. Jacqueline Black into Blackie Blackie Brown, a grim avenger of ancestral injustice. Upon conducting an archaeological survey of a proposed industrial site for potential indigenous cultural importance on behalf of her corporate employers, she unearths the skull of her great-great grandmother (Elaine Crombie, via video projection). Zapped into a dreamtime astral plane, the twice-orphaned Jacqueline meets the spirit of her ancestor, learning of her matrilineal legacy via an intensely disturbing recounting of the rape and massacre of her extended family a mere two centuries prior.
With this tale of horror ringing in her ears, Jacqueline is charged by the restless spirits of her family, and on behalf of murdered indigenous women everywhere, to break their cycle of pain in the afterlife by repaying in kind the descendants of the white men who brutally butchered them. Unfortunately for her, after two hundred years that family tree has branched out to encompass four hundred people, and she only has until the end of the lunar cycle. That’s a lot of murder to mete out in a few short weeks.
After a quick training montage under the watchful eye of her Obi-Wan-Kenobi like Ghost Grandma, Jacqueline has transformed herself into the death-dealing Blackie Blackie Brown, a razor-boomerang wielding, Brownmobile-driving, explosive-planting, firestarting, counter-lynching engine of destruction. Via reports from real-life newsreaders like Hugh Riminton, we see that reports of her swath of killings has gripped the nation, and moreover divided it, with many condemning and supporting her actions alike.
At first it helps somewhat that the majority of the victims on her genealogical hit-list just so happen to have maintained the family tradition of being, to some extent or another, racist scumbags. However, hurdles begin to appear when a “woke” politician and potential love interest, championing a referendum on improving care for Aboriginal women, warns her that the vote might be derailed by her actions skewing an unsympathetic electorate. Worse still, one of the last few people on her list of descendants to kill is not some pernicious white supremacist nor even a loathsome casual bigot, but rather a saintly Eurasian woman who is not only a fan of Blackie Blackie Brown’s misperceived anti-racist crusade, but her ancestral connection to BBB’s historical massacre is spawned from foreign slavery to an entirely repudiated branch of her family.
Our protagonist initially rebels against having to take the life of a wholly innocent and culturally sensitive young woman, but the vengeful spirits of her own ancestors are unwavering. Although events conspire to ensure that she dies anyway, it initiates a crisis of conscience for BBB, just as the shadowy figure of her supervillainous adversary emerges. Captured and facing defeat, Jacqueline communes once again with her forebears in the spiritual realm and foreswears the mission they have charged her with, or at any rate makes an impassioned plea to reconsider whether the exponential vengeance she has been enacting breaks the cycle of violence or merely perpetuates it.
Is she a justifiable avenger or just a mass-murderer? For superhero fans it is a scene strikingly reminiscent of a structurally similar one in the recent cultural phenomena mega-hit Black Panther film, in which the hero confronts his father and ancestors on the spiritual plane and decides to honour their memory, yet break with their traditions, as befitting his own moral compass.
Much like many superhero films which espouse the ethical superiority of their protagonist while nonetheless treating their villain to a grisly end, Lui’s play gets to have its cake and eat it too. Despite this new resolution to find a less vengeful path, BBB’s orchestrating arch-nemesis turns out, of course, to be not only a direct descendant of the man who murdered her great-great grandmother, but also just so happens to be the last person in her database of 400 targets. His inevitable death at the conclusion of an epic anime-inspired final battle satisfies her grim mission of revenge nonetheless, but leads to an intriguing coda.
If Jacqueline rejected her ancestral mission in the end but, as BBB, ended up killing all the people on their list anyway, how has she really changed? As it turns out, she had not entirely felled the family tree, and with his dying words the play’s arch-villain gloated that he had a son hidden away, destined to perpetuate his eugenic mania. The play ends with news of indigenous uprisings around the world as backdrop to Jacqueline confronting (perhaps by chance) this as yet still innocent child, informing him of the racist and murderous perfidy of his father and forefathers. This time she decides not to kill the last descendent of those who raped and exterminated her ancestors, but warns the child that should he ever follow in their footsteps… Blackie Blackie Brown will be waiting.
This is quite an extraordinarily bold and provocative new show that, like most good political satire, is a heady mix of both silly and serious. It will likely play somewhat differently to different audiences, with on the one hand its tongue quite visibly in cheek, yet its gleeful indulgence in the black power revenge fantasy theme is unabashed. It is in no way kowtowing to the sensibilities of well-meaning white “allies” who might be offended over the satirical glorification of the revenge salvo in a race war that, from the perspective of many, continues to this day. This is an aggressive, intentionally overblown repudiation of the sentiment that the genocidal atrocities of European invasion and the legacy of colonialism should be left in the past, slinging a theatrical punch to the face of those still protesting “the black armband view of history”. It may be a camp and farcical mashup of trashy action genres, but Blackie Blackie Brown also reads as a piece of theatre with some real barbs and pain barely below the surface.
In any other play I might question the efficacy of the gear-change between the predominance of broad comedy and the legitimately harrowing extended description of rape, torture and child dismemberment in recounting the Aboriginal massacre. Yet here the acknowledgement of the lived truth of such real events underpins the entire premise of the play, however fanciful and exaggerated its super-vengeance narrative may be. It is suffused with an inextricable sense of testimony to the indigenous community’s survival and perseverance that rings loud and clear, and punching through the veneer of absurdist comedy is an angry fist, raised in a defiant exhortation to Never Forget.
Indeed, while the couple of almost whiplash-inducing tonal shifts might be challenging for audiences, I would hazard to argue that Lui could have pushed this stylistic dichotomy even further, particularly in her exploration of the title character’s moral dilemma over killing an innocent woman in order to fulfill her mission. An interesting angle to explore might have been to confront our hero with a target whose genealogy not only included those who had murdered her people, but had over the ensuing centuries intertwined with indigenous bloodlines as well. Presenting the challenge of whether BBB would be required or willing to kill someone who qualified as the descendent of both her oppressors and her own kin might have been intriguing material, but it would perhaps stray too far into ethical complication for a play which predominantly wants to revel in the notion of righteous revenge.
Declan Greene’s direction and Elizabeth Gadsby’s production design are key to this highly dynamic and impressive show, and no small part of that is due to the extensive use of multimedia projections. While screen components have featured in both Lui and Sisters Grimm’s past work, nothing quite prepares you for the onslaught of innovative graphical elements produced by animation and video artists Oh Yeah Wow. Both the backdrop and stage itself serve as projection surfaces, bursting to life in a cascade of different styles of animation, film, text, and special effects for the superheroic action.
Given the presumably prerecorded nature of this large amount of supporting content, its illusion of interaction with the live cast must have been a nightmare for technical rehearsal, yet the result is extremely impressive and virtually without any hitch. Accompanied by compositions and sound design from Steve Toulmin providing everything from atmospherics and a speaking computer (a vocal cameo by Peter Carroll) to a rather canny aping of Hans Zimmer’s brassy score to The Dark Knight movies, the show is a feast of soundscapes and almost overwhelming graphical diversity.
Megan Wilding carries the title role very capably, evincing both the comedic side of the project as well as the moments of genuine horror and pathos, getting into the camp spirit of the production, yet managing to bring it back to some real emotion when called upon. While Wilding is very funny in her own right, she inevitably slides into the straight-man role at times, alongside the incomparable comedic maelstrom that is Ash Flanders.
Performing seemingly dozens of doubled-up parts, he portrays every other live role in the play in a frenzy of quick-change costumes and a cavalcade of outrageous accents. Flanders is magnificently hilarious, giving each role, however tiny, its own distinct persona and never falling back on easy schtick. If anything, it is a testament to not only his generosity as a co-star but also in Wilding’s ability to hold her own and command the stage as the lead character that Flanders does not involuntarily eclipse her in what are, technically, a succession of mostly minor supporting roles.
Blackie Blackie Brown is a gobsmackingly vibrant, fresh, hilarious and at times confronting new play that deserves as wide an audience as possible. I rather doubt everyone will like it, but that is, I suspect, partly the point.
A Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre production
Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death
by Nakkiah Lui
Director Declan Greene
Venue: Wharf 2 | Pier 4 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW
Dates: 12 May – 30 June 2018
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au