Nakkiah Lui is hot. The Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander writer now has her second play on at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney “ and she’s moved Upstairs from the more experimental Downstairs theatre “ and she claims she had her arm twisted by director Anthea Williams to play ‘herself’ on stage as well. I suspect Lui didn’t need much persuading! But with some of her explanatory speeches going on for three and half pages of text, she did both burden her ‘character’ and raise doubts about the theatricality of the play.
There’s no doubt about ‘Kill the Messenger‘s didacticism. We, the audience, are being given a lesson about racism from the Black side. But are we also being given an exercise in Pirandellism, ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author‘-style “ with our playwright frequently breaking through the fourth wall of the stage to tell us what we ought to be understanding from her drama.
And that consists of the tale of Nakkiah’s Gran “ left to rot by the authorities (and her family?) in Western suburbs public housing that never gets repaired because its ‘Aboriginal Housing’. She falls through the rotten floor, is injured and never emerges from hospital again. Not that this is acted out for us. Lui tells us this sad saga in between lusty episodes with her on-and-off again boyfriend. She also debates the rights and wrongs of it with him “ and is able to throw blame in his direction because he’s white. Unpromising dramatically. But somehow it works.
That’s the real life side of the show. Then there’s a sort of fictional side involving a drug-addicted Aboriginal guy, Paul (played delightfully by Lasarus Ratuere), his sister and reluctant carer (Katie Beckett), and the emergency ward nurse (Matthew Backer) who is put on the spot by her to explain why Paul was turned away from hospital and allowed to head out and hang himself. There’s a generous balance here “ drug addicts claiming to be ‘in pain’ are a nightmare for a chaotic emergency ward so it’s not just a racist thing. But a good hospital should have discovered that Paul’s pain was absolutely real “ welling up from an advanced cancer. That Backer may well be ‘Middle Eastern’ in appearance perhaps helps his cause.
A significant ring is involved; and there’s another ring in the real world. Sorrow is an issue in both worlds, crossing the borders between them, as does Nakkiah (or as Paul jokes, Nokia) as she tells him that his death is dramatically necessary. She needs to find a purpose in it. We can all empathise with that, even if we have trouble with the unsubstantiated statement that Paul has hanged himself “ “but the culture survives”. Yea? How??? Even Lui seems unsure: Here is my story of survival, she writes/says. Of culture, of authenticity. Whatever the fuck that is.
But there’s no duff acting on designer Ralph Myers’s bare stage, where it might easily have been exposed. And in Katie Beckett we may well have a new Miranda Tapsell “ one of the stars of ‘The Sapphires‘, who gets a wry name-check from Lui who claims to have expected Tapsell to be playing her part. But I did wonder whether we’d gone too far into Pirandello territory in having uninvolved actors sitting in the shadows throughout the play “ awaiting their moment in the inquisitorial rectangle of light centrestage, where all the action happened.
Could this possibly have emerged from the presence of academic and senior theatre critic John McCallum, whom I note is credited as a ‘Rehearsal Room Observer’ in the program “ alongside Indigenous actor/writer Jada Alberts as dramaturg?
I’m all in favour of supporting new talent like Nakkiah Lui to the hilt. But I also look forward to her first unsupported effort.