Black is the New White: Meet the Director

Paige Rattray talks about her experience directing Nakkiah Lui’s smash-hit comedy

What first struck you about this play?

I was most struck by how, as an Aboriginal woman writing about middle-class Aboriginal people, Nakkiah is checking her privilege. I was really impressed and excited by that bravery. She’s really putting herself out there and I think all great artists do that. Nakkiah does it with such charm, openheartedness and humour. She examines her thoughts so thoroughly, leaving nothing unturned, and she uses each character to explore different ideas and points of view. Also, the way she writes about cultural identity and then destabilises it at each turn means that we’re constantly questioning what it means to be a middle-class Aboriginal person. She has a gift for self-analysis.

And her ability to follow a path of logic and then turn it on its head and interrogate it at each juncture is remarkable.

Exactly. They’re such complex ideas. There’s a great scene in the play when Rose Gibson comes home and her Christmas tradition, with her sister Charlotte, is to smoke a joint and have a chat. But things are different this time, because of the information Charlotte has discovered about her father and because she’s brought a white man home. They have the most complex conversation about cultural identity but, because Nakkiah has it happen while they’re smoking a joint, we can really slow it down and let the characters take their time. If they weren’t stoned it could absolutely fly over our heads, but because they’re slowed down we can sit with it and take it in. Each word, each idea is placed very carefully. That is genius.

The narrator is an interesting inclusion in the play. It’s such a familiar conceit but it seems almost passé as a concept now. What can the narrator be and what can’t it be for it to work well here?

The improvisations were useful. We pushed that character to see how far he could be involved in the world of the other characters. We found a few little moments of overlap, but it’s actually much better if he is outside the reality, observing. He’s more connected to the audience than he is to the characters.

You’ve talked about the play being Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets The Family Stone meets Meet the Fockers meets Grand Designs. So, is the narrator Kevin McCloud — a reality show host?

No, we originally did think of him like that but it’s evolved since. When Nakkiah was first writing the play, she was thinking of Ray Martin in First Contact crossed with David Attenborough. And then we started talking more about Alec Baldwin in The Royal Tenenbaums because the documentary style wasn’t working in this rom-com context. It needed more of a fairytale element with a storytelling style rather than giving factual information about Aboriginal people. As the story progresses and we fall further down the rabbit hole, the narrator becomes more casual and loosens up and I think, in a way, that is what happens to all of us watching.

At times, you had the cast improvise in rehearsals. How does that work?

It’s a structured improvisation where we break the play down into different main events and then mini events within that. That gives the actors a framework in which to improvise. For this production, I used the improvisations as a way to let the actors figure out the space and find opportunities for comedic moments, like a surprise entrance, for example. It lets me see how the actors might move through the space and how we could tell the story spatially as well as through the dialogue.

Are there locations in the set that start to belong to certain characters?

Yes, absolutely. There are so many great playing spaces for everyone thanks to our designer Renée Mulder. There’s ‘Dad’s Chair’ which is a bit of a throne in this play. When he feels threatened, Ray Gibson heads to this part of the house. It takes quite a bit to get him out of that place, actually. He’s a bit like a cat, he likes to be at the highest point. Then there’s the window seat where Joan Gibson likes to sit and smoke a little joint or a cigarette. And a particular spot on the stairs where Sonny Jones can hear the voice of the Lord.

What have you taken away from working on this play?

I have to say, it’s been one of the best experiences that I’ve had working in theatre. Within all the laughs it has been a huge learning experience. Nakkiah is incredibly generous with her knowledge and lived experience, as are the other performers in the production. The cast have talked a lot about their experiences working in theatre and film, and about the incredible toll it takes on Indigenous Australian actors being killed night after night onstage. Although knowing the telling of those stories is important, Nakkiah has filled this play with so much joy, our rehearsals were about 60% work, 40% laughter. It was brilliant.

Black is the New White runs for a strictly limited season in the Dunstan Playhouse from 13 November–1 December. Click here to book your tickets to a modern Australian classic.

Behind the Curtain

State Theatre Company South Australia welcomes you behind the curtain. Join us for bold opinions and discussions of art and theatre and learn about what makes the onstage magic happen.

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