This review was first published on Daily Review on 19 May 2018
Performer Ash Flanders kicks off Blackie Blackie Brown in a hilariously high camp mode with his portrayal of a pink jacketed, chino short-wearing theatre luvvie home from a show, waxing sentimentally on the phone to his friend about Indigenous theatre that is “powerful, so powerful” (all those “orange lights”!). As the lights in his own apartment fail and a hole in the floor opens up and swallows him, writer Nakkiah Lui (Black is the New White, Black Comedy) signals she will be very funny – deadly, brutally funny – but also that she won’t serve up some sort of comfortably utopian dreamtime story from the past as we settle back into our padded seats.
We’re soon taken to an outback scene, where archaeologist Dr Jacqueline Black (Megan Wilding) is now assessing the hole in the ground, inspecting the site for items of cultural significance before a mining company has its way. Flanders rolls back on set again on a Segway, this time as a posh colonial taskmaster who tells “Blackie” (it’s really just a term of affection, like “Warnie”) to get a move on. It’s a whitewash. But Jacqueline soon hits on a skull and ancient powers are stirred.
The ghost of Jacqueline’s great-great-grandmother (Elaine Crombie, appearing in a video projection) arrives to tell Jacqueline how her family was massacred by four white men (only her youngest child escapes, floating down the river like Moses). In a play that is about the fall out of mass killings and the appropriation of a country from Indigenous Australians, Lui does more than her own fair share of brilliant cultural appropriation to some clever (and hilarious) ends. Jacqueline’s great-great grandmother, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, urges her own descendent to take vengeance on the four men’s 400 descendants, giving her 28 days to complete the task. The unassuming doctor, initially horrified, warms to the task as she holds her foremother’s skull aloft. Enter vigilante Blackie Blackie Brown (BBB): she’s mad and she’s bad.
From here the play turns into a bloody romp that gleefully steals from the cartoon and the camp as well as the classical. Designers Oh Yeah Wow and artist Emily Johnson have created a brilliant series of animations, videos and special effects that reference superhero comics, Blaxploitation movies, and the visual language of South Park(the endless acts of violence, rivers of snot and a giant, hairy inflatable penis).
Elizabeth Gadsby’s set design, a plain white sloping floor like the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever, or the grid of an ’80s video game, and a backdrop of white doors like a game show. It’s an inspired setting for the frenetic action. Trap doors and windows and dropdown parts create instant scene and mood changes. The set also turns into a giant game of Whac-a-mole, and BBB runs around to kill pop up images of sacred cows like Meryl Streep, along with Bill Shorten, and just ordinary old cows like Tony Abbott.
Wilding is terrific as BBB, an unlikely murderous superhero, all blue hair, pink satin bomber jacket and leather Aboriginal flag bustier. Flanders puts in a phenomenal performance and brilliant comic timing playing all of the victims of BBB’s murderous spree: from a Klu Klux Klan member to an oily politician spruiking a health scheme for indigenous women that turns out to be a diabolical plot, to Rebecca, a BBB fan girl who fawns and carries on about being a ‘Blasian’ (a black/Asian) ally herself.
The combination of cartoon graphic animations and characters pre-recorded on video interacting with live actors could be jarring and chaotic, but it works seamlessly. The actors’ timing is impressive, but praise must also go to Declan Greene for his steadying directing hand. Apart from a couple of developed scenes, the story whizzes along in gags and a pile-up of murders. The play’s targets also include the media, big business and religion, and it can all seem a little too scattergun at times. But the cumulative effect of all the cutting comedy is to ask some serious questions about the nature of justice, and whether it can ever be achieved politely with reconciliation statements and rhetoric, without a really radical cleansing.
When Wilding as BBB seems to step out of character at the end with a message about the magic of Indigenous people, and their role as the chosen people, it is hard to know – after the laughs that have gone before – whether to read this as the serious take-home message. But Blackie Blackie Brown’s denouement leaves us with an appropriately uneasy truce. BBB hunts down her final victim – a little boy (Kempton Maloney) home alone in his suburban castle, appearing on video like an incarnation of all the golden, innocent boys of Australian cinema (Careful He Might Hear You, Romulus, My Father and Paper Planes). Lui leaves us on edge, wondering whether justice will ever be achieved until he is eliminated too.