13 July, 2018 in Reviews
A review by Davey Thompson.
Dabbling in layers of oppression and vengeance that are common to most superhero narratives, Nakkiah Lui’s new play Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death, currently in season at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, is an origin story that speaks to many – judging by Marvel’s box office dominance in cinemas, we all love this shit.
Dalara Williams stars as a mild mannered archaeologist who, upon discovering the skull of her great grandmother at a massacre site, is transformed into the avenging superhero of the title. Upon gaining her powers, Blackie Blackie Brown sets out on a mission to tie up the loose ends of a hundred-year-old injustice, with co-star Ash Flanders playing a host of characters not long for this world.
But why does this Aboriginal superhero rub certain Australians the wrong way?
For one thing, blak superheroes are few and far between. We’ve had a few comical characters come to life in the form of Deadly Dave in ABC’s Black Comedy, co-created by Lui, and the very short-lived Basically Black, co-created by the founders of the Blak Theatre movement, gave us Super Boong. Other characters like Condoman and Lubalicious have also been around for a number of years, used to educate Indigenous Australians on the importance of practicing safe sex.
These characters exist in a particular realm, that of comedy – they all have superpowers but their main reason for existing is to make us laugh and/or learn. Aboriginal superheroes who could fight alongside the likes of Superman, Batman and the now-super-popular Black Panther are even fewer and further between.
Though both Marvel and DC have taken turns at presenting Aboriginal superheroes in their comic books, they’ve since been retired to the backbench roster of characters only true fans would know about (there’s always Google, you mob).
The ABC stepped up to the plate with two seasons of Ryan Griffen’s Cleverman, arguably the biggest and most successful Aboriginal superhero to date. While I’m not one to encourage piracy, Cleverman episodes were amongst the most torrented in the world during Game of Thrones season – the most watched television show in history – proving a hunger for a First Nations take on the superhero yarn. Here’s hoping the LNP’s funding cuts to the ABC don’t completely drown the third season for us.
Blackie Blackie Brown is a refreshing addition to the mix, all the more so because female superheros are still rare to see beyond the pages of comic books. Her staunchness and high body count make her a front-runner for my dream team to help the Avengers fight Thanos.
Guided by a strong line of matriarchal ancestors, she is the Aboriginal superhero who fights for our history to be told. White Australians have often adopted the attitude, when discussing this country’s genocidal past, that it “never happened,” an infuriating barrier to collide with when all the evidence points to the contrary.
It’s almost as if we aren’t allowed to be angry about a history that we know we’re being denied. News.com.au’s finance editor Frank Chung penned a column about Blackie Blackie Brown’s Sydney season before it even opened, and therefore not having seen it himself.
His take focused very heavily on the idea of revenge and the sheer audacity of Aboriginal people wanting a bit of it. Chung also insinuated disdain at the amount of money the production was awarded in order to come to life, while ignoring Lui’s underlying messages of unlearning oppressive colonial behaviour. Yes, the mission-managing attitudes of dead human rights abusers are still very much alive in Australia.
The subsequent online storm of controversy surrounding Lui’s newest play lies in the untold truths she isn’t afraid to say. Blackie Blackie Brown is on a mission to right the wrongs perpetrated by colonists during the Black Wars, a war that was purposefully left out of the curriculum in decades upon decades of education in Australia.
The idea of Aboriginal people existing or having any form of human quality is something that our government has always had trouble believing in, from terra nullius and the licenses it issued to citizens to kill natives when they first got here, right up to sending the Australian Defence Force into poverty-stricken Aboriginal communities on the whiff of a rumour of paedophilia.
The idea that Aboriginal people seeking revenge for what this government has given permission to its citizens to do to us is one that will shake any uneducated monarchist or patriot to the core. We quite literally share sovereignty with Lizzie because her country’s unquenchable thirst for White supremacy wasn’t enough for us to surrender our sovereignty. She’s equal to us on this land in the eyes of your law. That’s why people like Arts Minister Mitch Fifield, another critic of Lui’s play – sight unseen – keep ideas like this at arm’s length.
And what a sight it is to behold. The play’s fantastic mix of lighting, animation and choreography make this show worth seeing alone. It’s not often that a superhero story can be successfully be told on a stage, but Blackie Blackie Brown does it very well.
Animation by production team Oh Yeah Wow is used for the “big budget” fight sequences we’re familiar with seeing in superhero films, adding an extra layer of both realism and surrealism to the work. Huge compliments to them for bringing the splattering blood and explosions to life in a way that theatre has rarely seen before.
Blackie Blackie Brown is proof that dragging your feet towards reconciliation will only make generation upon generation of Aboriginal people smarter, angrier, more embedded within the structure the mainstream rely on, and more determined to pull it apart.
Imagine if John Howard apologised for the Stolen Generations back in the 90s. Maybe people like Nakkiah and myself wouldn’t have grown up with the chips on our shoulders that make White people quiver.
Blackie Blackie Brown is at the Malthouse Theatre until August 3. Click here for more info or to book tickets.
Thankyou to Stephen Russell for his continued support and mentorship of Davey Thompson through YIRRAMBOI Blak Critics 2018.