Nakkiah Lui reimag­ines An Oc­toroon: 'It ap­peals to the con­trar­ian in me'

The Guardian Australia - - News - Stephanie Con­very

When Nakkiah Lui first read the script for Bran­den Ja­cobs-Jenk­ins’ play An Oc­toroon, she was “kind of an­gry and re­ally jeal­ous”.

“My first thought was, why didn’t I write this play?” she says.

Her sec­ond thought was more prac­ti­cal: “Why isn’t any­one putting this work on?”

Lui – play­wright, ac­tor, columnist whose pre­vi­ous theatre cred­its in­clude Black is the New White and Kill The Mes­sen­ger – had re­cently been ap­pointed to the na­tional artis­tic team at Queens­land Theatre, along with other emerg­ing and es­tab­lished artists in­clud­ing The Sap­phires di­rec­tor Wayne Blair and in­die theatre com­pany El­bow Room’s Mar­cel Dor­ney. When she first brought Ja­cobs-Jenk­ins’ play to the com­pany’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, Sam Strong, it was out of a de­sire to see more black works on stage.

“Why don’t we im­port new works by peo­ple of colour? We don’t re­ally do that,” she ex­plains. “Why are all our clas­sics by white peo­ple? White men, but white peo­ple? Why aren’t we bring­ing in new works to put on, over­seas plays, that are by peo­ple of colour, that dis­cuss racial pol­i­tics?”

When we speak, it’s a week into re­hearsals for Queens­land Theatre’s pro­duc­tion of An Oc­toroon, with Lui in her di­rec­to­rial de­but. She had no spe­cific am­bi­tion to di­rect the work her­self, but her pas­sion for it is ob­vi­ous –and who bet­ter to put an Indige­nous Aus­tralian spin on an African-Amer­i­can meta-commentary on an Ir­ish stage adap­ta­tion of an Amer­i­can novel? Yes, it’s that com­pli­cated.

Ja­cobs-Jenk­ins’ play is a con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the 1859 melo­drama The Oc­toroon by Ir­ish play­wright Dion Bouci­cault. (Bouci­cault him­self was adapt­ing a novel, The Quadroon, by Thomas Maine Reid.) The cen­tral nar­ra­tive con­cerns a plan­ta­tion owner, Ge­orge Pey­ton, who ar­rives home from a trip to find him­self fi­nan­cially ru­ined due to the mis­man­age­ment of his es­tate by his care­taker, M’Closky.

While be­ing courted by wealthy so­cialite Dora, who may save his for­tunes, Ge­orge falls in love with Zoe – the daugh­ter of his un­cle and a slave, and the “oc­toroon” of the ti­tle (the deroga­tory term is used to de­scribe a per­son who is one-eighth black by de­scent). But M’Closky is also in love with Zoe, and knows that, due to her her­itage, she is legally part of the prop­erty. So he plots to use this to his ad­van­tage – to have her sold off, to pre­vent her mar­ry­ing Ge­orge.

The plot alone is com­pli­cated enough, but Ja­cobs-Jenk­ins’ script re­ori­ents Bouci­cault’s work to his own per­spec­tive: the cen­tral char­ac­ter be­comes a play­wright called “BJJ” – script di­rec­tions state he is to be “played by an ac­tual play­wright, African-Amer­i­can ac­tor, or black ac­tor” – who breaks the fourth wall, ini­tially to com­plain that all the white ac­tors have quit his pro­duc­tion, leav­ing him to play a num­ber of key (white) roles him­self.

What fol­lows is Bouci­cault’s nar­ra­tive – more or less – reimag­ined by BJJ, and punc­tu­ated by cut­ting and hi­lar­i­ous commentary.

And Lui is tak­ing the whole thing a step fur­ther – with Ja­cobs-Jenk­ins’ bless­ing – re­mov­ing the play from the con­text of the United States’ south and giv­ing it an Aus­tralian spin. The African-Amer­i­can char­ac­ters in the script be­come Indige­nous Aus­tralian (the cast in­cludes Colin Smith, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra and Shari Sebbens among oth­ers) and the plan­ta­tion in ques­tion shifts to far north Queens­land.

Lui says sur­pris­ingly lit­tle of the script needed to change in or­der to make it work for an Aus­tralian con­text: “It’s been a sur­prise in the room how those words fit into an Abo­rig­i­nal ver­nac­u­lar and twang.”

Part of the rea­son the shift works, says Lui, is­be­cause there are com­mon­al­i­ties be­tween the ex­pe­ri­ences of black Amer­i­cans and Indige­nous Aus­tralians. But while Aus­tralian au­di­ences demon­strate a clear ca­pac­ity to be crit­i­cal of his­tory and pol­i­tics when it comes to the US, Lui says, they are re­mark­ably less crit­i­cal of what hap­pens in their own back­yard.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing, as an Abo­rig­i­nal per­son in Aus­tralia, that peo­ple are more will­ing to en­gage with the his­tory and be em­pa­thetic – sym­pa­thetic – with over­seas di­as­po­ras than they are for peo­ple here,” she says.

“We will go see Django Un­chained and we will cheer for Django, and we will watch 12 Years a Slave and we will lament about how bad slav­ery is; we will look at Char­lottesville and we will think gee, isn’t Trump a racist. We will ques­tion them about their xeno­pho­bia for build­ing a wall; we’re so em­pa­thetic at times.

“I think Aus­tralia has this ca­pac­ity ... to be crit­i­cal of over­seas his­tory and pol­i­tics but yet in Aus­tralia we just do not men­tion it. And if you men­tion it, you are cre­at­ing a vic­tim nar­ra­tive, just for want­ing the truth recog­nised.”

She hopes that us­ing “an over­seas lens” will help cut through to lo­cal au­di­ences.

Bouci­cault’s play prompted de­bate over slav­ery: some saw it as an abo­li­tion­ist work, while oth­ers thought it was sym­pa­thetic to­wards slav­ery. (Bouci­cault de­nied his play was im­bued with a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage at all.) Th­ese days, the word “oc­toroon” is con­sid­ered a dated slur, and Ja­cobs-Jenk­ins’ script both ac­knowl­edges and skew­ers the racism of the orig­i­nal text with hu­mour and self-re­flex­iv­ity – not least by hav­ing Bouci­cault him­self ap­pear in the play as a bel­liger­ent drunk.

Lui says that An Oc­toroon spoke to her be­cause of the way it han­dles ev­ery­thing from the racism of the orig­i­nal ti­tle – which “ap­pealed to the con­trar­ian in me” – to the way it in­verts tropes such as black­face, in ways that are both com­i­cal and deeply po­lit­i­cal.

“It’s all about ‘pass­ing’ – not about this idea of au­then­tic iden­tity but ‘pass­ing’ – as in, this is what some­one thinks you are, which is what race is in many ways,” Lui says.

She namechecks queer in­de­pen­dent Mel­bourne-based theatre out­fit Sis­ters Grimm as artists do­ing sim­i­lar sub­ver­sive ex­per­i­ments with con­cepts of iden­tity in theatre. “I wouldn’t say [An Oc­toroon] is a piece of queer theatre, but [it plays with] this idea of what it is to re­con­struct, to use stereo­types and to use peo­ple’s as­sumed knowl­edge, and to use tropes and to skewer them. And the play uses white­face, it uses black­face, it uses brown­face. It plays with this idea of in­au­then­tic­ity and car­i­ca­ture.”

In prac­ti­cal terms, one of the big­gest ques­tions for Lui was how to trans­pose the pol­i­tics of the play to the speci­fici­ties of the Aus­tralian con­text. As she puts it: “If Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are black, and we are [also] First Nations, then what is the role of the First Nations char­ac­ter – the Na­tive Amer­i­can – in that text, and how does that mean­ing have cur­rency here?”

As for the is­sue of how slav­ery trans­lates to the Aus­tralian con­text, for Lui this is straight­for­ward: “Stolen wages weren’t stolen wages; it was slav­ery. Let’s call a pig a pig.”

In the past, Lui has been de­scribed as a young Indige­nous leader, though she has also ex­pressed dis­com­fort with the term as it is ap­plied to her – the term “leader”, that is, though she is vo­cal about the way her Gami­laroi/Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der her­itage is used to de­fine her, too. In a re­cent Face­book post, Lui took aim at jour­nal­ists who in­sist on re­fer­ring to her as an “Indige­nous play­wright” while white play­wrights will be named with­out qual­i­fiers: “You are say­ing to be a play­wright is to be white. To be an au­then­tic and good play­wright, you NEED to be white,” she wrote.

It’s not sur­pris­ing this is on Lui’s mind: it’s a theme ad­dressed ex­plic­itly within An Oc­toroon. “Hi, ev­ery­one, I’m a ‘black play­wright’,” BJJ says, in the very first lines of the script. Then: “I don’t know ex­actly what that means.”

“Our clas­sics are so racialised,” Lui says. “When we talk about clas­sics re­ally we’re talk­ing about work from the white di­as­pora.”

“Black theatre started as a po­lit­i­cal move­ment here. It was the Na­tional Black theatre; it was Su­per­boong in Ba­si­cally Black on ABC ... [which] played on this idea of tak­ing stereo­types and car­i­ca­tures and racism and satiris­ing it, and I think that this work speaks to that hugely. I wanted this work to go on for my­self as an artist and as a writer, be­cause I do think it’s a game-changer.

“It changes the way we tell sto­ries, not just as black peo­ple but the way that white peo­ple see black theatre.”

• An Oc­toroon runs un­til 8 Oc­to­ber at Bille Brown Stu­dio, Queens­land Theatre, as part of Bris­bane fes­ti­val

‘Why don’t we im­port new works by peo­ple of colour?’ asks Lui. ‘Why are all our clas­sics by white peo­ple?’ Pho­to­graph: Stephen Hen­ryQueens­land Theatre

Nakkiah Lui says that sur­pris­ingly lit­tle of the script needed to change in or­der to make it work in an Aus­tralian con­text. Pho­to­graph: Queens­land Theatre

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