Nakkiah Lui on Blaque Showgirls

9 November 2016

Read the extended transcript of Nakkiah Lui's Interview

Can you tell us a little more about Blaque Showgirls and the spelling of the title?

In this world, Blaque Showgirls are like Beyonce meets Kim Kardashian meets Gina Gershon from the original film Showgirls. The spelling of Blaque comes from references to femininity, to queerness, and it was my way to be a little bit subversive and to just have some fun. The title really does what the play does, which is take the mickey a bit. There’s also a really good girl group from the 90s called Blaque.

You're taking 1995 film Showgirls as a point of inspiration, can you talk about why you were inspired specifically by that film?

I love the film Showgirls. I think it's an unacknowledged masterpiece. And the reason why I chose to adapt it that I was at a point in my career where I as being told 'You should adapt a classic, you should do an adaptation,’ and I'd had meetings with various theatre companies and they were all looking to the work of these dead white men. As a young black woman, I took a little bit of grievance with that. Why do I have to use the work of a dead white guy to somehow legitimise myself?

And what I really like about Showgirls is that it works on two premises. That sex is a commodity and that gender is a performance. Or it can go the opposite way, where gender is a commodity and sex is performed. And I thought that would be really interesting if I could place that into present day racial politics, where it's acknowledged that race is performed and it can be seen that culture is a commodity. And looking at the genre of Showgirls, because essentially it's an extravagant, sexploitation-dance film, I found it was a really interesting vehicle to actually look at whiteness and the narrative of whiteness in contemporary Australia.

The production centres around the main character of Ginny, can you tell us a bit more about her journey as a character?

So Ginny is a young woman who grew up in the small town of Chitole. She never had the opportunity of meeting her mother, and all she knows is that her mother was a Blaque Showgirl, but nobody in her town accepts her for being black. So she decides to travel to Brisvegas to find out more about her mother, and to inevitably become a Blaque Showgirl.

This story is in a lot of ways about discovering your identity, and the complications that exist around the fluidity of identity when we don't deconstruct race. We see race as this inherent thing. I think it's a really interesting topic within Australia where Aboriginal identity has been so influenced by colonisation and the tragedy and trauma of that: the way that skin colour and blood quotas where used to justify abuse and massacres and genocide.

I wrote this show around the height of the Racheal Dolezal scandal, who was a white woman who identified as African American, and tapped into this idea of identity politics vs. objectivity surrounding the suppression of race. So I think we’re at this really interesting time in our discourse on how we identify, and what it means to identify as something.

The production looks at various layers of Australiana and cultural appropriation and cultural tourism, can you talk about some of those layers that we’ll see onstage?

In writing this work, I wanted to create a play that was entirely disingenuous. As a young Aboriginal woman, a lot of the criticism that I receive from outside my community is questioning authenticity. This idea of what's an authentic Aboriginal and what's not an authentic Aboriginal. What's authentic culture and what's not authentic culture. I think authenticity becomes this tool to police aboriginal identity.

So for this show I wanted to create a play that didn't come from any type of authentic standpoint. There’s a lot of riffing on the cultural appropriation of Aboriginal culture, for example references to the Rainbow Serpent, and I don't know how many times I've seen that term co-opted by hippy-dippy white people. Like ‘The Rainbow Serpent Trance Festival’... trance is lame...I don't know if that's just personal taste. There's also the Emu Dance, which I remember getting taught by a white teacher in primary school, and being a little black kid arguing with them. Things like boomerangs that get sold down by the ferries at Circular Quay in Sydney, by non-aboriginal people. Boomerangs that don't even freaking fly.

So I've tried to riff on this idea of Aboriginal authenticity, where for Aboriginal people, our culture is held as this authentic thing, and I think this comes down to the idea of the 'noble savage'. The idea that Aboriginal people were savages and therefore colonisation of us is this thing that's justified. You see that only within native cultures or cultures that have been colonised. It something really interesting that I’ve been trying to play with.

Can you tell us a bit about why you think it’s important to see Indigenous stories and stories by women of colour onstage?

Ultimately at the end of the day, a society is our stories; people understand each other through stories. And change doesn't come from the mind, quite often change comes from the heart. It's not someone's great argument that makes someone change, it's actually empathy, seeing somebody else and understanding their story. And so for me, for theatre to be relevant, it needs to reflect the rest of society.

And for me as an Aboriginal woman I wanna be able to create a space with my work that challenges the status quo, that is doing and saying something different from that classic canon. I want to erase the lines in the sand. And you want your work to do that so that other people can explore and create new things. So that's why I think it's really important. What do we have at the end of the day, like what gets passed down through generations? It's stories. Whether it's oral, theatre, TV, or vines or tweets or whatever, a story is a story, and it's empathy and it's person to person. If our stories are so limited to certain people, then what is the point of that?

Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in the play?

In this play, we're operating on this idea that race is a performance, race is constructed. So I think it’s really interesting within this play, do you double down gender lines or do you double down racial lines?

A huge chunk of Blaque Showgirls is influenced by queer theatre. I love looking at companies like Sisters Grimm, The Rabble, even back to John Waters, who was one of my favourite filmmakers as a kid. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I loved him anyway. Queer art has this amazing way of totally undercutting the status quo and questioning what holds the centre. And in a lot of cases that's the hetero-normative and upholding of the gender binary. I wanted to do that with Blaque Showgirls, to create a piece of work that was a black piece that just undercut whiteness, which is our status quo and our dominant power.

Also it's a play I describe as being like bell hooks meets South Park. I love South Park, I love satire and I wanted to be able to create a work in which I could have actors take the piss as much as Matt Stone and Trey Parker do. And to play with that. It's a big idea but we've got an amazing team on board to make it happen.