When publicity about Nakkiah Lui’s new play Kill the Messenger spoke of her anger and institutionalised racism, it seemed her Belvoir Theatre audience had to prepare for confrontation and accusation. Nakkiah, right, is a young Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander playwright, actor and lawyer, who was born and raised in Mount Druitt – an area known for its socio-economic disadvantage, high proportion of Aboriginal people, and public housing. Hers is the first generation of her family to be raised in Sydney. Everyone else grew up in the country. Although her grandfather was illiterate, Nakkiah says that it was his gift for storytelling that inspired her play writing. Her heritage and politics inform her craft.
Yes, Kill the Messenger is confronting, but it is far more nuanced than seemed to be suggested. It is confronting in part because of Nakkiah’s sheer honesty and her determination to present the stories as she experienced and researched them. Initially, her play was inspired by the suicide of an Aboriginal man, who was refused drugs at the local hospital, because it was assumed he was merely an addict. Part way through her writing, Nakkiah’s beloved Nanna died from injuries after falling through the termite ridden floor of her Housing Commission home of more than 30 years. Her loss was devastating to Nakkiah and in her grief and anger, her play began to weave the two stories together with herself as the central character and performer. There seemed no other way to tell the stories.
I saw the play on March 3, with a capacity audience of many young as well as older people. Gradually, we met the key players – Paul, above, the Aboriginal man, whose addiction means he is always trying to scrape together enough money to score another hit; Alex, the white male nurse in the hospital’s emergency unit, right; Harley, Paul’s sister who loves him and tries to fight his addiction, with Paul, above; Nakkiah the playwright and Peter her on again/off again white boyfriend and fellow law student, below. The stories weave themselves between and through each other and at times seem to merge. The scenes are interspersed with commentary from Nakkiah.
The context for each character becomes clear throughout the play. The endless part that institutionalised racism plays in Aboriginal lives is constantly revealed. Her grandfather was given honorary white man status for his military service in World War II, though it was immediately withdrawn once his service ended. Consequently, he could never receive a home like those awarded to other returned servicemen. Nakkiah’s grandparents did receive a house through an Aboriginal housing agency, but could never own it. Because of uncoordinated bureaucratic regulation, Aboriginal housing slipped to the bottom of government housing maintenance lists. As a result, despite a year of pleading for repairs to be done, Nakkiah’s Nanna was severely injured and died weeks later in hospital.
Yes, it is a story of deep injustice and tragedy, but it it is told with self-mocking and sometimes sharp tongued humour, youthful energy and optimism. To her audience Nakkiah says, “It’s so easy to point the bad things out, like racism, but it’s a whole lot harder to identify ourselves, where we fit. You may not see yourself in this story because you may not think you are part of it. You may not really see me either. I’m just the messenger, here to tell a tale or deliver the bad news. But I’m not just the messenger, this is me. My thoughts aren’t clear and I don’t know why bad things happen and how to fix it, but I’m telling you this. I wrote this. I wrote this for you.”
In the writer’s note to her play Kill the Messenger, published by Currency Press, Nakkiah Lui says: “We come to the theatre for empathy and to know that we exist. We seek acknowledgement in theatre and through that acknowledgement we seek agency.”
Photos, rehearsals – Belvoir. Cast: Alex – Matthew Backer, Harley – Katie Beckett, Nakkiah – Nakkiah Lui, Paul – Lasarus Ratuere, Peter – Sam O’Sullivan. Director – Anthea Williams.