The State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse
Until 01 Dec 2019

Review by Helen Karakulak

State Theatre Company’s “Black is the New White” is a hilariously heart-warming portrayal of cultural pride and feminine heart. Offering absurdity and outrageous humour, “Black is the New White” is a festive balance between slapstick and sincere social relevance.

The elaborate set by Renée Mulder is an asset to the performance, offering levels to a versatile dining and living room setting that allows for extravagantly physical entrances and dramatic exits. It provides a comfortable environment for characters that are in an inherently uncomfortable situation; the coming together of rival former politicians and their families at Christmas due to the engagement of their children.

Crucial backstory is provided by Narrator and self-proclaimed ‘spirit of Christmas’ played by the energetic Luke Carroll. Carroll commands the stage, offering commentary, but strays from conventional by incorporating boisterous participation that cements the light-hearted nature of the performance.

Melodie Reynolds-Diarra as Joan Gibson was a beacon of motherly wisdom, sincerity and light humour. Far from passive, her assertive physicality offered a glowing contrast to her husband Ray Gibson, played by Tony Briggs, and his egotistical, stubborn nature. Both demonstrate tough and demanding exteriors that are derived from a desire to give their family a better life, and pride from what they’ve managed to have built. Peppered between light-hearted jabs at her husband, mispronunciation of retail outlets, and sneaking the occasional cigarette, Reynolds-Diarra diffuses brewing tension between her daughters, delivering powerful femineity through a moving delivery.

The chemistry between pairings is undeniable. Central couple Charlotte Gibson, played by Miranda Tapsell, and Francis Smith, played by Tom Stokes, exchange quick-witted banter and snipes at one another’s race from the get-go, affirming that this is a performance defying norm and taboo, encouraging laughter at what we often feel we shouldn’t be laughing at.

Tapsell is a powerhouse as the ambitious Charlotte, who questions her privilege and the differing mentality’s her and her family have towards their Aboriginality. Tapsell never falters in her firm but fair explanation of Charlotte’s passion and apprehension through domineering and confident characterisation. Charlotte’s struggle with class guilt and questioning nature is central to the playwright, Nakkiah Lui’s intention to defy common stories or tropes within the Australian canon. Lui’s insightful script encompasses political aspects of race, class and cultural identity, as well as the importance of questioning your privilege.

Stokes as the bubbly, musically inclined, cringeworthy Francis provides a nice juxtaposition to the more serious themes of the production. Himself and his stilted relationship with parents, Dennison, played by Geoff Morell, and Marie, played by Vanessa Downing, is delivered playfully through intentionally awkward jokes and flippant topical one-liners such as, “ok, Boomer”. This comic relief does well in delivering cliché in a way that feels far from it, but rather fresh and fun.

Highlights of the performance showcasing the well-timed physicality of this talented ensemble were the elements of slapstick comedy, including a naked introduction of fiancé and father, daggy dad-dancing and an extravagant food fight. All of which supported the overall theme of being able to laugh at oneself and expressed heightened emotions in a light-hearted way.

“Black is the New White” is an inclusive, insightful offering of narrative straying from typical Australian canon that is usually seen on stage. It’s thoughtful and calculated humour works beautifully, far from forced but delicately intertwined with substantial intellectual and thought-provoking perspectives. There is no reason why “Black is the New White” shouldn’t be a holiday favourite, prosperous in praise and future adaptations.