Premiering at the Malthouse Theatre this November, Blaque Showgirls is, a multi-faceted piece of theatre that simultaneously has you laughing your guts out whilst punching you in the teeth. It is hilarious and devastating. But most impressively, it articulately defines the tragic absurdities of contemporary Australia’s relationship with Aboriginality and diversity in a way that rarely penetrates mainstream attitudes.
Taking its cue from the well-trodden paths of spoof comedy and the original Hollywood cult classic ‘Showgirls’, Blaque Showgirls is centred on the plight of Ginny (Bessie Holland) – just your average white girl from a small town, pursuing her Aboriginal identity through dance (Yes. You read correctly.) After being booed off stage for being ‘too white’ to perform Indigenous dances, Ginny sets off to ‘Brisvegas’ to make it as a big time showgirl at the famous Blaque Showgirls establishment.
Some of her (arguably) helpful compatriots on this quest include a ‘token Asian’ (Emi Canavan); a love interest (Guy Simon) who sells certificates of Aboriginality to get by; Kyle McLachlan (also Guy Simon), the ruthless showbiz agent out to please his board of old white men; and the formidable diva Chandon (Elaine Crombie), headliner of the Blaque Showgirls ensemble. Together this group of stereotypical misfits deliver a purposeful and unapologetic performance, all heaped with generous servings of slap-stick and Bouffon-esque comedy, Hollywood naff and gawdy lighting.
If the above brief description of characters didn’t make it clear, let me spell it out for you: Blaque Showgirls is not afraid to ‘go there’. The show walks up to the face of PC and grabs it by the proverbials, and in doing so it shatters the veneer of propriety we all hide behind when it comes to openly discussing what informs our rhetoric regarding Aboriginal people. We are given permission to laugh at the naïve mystification of Aboriginal culture, the tragic commodification of cultural practice in the face of a consumption-driven economy and the socio-political narratives that seek to deny, compensate or normalise the experience of the first Australians (“well, aren’t we all Indigenous to the earth really?”).
Punchline after glitter-strewn punchline, the somewhat unnerved (and mostly Caucasian) audience was carried from sneers and giggles at stereotypes through to cringing grimaces at the unavoidable metaphors of bastardised Aboriginal culture. Not in the least of these is the sight of an ‘emu-clad’ dancing girl gyrating before an effigy.
These confronting portrayals are no surprise when considering the pen from which they are born: Nakkiah Liu, a writer, actor and Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman, has set the theatre and media spheres somewhat ablaze with a string of work and public appearances aimed at highlighting the fallacies of identity politics in this country. Written at the height of the Rachel Dolezal scandal (whereby a white American woman outwardly identified as African-American) and upon being advised to do an adaptation of a ‘classic’ (read: white Anglo-centric) story, Blaque Showgirls takes a satirical sword to the kind of social and political rhetoric that allows for cultural appropriation to take such extreme forms. And in doing so, this work joins a legacy started in the early ‘70s by the black theatre movement in Australia: it portrays an alternative perspective on society to an audience of predominantly white Caucasian Australians, challenging the norms that support a state of wider cognitive dissonance. The focus of this portrayal, though centred around the treatment and assumptions made regarding Aboriginal people, is also extrapolated on through the ‘token Asian’ migrant Molly, whom we witness in a social, cultural and economic limbo throughout the work. The resulting scenario, depicted cleverly and tangibly, is a structurally-biased system, that is systemically inequitable and driven by behavioural delusion. The stage craft used to demonstrate such logical fallacies are incisive and extremely well-executed.
It is the use of such theatre tools, along with quick-witted and light-footed transitions by the cast between character-based narratives, self-referential comedy and social commentary, that makes Blaque Showgirls a dynamic and engaging work of theatre. Simon, Crombie and Holland are tight in their delivery and chemistry alongside Canavan and the stage crew. Throw in the movement and dramaturgical stylings of Ben Graetz, Declan Greene and Louise Gough and the group doesn’t skip a beat in delivering on the sharpness of Liu’s script.
At a time when the lines between social activism and art are becoming increasingly blurred, Blaque Showgirls is poster-child for the potential of theatre a to enliven and demystify social debates mired in paternalistic and institutionalised views.
It’s also just a bloody good show.
BY / Nakkiah Lui
DIRECTION / Sarah Giles
CAST INCLUDES / Emi Canavan, Elaine Crombie, Bessie Holland & Guy Simon
DRAMATURG / Declan Greene
CONTRIBUTING DRAMATURG / Louise Gough
SET & COSTUME DESIGN / Eugyeene Teh
LIGHTING DESIGN / Paul Jackson
COMPOSITION & SOUND DESIGN / Jed Palmer
MOVEMENT DIRECTOR / Ben Graetz