Ginny (Bessie Holland) is growing up in Chitole, a small town where the locals – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – don’t accept her as Aboriginal because of her light skin. She dreams of going to Brisvegas to follow in the footsteps of her mother and become a Blaque Showgirl.
Nakkiah Lui is at the point of her career as a playwright where it was suggested it was time for her to do an adaptation. In theatre, this usually consists of a radical reworking of a text from a dead white guy, but Lui instead chose to rework the sexploitation dance film Showgirls (1995) into a play about race and performance.
I haven’t seen Paul Verhoeven’s camp classic, but enough of that film has leaked into my pop-culture consciousness that Blaque Showgirls made me feel like I got the references. In so many ways, it’s a traditional “country girl goes to the big smoke to get famous” narrative. And because the audience already knows where the story is going, Lui gets to layer in an hilarious commentary on the construction of race, cultural appropriation and oppression. Yes, I said hilarious!
Lui is best known for her work at Belvoir (This Heaven, Kill the Messenger) and as writer/performer on ABC’s Black Comedy. Blaque Showgirls is a thrilling combination of the two; a strange mix of theatre and sketch comedy (Ginny arrives in Brisvegas to be mugged by two kangaroos, for example). The quota of silly and uncomfortable rises from there as she must work at an Asian-themed strip club while tackling the prejudice directed at her for not being black enough.
As Ginny gets closer and closer to her goals, she must battle with Chandon Connors (Elaine Crombie) – the lead Blaque Showgirl, who does the best combination emu dance in the whole of Australia. Ginny is helped and hindered by the manager of the showgirl troupe, Kyle McLachlan (played by Guy Simon), as well as True Love Interest (also played by Guy Simon).
The passion and intensity evoked by Holland and Simon is such fun, especially during the montage sequence as True Love Interest shows Ginny how to become a better dancer – and also gives her the secrets of his tribe’s Sacred, Sacred, Very Sacred Dance.
This cartoon world is designed by Eugyeene Teh, whose work is always stylish and here is a wry commentary on urban Australia. The detail is broadly comic but also immediately evokes sleazy bars and bawdy strip clubs. And as the show progresses, the debris of set and props begins to pile up.
Director Sarah Giles finds the right balance between making fun and having fun; the satire is sharp and the commentary is brutal at times, but the tone is kept light throughout. Giles takes a few cues from her recent directing stint on MTC’s Straight White Men (they share a few staging devices), especially near the end as Ginny realises her true dream.
Australia has a strong history of sketch comedy and satire on television, but it has often been borne out of white, middle-class groups like the D-Generation/Working Dog troupe or the ensemble of shows like Fast Forward and The Comedy Company. It’s refreshing to see comedy on stage that gives us insight into the Aboriginal experience, striking at the heart of our nation’s history and present.
Blaque Showgirls made a mostly white audience laugh, and gave the Indigenous members of the audience many moments of recognition and hearty chuckles over details the rest of us just don’t get or don’t recognise.
Lui is one of the most important playwrights in this country. Blaque Showgirls is one of the sharpest pieces of satire I’ve ever seen on stage.