Nakkiah Lui’s Kill the Messenger has been billed as a “game changer” for black theatre. The show centres around three stories which constitute a direct attack on institutional racism and its agents – including the Belvoir audience. Paul hangs himself to escape cancer, after being profiled and turned away from hospital on suspicion of morphine addiction; Lui’s grandmother dies from lethal injuries arising from a fall through rotten floorboards—the result of the Aboriginal Housing Company’s unwillingness to make good on promised maintenance; Nakkiah herself struggles to move the people in her life, and audiences, to be affected by these injustices. But does she manage it?
Laura Webster, Riki Scanlan, Patrick Morrow, Elle Triantafillou and Angela Colins discuss.
LW: I really like the roughness of the show. Rather than a 90 minute, neat and tidy piece of theatre, Lui gives you a glimpse into our world, our suffering, our pain…and asks what are you going to do with it?
RS: Mainstream society believes that the traumas of Indigenous history lie in the past. In light of that, the “unfinished” nature of Kill the Messenger recognises that Australia, white and black, is not done with wounds inflicted on the Aboriginal people. Lui recognises that the crux of Indigenous oppression lies in institutional racism, not the acts of individuals. She does not excuse those individuals—they are interrogated and their answers never seem sufficient—but we sympathise.
LW: The commoditisation and fetishisation of stories of oppression, suffering and racism permeate Lui’s writing. That was clearest in lines like “You can’t keep pretending not to hear me” – I think it was the most poignant line the show, for me, and it highlights the most frustrating and demeaning cornerstone of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suffering.
PM: All that said, an orthodoxly staged piece of contemporary theatre at Belvoir can only be so affecting. Everything from its aisles and seating to the foyer and box office have been ritualised by patrons. While you might expect the standard post-show motions after the latest rehash of Chekhov or Brecht, to watch the audience mill around the very same way after Kill The Messenger – an open provocation and call to action – suggests that the play broadly failed in its demands. I don’t think people listened.
ET: But Lui knows her audience is sensitive to indigenous issues in a way that is both empathetic and voyeuristic, and with the closing lines “You wanted this. You paid for this. And I’m giving it to you. Please take it” Kill The Messenger came together for me and I understood what Lui was trying to do all along.
RS: Lighting Designer Katie Sfetkidis works with those degrees of voyeurism and creates clear distinctions between the narratives: at the core is the story of Paul, which exists within a simple square of light cast on the stage, while brighter and larger lit spaces denote each degree of distance until we are almost under full house lights. Here, we are removed from Paul’s narrative, but Nakkiah addresses the audience directly.
AC: I don’t know that I liked those addresses – the monologues and scenes between she and her boyfriend seemed indulgent (albeit humorous and enjoyable). The weaving of her grandmother’s story, Paul’s story and her own experiences elevated her own status to that of a principal character, rather than storyteller. I heard the play being billed as “Mt. Druitt’s response to Lena Dunham” and, like Dunham’s character in Girls, Lui writes about herself, and stars in her own scenes, a little too much for comfort. I think her scenes detracted from the revolutionary quality she tried to instil in the play. It comes off as a muddle of highly affecting scenes hindered by another, fluffier, domestic narrative.
LW: That left me unsure with what to do with this play – I was drawn in by the narrative events, but was cut off by Lui’s narrative interjections. It disjoints the explorations of institutionalised racism that were meant to tie the piece together. This is an attempt at provocative theatre, but it seems premature, as if the narrative and structure were still being fleshed out on stage, to the detriment of her message.
PM: The degree to which this play was about Nakkiah really reached an obnoxious crescendo in that sickening, final gesture of anointing the dying Paul. It left me feeling angry, sure, but it was as much at an egotistical playwright as it was at the story of institutional racism she persistently intervened in, which is probably an indictment of me.
ET: Lui admits she’s an unreliable narrator, discussing things that she’s on the one hand been shown and on the other, actually experienced. We might not know what to do with the stories we’ve been given but, then again, neither does she.