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Talking vaginas, figure skating and social change

Nakkiah Lui on finding humour in tragedy and living out her fantasy of being the best Aboriginal figure skater of all time in Kiki and Kitty.

Whether it’s for stage or for screen, Nakkiah Lui creates comedy that’s as sharp and funny as it is political – it’s the kind of laughter that makes you think.

The writer and actor has had a non-stop 2017… and 2018 shows no signs of slowing down.

In theatre, her play Black is the New White is going on a national tour, as is new revenge comedy Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death. Meanwhile, she’s developing a TV show with Porchlight Films about an Aboriginal doomsday prepper, working on series three of Black Comedy, and another season is in the works for her popular Buzzfeed podcast Pretty For An Aboriginal with bestie Miranda Tapsell. Then there’s also the feature film Kill the Messenger, which received Gender Matters: Brilliant Stories funding and which Lui adapted from her 2015 play. She’s trying to push that into production, is a panellist on ABC’s new show Screen Time, and also has a book coming out.

So yeah. Busy.

And all this in addition to her latest creation – the six-part web series Kiki and Kitty, which she created, wrote and stars in. Lui plays Kiki, a young Indigenous woman trying to fit in at her all-white workplace when her vagina comes to life as a sequin-emblazoned, martini-swilling woman named Kitty who only Kiki can see (played to uproarious effect by Elaine Crombie).

Nakkiah Lui stars as Kiki

Nakkiah Lui stars as Kiki

There are some similarities between Lui and Kiki.

“Kiki is like an extreme version of different parts of me,” Lui agrees.

Lui, like Kiki, studied law. And like Kiki, she felt like she had to repress herself to fit into a white world and be this idea of a “good Aboriginal person”.

“That was very much my experience growing up, all through school, and in uni,” she says.

“It's constantly getting told ‘you're not like the others’ [and] ‘isn't it great that you've made it this far?’ A lecturer told me when I was in uni: ‘You don't talk like an Aboriginal person.’

“It’s like your success is reliant on you being really separated from being an Aboriginal person and or in spite of being an Aboriginal person.”

For Lui, becoming a writer was her way of rebelling against that.

“If I could live life again, I would (be like) Tonya Harding. I'd train every day. I'd kill anyone who is competition. And I'd be the best Aboriginal figure skater to ever live.”

“And for Kiki's journey, with Kitty saving her from falling into this oblivion of whiteness, it was a bit of a metaphor for how I think a lot of Aboriginal people feel.”

The other thing Lui and Kiki have in common?

A love of ice skating.

So when Lui was brainstorming Kiki’s journey for the six-episode series, she just thought if she could start over again, what would her dream career look like.

“And I was like ‘man, I'd be like a figure skater’. No doubt, if I could live life again, I would (be like) Tonya Harding. I'd train every day. I'd kill anyone who is competition. And I'd be the best Aboriginal figure skater to ever live,” she says, laughing.

“And so I was like, sweet I can live out my fantasy and get my 26-year-old character to do that.”

Between ice-skating routines and becoming best friends with the fabulous incarnation of her vagina, Lui’s Kiki and Kitty uses comedy to talk about everything from casual racism to sexual harassment in the workplace. If there are ever moments where Lui worries about laughing at taboos, she thinks of two things her grandmother would say.

The first, was: ‘what can you do if you can't laugh?’

“You need to be able to talk about stuff that's uncomfortable because if you're not talking about it, then it doesn't ever change,” she says.

“The other one she said is ‘if you're going to poke it, f**k it’. And it's my motto: if you're going to do something, just do it. If you're going to talk about these issues, just go there. It's a terrible thing to half-ass (it) with the story and not address everything a character's journey would entail, because audiences are smart and they'll get that.”

Elaine Crombie stars as Kitty

Elaine Crombie stars as Kitty

Lui says comedy and tragedy are so often tied together. It’s something she’s witnessed in her own community, but also within others such as the LGBTQI community.

“The [queer community] have always embraced outsiders, and have been quite politically engaged around the world with equality, freedom and trying to fight prejudice – and being able to laugh whilst doing it. And I think that's what the black community does as well.”

Lui, who was a vocal supporter of the #voteyes movement in Australia, peppered Kiki and Kitty with a number of nods to the LGBTQI community, including a Kate Bush-inspired figure skating routine.

“I often joke that my comedy heroes are black men, the queer community and Jewish women,” she says.

“The queer community, all my life has been a bit of a haven in a way…

“I was about 110kg in high school, theatre-loving, I was the only Aboriginal kid in my year and I loved ice skating. I competed wearing sequins and Lycra so obviously there was some level of confidence there. But I would get called ‘fatty’ and ‘Abo’ or sometimes ‘fat Abo’ and I would go and sit in the library with my queer mates and tell jokes about Barbra Streisand and really weird old shit while they were getting called faggot and dyke. So ever since I was a kid, it's been a community where I found a lot of acceptance.

“And also the queer community, so much of their pop culture irreverence embraces women. It's really female positive and women aren't being seen through this gaze of being sexualized or objectified.”

The queer community even indirectly allowed Lui to realise there was space for her voice.

“I think that for storytelling to still be an integral part of our culture and for us to have an industry we need to shake things up. And the fact is you need to empower those who aren't getting that representation.”

While growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs she would watch movies by openly gay director John Waters and can remember “just loving it.”

“I was seeing all these different bodies and different colours and horrible, disgusting, funny humour and just being blown away that you didn't have to be slim and beautiful and blond to be an actor. You could be kind of like a fat, sequin-wearing, ice-skating Aboriginal girl.”

It’s part of the reason why Lui thinks diversity is crucial, because it creates this idea of “space” for people who never thought they could be a writer, or an actor, director, costume designer – anything – to identify.

“It's very much that idea of ‘if you can see it you can be it’ [but] there's a lot to extrapolate from that beyond just casting diverse people,” she says.

“Especially from doing Black Comedy, I get a lot of messages from younger Aboriginal women and young queer Aboriginal people, in particular men. And they identify a lot with the story I'm telling as opposed to just seeing me.

“I think it's this idea of ‘well if Nakkiah can do that and if she's saying that then there's room for me as well’.”

Lui says it’s been great to see more women and people of colour having a voice within the screen industry of late – and addressing the disparity in blunt terms.

“So often these conversations get so uncomfortably political and we don't want to address actual issues, so therefore things do become an exercise in box-ticking. And I think with the way the conversation has shifted, it's not [that] because you're looking at how do you actually empower people to tell their own story?

Lui says this is significant because stories – and their impact on us – are powerful.

“Stories are about sharing who we are, and that’s how we learn about who we are,” she says. “Stories are probably one of our greatest inventions.

“And so your story should look like when you step onto a train carriage. I always used to think about that when I would get the train from Mount Druitt to Central Station and I'd wonder why so many of our stories on screen, so many of our stories on stage, didn't look like this train carriage, which was incredibly culturally and linguistically diverse. And beyond that, looking at gender and sexuality and a multitude of experiences.

“So I think that for storytelling to still be an integral part of our culture and for us to have an industry we need to shake things up. And the fact is you need to empower those who aren't getting that representation.”

Kiki and Kitty is produced by Porchlight Films and airs on ABC Comedy and ABC iview from 4 December. Catch up on episodes here. Also see Lui on ABC’s Screen Time, Black Comedy, and on Buzzfeed’s Pretty for an Aboriginal podcast with Miranda Tapsell.