Twenty-six year old Nakkiah Lui was last night announced as the winner of the inaugural Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright's Award at Belvoir Theatre in Sydney. The $20,000 award is for the creation of a new play by an Indigenous playwright.
Lui is a Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Island woman and was the first member of her family to finish high school. She is currently completing a law degree and writes on the side, initially inspired to tell her stories on stage after seeing the autobiographical work of an earlier wave of female indigenous playwrights such as Leah Purcell and Deborah Mailman.
Her first full-length play 'This Heaven' is already set to be staged at Belvoir Theatre in February and is about a family and a riot in Western Sydney following a death in custody. However she won this award not only for her body of work, but also for her pitch for a new work called 'Koorioke', a jukebox musical.
"Especially coming off 'This Heaven', which is a bit of a sucker-punch of a play - it kind of guts you - I wanted to write something that was kind of about celebration, but its also about communities," Lui told SBS. "So it is set in a community where the Stronger Futures initiatives are being laid out, and they are being laid out in lots of communities after the NT.
"And so it's kind of about paternalism and this idea of how you disempower people by taking away their choices and what that does to people and their self-esteem and their worth," she says. "And this idea of turning to singing and music - and you can always pick what song you want to sing at Koorioke - and how empowering that can be."
Lui says inspiration for the story struck when she was at a karaoke night in a remote community and saw "a tiny guy singing 'What About Me?'. I couldn't stand that song before he sung it," she says. "He sang it with such conviction, I was thinking 'What about this guy? What about him? Give him a chance.'"
The cycle of oppression in a paternal society is something Lui says she experiences on many levels.
"You kind of think, if I do everything right and I go and get university degree and I'm going to get out of this," she says. "But then you realise it's something that is so big and effects people on so many different levels."
The judges say Lui was selected from a pool of strong contenders and serious writers from around the country.
"Nikkiah is one of this amazing writers who can make you laugh and she can make you cry, she can make you think and she can entertain you, which is actually a combination that doesn't come together all that often," says Belvoir Literary Manager and award judge Anthea Williams. "But she's got a fierce intellect, we were so excited about her work."
Williams said the other works entered display a concern with generational change and inheritance.
"There was a lot of work about lineage and belonging. There was a lot of work about what it as to identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and what it is to claim that."
The award was set-up to encourage an increase in the volume of Indigenous stories being written for stage, in particular to provide material for Belvoir's current programming of two Indigenous plays per year, an initiative also supported by the Balnaves Foundation.
"The idea was there was not the fertile landscape for new works in the area of Indigenous playwrights' work to make sure that there was plenty to choose from," says Neil Balnaves. "So it was really a reaction to broadening the field of public works that could be performed in the Indigenous season that we do at Belvoir."
"The more we do this, the more young Indigenous people have the opportunity to get involved," he says. "The arts is one of the great translation points between differences."
Of the recent increase of Indigenous stories appearing on stage and on mainstream film and television screens, the retired media veteran Balnaves says: "I was in the television industry for 35 years, this could never happen in my day."
"You could not sell to television an Indigenous story, there was just no interest in it," he says. "I think we are breaking down the walls."
'Koorioke' will be staged at Belvoir within the next few years.