Nakkiah Lui’s Kill the Messenger is the barest, most simple form of theatre you can imagine. Five people on a stage, telling one story. Or, more specifically, one person telling their story and the others are dramatic components to – in – the story. In its most pared down essence, it is pure autobiography: Lui wrote the play because two people died in what were preventable circumstances; in wanting to tell the truth about them, and in trying to understand what happened and why, she knew she had to start with herself. Thus Kill the Messenger was born – a play written by Lui about her own life, starring Lui as herself.
While Kill the Messenger is a personal story, it is also intensely political, and the two cannot be separated that easily. It’s a play about institutionalised racism, and as director Anthea Williams writes in the program, “the institutions this generation has inherited are still killing indigenous people.” This is where Lui’s play stages its fight – to work out why this is still the case, and to try and find a way to fix it. If only it were that easy. It’s not an easy play to watch, nor should it be by any means. Unlike many other plays, it asks questions but does not have the answers, because they simply don’t exist yet, for Lui or for us in the wider society.
I’m not denying that its assault on our capacity for empathy over its eighty minutes is powerful or compelling. It takes enormous courage to not only turn your life into a play, but to then perform in it night after night as yourself, baring your soul and your life to three-hundred strangers each time. But despite the directness in Anthea Williams’ staging – it unfolds without fuss or adornment on a bare black stage (designed, inasmuch as it can be, by Ralph Myers), lit in harsh white by Katie Sfetkidis, while Kelly Ryall’s soundscape of underdrones crescendos at the end of each act – I couldn’t help but think it was missing something; dramatically, it still feels like only one- or two-thirds of a play. Lui herself readily admits the play is unfinished, but is there a way it can be finished; is there a way for it to become more than what it is now without losing the power it already has? While there is perhaps no other way Lui could have told her story, I wanted more theatricality in the way it was told to us, I wanted more dramatic substance to the story’s unfolding so I could feel the full impact of Lui’s words.