Jacky shines a light on racism and exploitation

31 May 2023
Sarah Garnham

“You’re just a performing fucking monkey”. A racist barb, and one of many pointed moments in Jacky, a Melbourne Theatre Company production currently playing at the Arts Centre. Jacky is about the politics of performing monkeys. It is about racism and exploitation, hypocrisy and resistance.

Playwright Declan Furber Gillick and director Mark Wilson have managed to indict the political and economic system behind racism, while also authentically portraying how it plays out on a grassroots level. There is nothing didactic or overwrought about the play. The script is rich with politics, warmth and wit. The dialogue is natural even when heavy, but also interspersed with many moments of humour that the actors deliver well. It’s a tight production.

Jacky (played by Guy Simon) is at the centre: a young Aboriginal man who grew up on a mission up north and has come to Melbourne to make a life. He is a multi-dimensional, believable character, torn between a sense of duty to his family and his people, and a desire to fit in and get ahead in a deeply unjust society.

Jacky is clearly a reference to Jacky-Jacky, an Aboriginal guide who was awarded medals for his service to the colony of NSW. Jacky-Jacky became a derogatory name for an Aboriginal collaborator, a subservient to the white colonialists.

The three characters around Jacky each have a particular kind of relationship with him. Two exploit him and the other is his brother. Jacky’s relationships with these characters become connected microworlds that together build a picture of this unjust society. The society depicted is not one of open apartheid and racist brutality (not that this doesn’t still exist in some parts of Australia). Nor is it one in which microaggressions and cultural faux pas are the be-all and end-all of racism.

Instead, it is a picture of a society in which Aboriginal people are disproportionately poor and marginalised, even as Aboriginal inclusion, advancement and cultural appreciation are common talking points. It is a society in which a lucky few Aboriginal people are expected to “behave well” and show gratitude to the bosses and bureaucrats who generously offer them “opportunities”. And it is a picture of a society divided by class, ruled by market forces, where everything has a price tag.

This picture is brought to life with some great staging and design. The set (by Christina Smith) is a sterile pub, a sterile hotel bed, and a comfy apartment living room—representing the three relationships that make up the worlds of the play.

The first of these worlds is the blackwashing and tokenism rife throughout corporate bureaucracies. Companies and agencies scramble for “Indigenous advancement” grants and funding from governments and big corporations. By slapping together a partnership with an Indigenous organisation or a training program for Indigenous youth, all sorts of companies can qualify for this extra funding—including shonky recruitment agencies that make bank by robbing workers. Jacky gets brought into this world by Linda (Alison Whyte). The perks are real but precarious and conditional on his performance.

“Culture” is a very important part of this arrangement. As Linda says with an eager, desperate glint in her eye: “We need as much culture as we can get”. Acknowledgements and Welcomes to Country have become ubiquitous. Though this reflects gains against racism, these ceremonies are generally hypocritical and cynical, especially in the corporate world. Jacky’s treatment of this is perfectly scathing. One of the most brilliant scenes in the play is an Acknowledgement of Country that will no doubt make many Melbourne Theatre Company regulars squirm.

Another of the worlds is the sex industry, specifically the relationship between client and sex worker. Despite Jacky’s self-confidence and assertion that his arrangement with client Glenn (Greg Stone) is a “win-win”, the play explores the many exploitative and degrading aspects of the job; from it being insecure and outside of the formal economy, through to it being a site of racist abuse.

The transaction is never equal, because it involves one person paying another to use them—in this case to play out a “misogynist, racist little fantasy”. As Glenn becomes more comfortable in their relationship, the fantasy of racial domination becomes more overt, though he tries to cover it up with a self-help fad: “I’m exploring”. This attempted domination involves both paternalism and brutality. In a gesture of apparent kindness, Glenn gives Jacky a vinyl record that reveals everything about their relationship. Ultimately, the brutality comes out as well: sharp, naked, violent racism that had previously lain beneath the surface. Jacky, however, is no one-dimensional victim. He is abused by both Linda and Glenn but not destroyed.

The third world of the play is the one inhabited by Jacky and his brother, Keith (Ngali Shaw). Keith is the truth teller, and the medium for the play’s most radical messages. He enters Jacky’s life and immediately sees the hardness behind the smiles and promises and “opportunities”. He is acutely conscious of class and race, not because he is a politico, but because he can recognise exploitation and refuses to be a performing monkey. Keith consistently challenges all the rules and social conventions that Jacky has relied on as his ticket out of oppression. Keith refuses to play along with the pretence that racism is over, that society is equal and that bosses are our friends. If you want to be like Keith, do yourself a favour and see this play.

Jacky, written by Declan Furber Gillick and Directed by Mark Wilson, is on at Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio until 24 June.

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