Theatre Review: Jacky (Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio) ★★★★

Jacky (Guy Simon) is two things. The poster child of a hardworking, well-educated “blackfella” in the big city, and also a successful sex worker who knows that his skin colour is part of his package. In both realms of life, his Aboriginality can be a strength and a hindrance, but how much of himself is he prepared to sell to get ahead? Both hilariously funny and shockingly serious, Jacky will leave you gasping between laughs.

Jacky has built a solid life for himself, renting an inner-city apartment, and is in the process of trying to secure a mortgage. But the “casual” nature of his sex work doesn’t look good to the bank and he needs a full-time job to back up his savings. His friend Linda (Alison Whyte) works for an employment agency and is single-handedly championing an initiative to help more Indigenous people. She sees this as a win-win scenario; she gives Jacky a full-time job and training under her new scheme (thus proving its success) and Jacky has what he needs to move forward in his life. But things get more complicated as Linda’s well meaning motivations start to steamroll, Jacky gets a new client (Greg Stone) with a questionable fetish, and his slacker brother Keith (Ngali Shaw) comes to stay.

Ngali Shaw & Guy Simon. Photo credit: Pia Johnson. © Melbourne Theatre Company 2023.

Aboriginal playwright Declan Furber Gillick refuses to paint with a broad brush, instead he’s created four characters that defy easy judgements. Their foibles are beautifully exposed over the course of the show’s 100 minutes. So much so that their actions will leave you conflicted. Almost in passing, Jacky asks the audience, ‘when is saying “sorry” just not enough?’ In a country battling with issues of First Nations representation in the lead up to an historic referendum, it’s at the top of many Australian minds. Jacky comes at the right time, but its refusal to offer a clear answer only amplifies the pressure.

At one point Jacky is castigated for literally performing tribal dances for white people… a quick glance around the theatre makes this feel like a meta-textual stab at the comfortable, predominantly white theatre-going crowd. How complicit are we all in making Indigenous people dance for our amusement while patting ourselves on the back for supporting their stories? When a white character calls Jacky a “dancing monkey” is he just attacking Jacky for allowing himself to be used for entertainment, or is it a deliberately loaded racist slur?

Guy Simon & Greg Stone. Photo credit: Pia Johnson. © Melbourne Theatre Company 2023.

As Jacky wanders into an ethical and emotional dilemma, and his self-perception shifts, Simon’s performance really takes flight, as he enthuses the character with a youthful enthusiasm that hardens over the course of the play. There’s terrific support from Whyte and Shaw in roles that are both admirable and appalling in equal measure. But it’s Greg Stone’s thankless turn as Jacky’s bumbling middle-aged client Glenn that walks the high-wire. Does his race-fueled fetish mask very real racism? Is it fair to kink-shame during consensual role-play? While it was obvious where some of the more plot-driven elements were heading, they set up the emotional and ethical conflicts well and give these actors space to breathe. 

One of the most exciting strands of recent theatre has been telling contemporary Indigenous stories that are informed by, but not bound by, traditional issues of land, culture, and respect. There’s a real depth of thought and experience in Jacky and it’s the intersectionality of the storytelling that makes this impactful work both a theatrical belly laugh and a gut-punch at the same time.

By Chad Armstrong

Melbourne Theatre Company’s Jacky plays Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 22 May – 24 June 2023. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

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