When Nakkiah Lui describes the concept of her new web series, she does it so matter-of-factly it almost sounds normal.
“It’s about a girl whose vagina comes to life. She has to learn to love herself by learning to love her vagina,” Lui says nonchalantly.
Or, to put it another way: “It’s about a little black girl in a big white world whose vagina is her best friend.”
Over the past few years, Lui’s name has been associated with a full spectrum of creative genres, from writing, acting and producing (Black Comedy, Kill the Messenger), to playwriting (Black is the New White), directing (An Octoroon) and podcasting (Pretty for an Aboriginal).
But her first foray into TV showrunning is Kiki and Kitty: a new short-form comedy series directed by Catriona McKenzie which landed on ABC iView on Monday.
The series drop coincides with the launch of ABC Comedy: a new multiplatform brand that comprises a free-to-air channel (replacing ABC 2), a daily late show (Tonightly with Tom Ballard), and a suite of seven new iView series, including Instagram star Celeste Barber’s #Celeste Challenge Accepted and YouTube star John Luc’s The Chinaboy Show.
Kiki and Kitty easily has the most ridiculous premise of the seven, and manages to be both hilarious and heartfelt: a buddy comedy with a whip-smart script, as much Broad City as it is Drop Dead Fred, with some Dude, Where’s My Car? thrown in.
Lui stars as do-gooder Kiki, an Indigenous woman who wakes up one morning with a face covered in cheese dust vomit, and no memory of the night before. Also, her vagina is a grown woman who is straddling her, laughing maniacally.
Kiki’s vagina, Kitty, is played by the irrepressible Elaine Crombie in a bright pink dress, with bright pink shoes and a bright pink martini that she sips through pretty much every scene. Kitty is fabulous, ebullient, enviably unrestrained and invisible to (almost) everyone else. A fairy godmother in skin-tight sequins, she’s there to push Kiki into ticking off a list of things she has always wanted to do, to help build the confidence she needs in a world that’s stacked against her.
In the first episode, as the apparition of her anthropomorphised vagina leans lasciviously across Kiki’s office desk, slurping a cocktail in a sequinned tie, Kiki shakes her head in disbelief: “I’m mentally ill.”
“Having a vagina doesn’t make you mentally ill,” quips back Kitty, “no matter what the media says.”
The idea for the show came when Lui was asked to record a video for a feminist march a few years back, and asked Crombie, her friend, to play her vagina. “I was tipsy and being a bit lazy,” she says, laughing. But the idea stuck.
“I kept thinking about, what if your vagina actually did come to life? What would that mean? And then I was like, ‘Well, my vagina would be fabulous, and everything I want to be. My best self.’”
Surprisingly, she realised, there was a lot of potential there – an avenue for more representation of Indigenous women on screen and a platform to celebrate sexuality, which in narratives about Aboriginal women tends to be either denied or decried. It all comes to a head in the final episode, when we realise exactly what happened to Kitty the night before.
“We’re not empowered by our sexuality – so often, when we were growing up, we were told that we weren’t clean,” Lui says. “A lot of these [ideas] are used to oppress Aboriginal people: you’re dirty, so you get your kids taken away.”
Lui wanted to subvert that with a story where an Indigenous woman is, quite literally, empowered by her vagina. “I’d never seen that kind of story before.”
She cuts off here and laughs: “Talking about it now, it sounds so serious and hard-edged, but it’s about a vagina coming to life ... it’s a super light touch.”
With its bucket-list setup, the show lends itself to the kind of tight sketch comedy Lui writes so well. Kiki wants to compete in a figure skating competition in one episode (cue the training montage) and do drugs in another (cue the bender). Kitty pushes her to stand up against the casual racism of her white colleagues (with a standout performance from the brutally hilarious Harriet Dyer) and, after Kiki admits she has never seen herself naked before, Kitty urges her to tick that one off too.
Both women disrobe and stare at the mirror together. For Lui, that scene was the hardest to shoot. “I went through that myself,” she says. “I didn’t look at myself fully naked until – I think it was probably 2013.”
Shot on a closed set, among a crew jam-packed with women, Lui was still “quite nervous”. But Crombie went out of her way to make her comfortable – and when she found out that Lui wasn’t able wear a bra in the scene, she flung hers across the room in solidarity: “She was like, ‘If you’re not wearing a bra, I’m not wearing a bra!’,” Lui remembers. “She was fully nude, and I was like, ‘OK!’”
Crombie had become Kitty to Lui’s Kiki, encouraging her to take risks that she hadn’t been able to take. “I’ll get teary talking about it, it’s so silly,” Lui says. “She was just with me all of the way.”
It was one of many ways the show resonates with Lui’s own story.
“Kiki is a very extreme version of certain personality traits of mine,” she says. “When you’re an Aboriginal person – especially an Aboriginal woman – there’s this narrative of your success being dependent on removing yourself from your Aboriginality. As if your success is kind of in spite of your Aboriginality.”
Here, she quotes American writer Fran Lebowitz: “The further you are away from being black … the less trouble you are.”
When Lui was studying at university, for instance, a lecturer praised her for “the fact that you’ve made it this far”. When she first started out in theatre, she says, “there was this idea of ... ‘you’re the good black’.
“So much of that is just based on trying to fit into a world that you, by default, just don’t fit into, because that world is essentially a white world.”
In some ways, it’s no wonder that Lui has achieved so much in so little time; slowing down didn’t seem like an option. “I was just trying to do the right thing for so many years, and I developed mad anxiety … I was always so paranoid and overthinking everything, and I never felt comfortable – I just never felt comfortable. I just thought that’s what life was,” Lui says.
“It wasn’t until I started writing … that I realised actually, there is so much more freedom in just not trying to be that person.”
• Kiki and Kitty is available to stream in full on ABC iView.