When Cabaret Meets Activism.
Words: Amie Knights
Using the audacious art of cabaret to discuss gender, sex, colonialism and mental health, sounds like something that would tip the credibility scales into cringeworthy territory. Not so in the case of neo-burlesque troupe Hot Brown Honey.
Aristotle wrote that comedy originated in phallic processions, the light treatment of the otherwise base and ugly. The comedy scene today is still a phallic procession of sorts; with predominantly male bills very much the norm. As for the light treatment of ugly topics, you’d be hard pushed to find a sketch that doesn’t touch on socio-political issues these days. But there’s a fine line when using it for these means and you can quite easily wind up trivialising your message. Hot Brown Honey has got this down to a fine art though. And they’re doing it with a fierce, all femmes of colour cast.
This eccentric collective formed in Australia in 2013, when cabaret performers Lisa Fa’alafi and Busty Beatz devised a theatrical spectacular to carry social activism. Part burlesque, part rap, part comedy, part circus act; their flamboyant performances confront ideas of black femininity, the male gaze and mental health. And when I say confront I mean it literally. The shows are confronting. It’s not all feather bowers, balloon breasts and aerial tricks (although this all plays its part). The ostentation harbours anger, pain and demands for change. But the crew set out to deliver all this in an exuberant fashion for a reason.
If there’s one thing they want people to be talking about, it’s the diversity within femmes of colour. The entertainment industry is notoriously singular in its portrayal of diversity. Pandering to this perpetuates the creation of pigeon holes. But picking a single box for Hot Brown Honey would be a challenge. And that’s the whole point. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it best in her 2014 Ted Talk; “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” It’s this that members of the Hot Brown Honey hive are hitting back at.
Their method seems to be working. They’ve gone from preaching to the converted in small venues, to sharing their message with large mainstream audiences at spaces like the Sydney Opera house and the Southbank Centre. But they haven’t stopped there. Hot Brown Honey have also helped young femmes of colour in London explore their voices through this unique style of performance. Working with the Roundhouse, Fa’alafi produced Hive City Legacy – a show blending music, spoken word, dance, and circus. The cast members (Aminita Francis, Rebecca Solomon, Krystal Dockery, Farrell Cox, Dorcas A. Stevens, Koko Brown, Elsabet Yonas, Shakaiah Perez and Sherika Sherar) were all femmes of colours aged 18-25, each with differing religions, sexualities and backstories. By all accounts it was riotous, raw and subversive. Reviews Hub said, “More than just a show, this is weaponised theatre.”
Hot Brown Honey will be at the Gilded Balloon for Edinburgh Fringe, until 27 August. Go see them there, or anywhere else you can. You’ve probably never seen anything like it.
You can also follow Hot Brown Honey on Twitter @hotbrownhoney