Hot Brown Honey women finally take centre stage to smash stereotypes

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      What, exactly, is Hot Brown Honey? The show’s posters—which seem to send up ’70s blaxploitation films, with their voluptuous lettering, wild ’fros, and snarling tawny-skinned women—are only a small taste of the subversive sass its female performers will bring here in the new year. For a start, the wild, genre-mashing performance is what happens when “black, brown, and mixed beauties”, long pushed to the margins of performing arts, finally own the spotlight.

      It’s a freewheeling mix of burlesque, circus, hip-hop, cabaret, and club party.

      It’s a piece of theatrical disruption where women step into stereotypical roles and then detonate them.

      And it’s a show, created in Australia by a group of women with Indigenous, African, Polynesian, and Asian backgrounds, that’s hitting a chord elsewhere in the world—from the Edinburgh Fringe to Manchester, where the Straight reaches its two cocreators by Skype.

      “We just saw so many awesome honeys working on the fringes, and we thought, ‘Why aren’t they taking centre stage?’ How did that happen?” explains Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, speaking with her costar Lisa Fa'alafi. “So Hot Brown Honey started almost like a club night where everyone would get together with whoever was in town and make a little show for one night only. And that’s when Lisa and I said, ‘Wow, we know so many awesome artists. How do we write them onto the stage?’ ”

      And so the artists started making a show, and in the process, forging an interdisciplinary art form all its own. The two had met several years beforehand, teaching workshops in isolated Indigenous communities in Queensland and the outback; but a show was another way to bring diversity to the stage—and change to the world.

      One of the guiding forces was that they would do it through ample use of costumes, spectacle, pop-culture references, and—most of all—comedy.

      “All of our work has been funny and our cultures laugh a lot,” Fa'alafi says. “Laughter has been a way that, you know, we can deflate the bigger things.

      “We don’t want people who don’t have our lived experience to close off, so we were like, ‘This is also a good tool that people are familiar with to help them get over the line or to open their minds—even if it’s just for one hour!’ ”

      Lisa Fala’afi dances away Polynesian clichés.
      Dylan Evans

      The result is a multifaceted evening, all centred around a giant, disco-lit hive. In one sequence, Fa'alafi, who’s a dancer and choreographer Down Under, sends up clichés about “exotic” Polynesian women with a sort of reverse striptease. And in another segment, a performer literally breaks out of her colonial bonds by ripping through a proper Victorian dress made out of the Australian flag. The production brings together a range of personal experiences of its cast—and they coalesce in a way that speaks to Hot Brown Honey’s messages of diversity.

      “Particularly with this show, it is about how we intersect,” says Bowers, who hails from South African roots, and whose hip-hop drives Hot Brown Honey. “We’re from a whole range of different cultures. And, you know, we’re intersecting in Australia, which is stolen land, we’re intersecting as performers, and what we’re finding are our similarities in our vast cultural heritages—like laughter.”

      “And food!” adds Fa'alafi.

      “Yeah,” Bowers says with a laugh. “So we’re really interested in those connector points where things come together and explode.”

      “If you feel excluded all the time, for so long,” Fala’afi explains, “you want to create a space where everyone is included as well. We’re not just going to exclude you like we have been. We’re going to show you what an inclusive environment can feel like, just for an hour. So we create this hot-brown-honey world, and for a minute show what the world could be.”

      For most of the women in the show, that means confronting body image, and “decolonizing” their bodies—an act that has been a complicated process for Fa'alafi. “It’s different for each of us,” she explains. “For myself as a Samoan girl, we’ve been very heavily influenced by the missionaries and we’ve become shameful of our bodies.”

      In the show she wants to reclaim that empowered body, but that means revealing traditional tattoos that, these days, many of her people feel should be covered and kept sacred. “Every time I go on-stage and reveal my ancestral marks I am torn,” she admits. “There’s that push and pull.”

      Clearly, the women who call themselves the Honeys are as willing to ask tough questions of themselves as of their audiences. In fact, the festive spectacle takes a toll on levels far beyond the sheer party energy it requires to stage each night.

      “This show feels so much bigger than us,” Fa'alafi says. “I think we always felt it had the roots of a movement. But when it started to roll out of control we were like, ‘Ah, this is way bigger than us. This is a platform, this is people rising up with us.’ You know, that added to the pressure. And it’s an hour after the show as well, having deep conversations, having photos or celebrations with audience members. It does take a lot.”

      Nobody said changing the world was going to be easy. But, then again, as Busty Beatz raps in the show, “Fighting the power never tasted so sweet.”

      Hot Brown Honey is at the York Theatre from January 9 to 27.