This triumphant alt-cabaret proves politically charged theatre can be the most entertaining night out you’ll have in a long time
“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.”
These are the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her now-famous 2009 TED talk titled ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. We hear them early on in Hot Brown Honey, delivered by the group’s co-founder and MC, Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers. Presiding metres above the stage atop an immense, glowing hive, Bowers quotes Adichie – who, like herself, is a passionate feminist and a woman of colour – and in doing so, effectively casts a line that runs through each of the many acts that make up the 90-minute show. Stereotypes are persistent and poisonous, and tonight, the Honeys are here to smash them.
Ironically, the destabilising process begins with a strip tease. The Honeys emerge behind fluttering yellow ostrich feathers, which lift away to reveal Oprah T-shirts, but under that, frilly maid costumes. We’re reminded that in Western-dominated culture, the maid role is one of the few that women of colour have been able to have in the past (both on the screen and stage but also in the workforce). And if you think oppression isn’t still in full force today, then you’re about to find out why you’re wrong.
The show surges on through a series of separate acts, often solo pieces by each of the six Honeys: Busty Beatz, Lisa Fa'alafi, Materharere Hope 'Hope One' Haami, Juanita Duncan, Ofa Fotu and Crystal Stacey. They are all First Nations women from Aboriginal Australian, Samoan, Tongan, Māori, Indonesian and South African backgrounds. As such, they each have their own story to tell, whether that is through song, spoken word, circus, dance, burlesque or even beatboxing. Each act deals with white male privilege and the annihilation and commodification of their culture. What makes the whole thing so triumphant is that it’s tear-inducingly hilarious and set to a foot-stomping soundtrack that will have you dancing in (and out of) your seat.
Fa’alafi shines in an anti strip-tease scene, slaying the trope of a white man’s Pacific Island fantasy by slowly adding layers to her scant leaf outfit, middle finger firmly up. It’s also one example of the show’s excellent costume work; another being a deeply uncomfortable minstrel outfit that Ofa Fotu seems literally sewn into as she sings James Brown’s sexist It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World with a forced smile. Each act is complex and very different to the last; and yet, the show remains perfectly paced. Layered political messages sit alongside songs about the fury-inducing habit of white people touching the performers’ “motherlovin’ hair” or asking “where are you really from?”.
The shows dips into the sombre when Juanita Duncan breaks free of a restrictive Australian flag costume to reveal black, white and yellow (“always was, always will be”), and reaches its most devastating point when circus performer Crystal Stacey unleashes a straps routine that represents domestic violence; her mastery as an acrobat is almost surpassed by the raw emotion pouring from her.
“We do this for the women who cannot speak,” says an impassioned Bowers, paraphrasing Audre Lorde. “We are taught that silence will save us. But we will make noise!”
By this point, audience members are cheering, stomping, standing. The Honeys refuse to temper their rage or apologise for who they are; and yet, they manage to create a space where everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, race or cultural background, is completely welcome and encouraged to join the fight for equality. This is theatre with a purpose; devastating, empowering and uplifting. There was a sense that everyone in the room could have stayed inside the hive for hours, partying, rallying, planning a revolution – but the real struggle is out there. As the show enters its closing number, Bowers forces any remaining audience members out of their seats, not asking, but demanding a standing ovation. “Will you stay the same?” she asks, “or rock the boat?”