Hot Brown Honey
Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Walking away from the Assembly Roxy I will admit that I had to sit for a minute or two and gather my thoughts after seeing Hot Brown Honey.
With Busty Beatz #RadicalFierceLove mantra still fresh in my head, I had to sit because as a man of colour it is rare to see a show that is an unflinching, bold, and unapologetically proud as Hot Brown Honey is.
People of colour aren't nearly as welcome or invited to stand atop an illuminated beehive and tell you how the shit is going to go down. Even less can be said for women of colour to be afforded the opportunity to share their heritage, wisdom, and sophistication at one of the worlds most important arts festivals, until now.
Walking into Roxy Central the Hot Brown Honey crew greet their audience with high fives and smiles which instantly put you at ease. As far as first impressions go it doesn't get any bigger or better than this and after the sellout audience take to their seat DJ and musical director Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers voice reigns down on the audience from atop the hive with every word finding its target.
The strength and determination in Beatz delivery and words throughout the whole of the show are reminiscent of those Black activists voice from the American 60s yet only in style as Beatz's words are musically poetic and grabs you tightly.
The effect is quite mesmerising as Beatz articulates through the introduction of what Hot Brown Honey is all about. No hate, no judgment, no fear. These women of colour have had enough and are not being silent anymore and are certainly no longer tied to the shackles of patriarchy or this notion that women of colour as the ‘exotic’ other. A mixture of synchronized lighting through the intricate hive, designed by director Lisa Fa’alafi, and with the heavy base one can’t deny the surge that goes through you within the first five minutes of this show.
After some ‘rules of the hive’ from Beatz the show begins and from here on in the moments created by the company continue to imprint this impression on you that is never going to leave you.
By using elements of burlesque, circus, cabaret, music, performance, and speech Hot Brown Honey does the impossible in creating a show that is so fundamentally politically charged, with traces of ancient and unaddressed anger and frustration, yet remains overwhelmingly positive. This is that history lesson you wish you’d been taught in school delivered by women who’ve experienced, witnessed and show what can be achieved when you embrace your creativity and don’t sit idle.
No matter the depths the group reach down to in order to unpack their story their sense of fun is balanced but the emotional significants is never lost. Early on in the show Ofa Fotu comes onto the stage dressed as Coco Sugar Lips and begins singing It’s A Man’s World which captivates. And for the first time at the fringe, I’ll forgive the youthful audience for not getting or understanding the racist reference. Though the ‘Golliwog’ has long been banished from our consciousness as Beatz explains at the end of Fotu number that’s not the case in Australia Post Office.
The companies willingness to look at the many issues that women of colour face is further explored by aerialist Crystal Stacey who runs onto darkly lit stage simply wearing a nightdress and stockings. Whilst a phone recording between the police and a victim is played out Stacey stands centre stage looking directly into the audience. Her screams are chilling and at one point I genuinely thought that someone from the audience was going to get up on stage.
Though it could appear that with so much history and stories to tell that trying to maintain a balance between the humour, history, politics, and narratives would be their Achilles heel for the production that is just the opposite.
There is a power in theatre that can unnerve audiences providing them with a range of emotions that can be conflicting at times. Hot Brown Honey is a show about women of colour, their experiences, what their daily lives entail, their struggle, their long to silent voices and issues they face and encounter in the societies they are part of. Director and co-creator Lisa Fa’alafi presents a masterclass in how you can create a show that never holds back, never apologises and never asks for permission to stand tall, proud and strong.
In offering a space for women of colour to have their voices heard fellow co-creators and sisters Candy Band & Kim Bowers ensure that at the centre of everything they do is the power and voice of women of colour. However, the creative team seems only too aware that not all of their audience is going to understand or ‘get’ what is being said so to counter this Beatz simply restates her point over and over again till it sticks.
This was most effectively used during the song ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’. Whilst maintaining the high spirited honour, and at times tongue-in-cheek tone that they have throughout the show, the song makes a blunt statement that will make people think twice about walking up to a stranger and touching their afro.
'From the start, this was bound to be an unexpected show but the hour and five minutes take you somewhere else altogether.'
The lyrics of the song would have a resounding effect on anybody of colour who has had to suffer the indignity of a stranger touching your hair. There is a sickening privilege that some still believe they have over people of colour and that ‘our’ hair is fair game for random hands to come and fondle.
But as the show comes to its close Hot Brown Honey saved their most salient and impactful statement to the end. Asking the performers, now all clad in maid uniforms, to ‘take a step forward if they're privileged…’ and a series of questions are asked that I feel, greatly underpins what this whole show is about. The final question brought tears to my eyes as they hit upon a global epidemic that black and people of colour are facing with the issue getting much worse than better.
There’s no real way to justifiably explain the experience of watching Hot Brown Honey. From the start, this was bound to be an unexpected show but the hour and five minutes take you somewhere else altogether. Negative racial stereotypes rage from a supposed innocent ‘doll’ to people wanting touch your hair to other much more subtle but all the more painful questions like ‘no but where are you REALLY from?’.
Unpacking all of this is a company of performers who have embraced their identity, taken control over their stories, their bodies and their history and produced a show that celebrates the exceptional talent, beauty, and resilience that women of colour have.