A Review of Black Honey Company’s Production ‘ONE THE BEAR'

I flew from Melbourne to Sydney and made the long drive out to Campbelltown Arts Centre because I had to watch ONE THE BEAR: A FAIRYTALE FOR THE HIP HOP GENERATION (OTB).

After show drinks and nibbles with two of Candy’s Campbell town mates from primary school (not in frame). That's me in the back row with (from left to right) Jackie, Kween G, Nancy J Denis and Candy Bowers.

I was keen because I had worked on the script as one of the dramaturgs but I was also keen to experience the story unfold – not just as words on the page but with the costume, set design, soundtrack, choreography and the rapport between two triple threat and Afro-descended Australian artists, Nancy Denis and Candy Bowers. It was well-worth the trip. I even watched the play twice.

When it comes to the spoken word theatre genre, I know Black Honey Company never fails to deliver. As originators of the genre in Australia, Candy Bowers and Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers create innovative work. Each production speaks to the zeitgeist, giving their audiences the language and frameworks to articulate socio-cultural phenomena that we are either oblivious to (as a consequence of denial or privilege) or still grappling to find the words to articulate.

As creators of cultural products in a context where the violence that is part of a colonisation perpetrated through continuing genocide, Black Honey Company produces work that simultaneously heals our colonial wounds, exposes the insidious ways in which neo/colonialism functions and has us all laughing raucously and pissing our pants. As with their other works (Australian Booty, MC Platypus and Kween Koala’s Hip Hop Jamboree and Hot Brown Honey), since watching OTB, I feel ‘better’. I am better equipped with the language to name the violence and so I am better placed to engage in the conversations that are a fundamental starting point for anyone engaged in shifting culture and raising consciousness.

Written and devised by Candy Bowers, OTB manages to challenge you to think critically all while you piss your pants laughing at yourself and your contemporaries. The power of comedy is. intelligently fused with drama but also a keen understanding of historical context (both local and global). You can tell Candy Bowers paid attention to every last detail, including where to premier the latest Black Honey Company production.

OTB premiered at Campbelltown Arts Centre during the same time that Black Honey Company’s production ‘Hot Brown Honey’ played at the Sydney Opera House (and extended the season). This might be overlooked as a coincidence but it holds great significance.

The chosen location required us to travel into Sydneys outer west, suburbs purposefully created to ghettoize migrants and Aboriginal people so as to maintain Sydney proper as a white business, social and cultural centre. These are all themes that run through OTB, which opens in a garbage tip and the action climaxes when One has ‘made it’ to the epicentre of material wealth and celebrity, which is an all-white space. On one level, the choice of location implies that all people, regardless of socio-economic status and cultural background, deserve access to great art and well-resources arts institutions. I spent a few days in Campbelltown, getting to know the place that formed the consciousness of the Bowers’ sisters and the communities whose shared experiences of exclusion and oppression formed the backdrop against which Black Honey Company created work. As I walked the streets and listened to Candy speak of growing up in Campbelltown, I realised that on another level the choice of location teaches us that we should not separate art from social and historical context. We must learn to consume art in the context that created it and allow the people living in that context to take leadership over creating the art.

This is me at the Sydney Opera House for the opening night of Hot Brown Honey.

Interestingly, the premier of OTB (and the opening of Hot Brown Honey 2017 season at the Sydney Opera House ) somewhat coincided with two or three Netflix releases that document and historicise the rise of Hip Hop from the ghettos of urban USA into the mainstream. Sitting in my living room in urban Australia, temporally and geographically, I am located far from the context that gave rise to a global culture. Yet, a growing and nuanced understanding of the rise of Hip Hop in Australia allows me to appreciate parallels on a global level – the poverty, the lack of basic healthcare, food deserts and so on. Yet, as I watch ‘The Get Down’ for example – although I appreciate the history lesson – I find myself asking why, amongst other things, there is no in-depth analysis from women about women in Hip Hop and the era in which Hip Hop came to prominence. The erasure of Black women is very evident.

In comparison to OTB, these accounts are so male-centric that I catch myself questioning whether I actually grew up in an era listening to countless femcees and loving Hip Hop because I was more enamoured by their presence and their experiences. Women like Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt N Peppa and the list goes on were also part of the birth and rise of Hip Hop from the ghettos of the United States of America to the world. Where are their stories? Why have we excluded their narratives? OTB is a play that starts to explain the erasure of Black women’s voices but also offer their story for us to witness.

OTB is written from the Black radical feminist dreamer gaze. As such, OTB not only speaks to the cultural appropriation of the form and the watering down of its political edge for commercial viability and mainstream appeal, it also highlights the hypersexualisation of the Black female body by all men and how this process of colonising the Black female body enables the commodification of the experiences that birthed art out of Black oppression. Hip Hop Artists like Akua Naru in songs like ‘One Woman’ and ‘The World Is Listening’ have long advocated for a Hip Hop culture that makes ample room for Black womens’ stories told in their voices and on their terms. OTB answers that call from the Australian context.

Although we might think of the themes and issues under discussion as too mature for young minds, OTB is billed as ‘a fairytale for the Hip Hop generation’. It is a play written with young people in mind. On both nights that I attended, I saw Black (First Nations and African) artists with a first hand experience of the racialised and gendered dynamic of the Australian Hip Hop and entertainment industry. After watching the play, they all expressed a deep desire to bring their children along to watch the play. Why is that? Probably because they know that this celebrity crazed culture presents Hip Hop as an alluringly easy and comfortable road to riches and fame (a fairytale about a city with roads paved in gold). Like any concerned parent whose life experience has taught them better, they want their children to learn the lesson early and become savvy creators and consumers of the form.

The fairytale reference operates on two levels. Firstly, as outlined, it alludes to the contemporary assumption that celebrity transforms hard lives into fairytales of material prosperity and the endless party. Secondly, it signals that a mythological treatment underpins the entire play. Indeed, the entire play is drenched in myth and it is apparent in the set design, music and costumes. The beauty of myth is that it helps us all to readily understand and articulate highly complex issues and nuanced emotions.

The myth aspect is most evident through the use of a disembodied narrator voice which connects the dots between the contemporary and the historical, the personal and the political. There is a sense that we are dealing with issues that transcend time and space: the dialogue and action on stage relates to the contemporary and past oppression of women in hip hop but also to the entire neo/colonial experience.

In Australia, we still live in a deep denial (fairytale) that erases the history of oppression and enables continuing injustice. OTB perfectly contextualises current social justice concerns in a history that we will not find in text books or on the television in Australia. In this way, OTB is a warning to everyone who has forgotten that the US Civil Rights Movement (which greatly informed Hip Hop) is anchored by the promise and push for a radical transformation of systemic and institutionalised oppression. The play reminds us that instead of liberation, we have settled for the opportunity to access material riches through and within the existing oppressive systems and structures. This is the challenge for One – access to material wealth is vital for survival and yet it can also lead to a premature death.

Although this conundrum plays out throughout the play, there is also a strong sense of hope running through the play: as OTB makes clear that all that glitters is not gold, the play also offers practical advice as to how we might decolonise and fulfil the promise of ultimate liberation.

In line with Black radical feminist dreaming, the play teaches us through the abidingly loving friendship between One and Ursula that our survival relies on our commitment to nurture connection, build community on the principles and practices of self-care, reciprocity and care for the natural environment, which is as badly exploited as certain groups of human beings.

OTB has arrived in time to speak intelligibly to a generation raised amidst readily accessible screens, 24 hour entertainment and celebrity culture. This is a play that not only gives language but also facilitates critical and consciousness raising dialogues about poverty, wealth, environmental degradation and the historic injustices that underpin the ever-increasing gendered and raced wealth-divide. These are the conversations which ought inform how our urban communities grapple with gentrification – not just of our physical spaces but also of our intangible cultural spaces. The same way my father introduced me as an eight year old to documentaries about Ghandi, Steve Biko, Mandela and so on, I highly encourage you to take your children to see this play and ask your school to host a workshop. The education on offer here is deeply transformative and will plant seeds that provide young minds with a nuanced and complex understanding of issues that will assist them to continue the work of making this world a better place for all.

If you want to support Black Honey Company take this work to schools, you have just a few more hours to support their crowdfunding campaign. They have reached the target but more money means more resources to reach young minds and shift culture. Here is the link to their Pozible.

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