It matters how an invitation is made.
“There’s certain things that align as regards your values in life and what you stand for,” says dancer Elsabet Yonas. The call-out for Hive City Legacy was “one of those things”. The invitation was made by Lisa Fa’alafi and Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers of Australian collective Hot Brown Honey, and specifically invited femmes of colour (choosing the word femmes over women to be more inclusive) to apply. “I’d never experienced a call-out that was requesting somebody that looked like me or identified how I identify,” Elsabet emphasises. “It was a very memorable moment.”
I spoke with Lisa and Busty last year about the thinking behind Hive City Legacy, which might reductively be described as an outreach project co-produced with the Roundhouse in London. The show’s return to the Roundhouse this year, with a UK tour attached, offered a chance to talk with its performers about what it means to join Hot Brown Honey’s slow and determined march towards intersectional feminist social transformation.
It matters how an invitation is made, but it also matters how an invitation is activated.
Shakaiah Perez was “working a corporate business job” when the auditions came up in 2018: “I was like, holy fuck, I don’t wanna be in this office, I wanna be doing that. Not only because they were looking for brown and black femmes and women of colour, but the fact it was so wide-range.” Among the Hive City Legacy performers are specialists in burlesque, spoken-word, aerial circus skills, hip-hop and street dance, singing and more. And all of those skills are used in a show that is fluid in its form, pulling its nine performers into a synchronised quasi-military group dancing with fierce precision, then configuring them into solos and smaller groups where their individuality is illuminated.
For Koko Brown, this is the great strength of the work. She went into it assuming it would be “a show that talks about black and brown women as a collective”, and was impressed by the way it “also talks about us very specifically”: that is, gives them space to reflect their personal realities. In Koko’s case that’s her experience of depression, for Shakaiah that’s “sharing what it’s like to be not only a mixed-race black and Pacific person, but also being trans”. Any anxiety about opening up difficult personal material, says Koko, was held gently but firmly by the creative team — all of whom are also femmes of colour.
Krystal Dockery felt the anxiety a little differently: an actor but also a burlesque performer, she thought she might have to keep these two parts of herself separate. Instead, “I was able to just be myself, to explore myself, explore my sexuality and my acting, with everyone else in the room. It was scary at first, delving into these spaces,” she admits, “but healing as well. We healed collectively and that brought us closer together which allowed us to open up even more, and share stories you wouldn’t normally share.”
A hive has its queen, its workers, its drones — and that’s exactly the kind of social hierarchy Hot Brown Honey are here to dismantle, making performance as a feminist practice melding activism, knowledge-sharing, generosity and care. Each performer in Hive City Legacy brought her specialist skill, and then passed it forward. “It was amazing to learn from each other,” says Shakaiah. “Those who are great singers were teaching us who don’t really like to sing in front of people how to sing better; those of us that probably wouldn’t stand up and do spoken word are now doing spoken word: and that was because we were able to teach each other and build this show together.”
More than that, the performers were invited to stretch themselves, to take roles not normally assigned to them. “I have never gone into a casting,” says Aminita Francis, “and thought they’re not going to cast me based solely on my body type and the way I look, the stereotypes associated with my current image. I walked into the audition for this and I instantly felt: this is different. I’m not going to be playing the maid, the nurse, for once, which has happened to me in the past. In the show I get to play a cockney white guy — I would never get cast in these roles, but it doesn’t mean I’m not able to present that way, that’s the art of acting. Non-POC people get to play a wider range of characters than people of colour, and this show is definitely a step in making sure that balance is reset.”
Hot Brown Honey work from a belief in the power of spreading ideas: intersectional feminist thinking, argument, practice. Busty and Lisa, sitting in on this interview as well, nod at each other knowingly when Aminita says “not the maid”: the words form the basis of an entire scene in the Hot Brown Honey show, each of those performers similarly being freed from servitude, and there is pleasure in witnessing the way that their work pollinates and galvanises others. Seeing them perform, says Elsabet, “sparked something within me, to be empowered enough to take things in my own life a step further”.
Koko saw them for the first time at the Royal Festival Hall, after the first run of Hive City Legacy had finished. “I remember sitting in the South Bank Centre and being like: yo, we’re allowed to make these really big faces! And we’re allowed to be loud and active and unapologetic! And we’re allowed to hold each other on stage and also push each other on stage. And although as a performer I knew all these things before, it was so overwhelming to be able to see people who looked like me do that on stage. It kind of gave me permission since we’ve been back this year to go: do that face, you will look ugly but it’s OK to look ugly and it’s OK to yell a bit loud and it’s OK to cry on stage. It’s OK to do all of these things in front of an audience because if I can make a single person who comes to see this show — especially a young black or black mixed or brown girl — feel the way that I felt when I watched Hot Brown Honey, it’s so worth it.”
City (an interlude)
The way in which the performers describe their shared experience — as Krystal puts it, “it was such a great thing to be in a room with people that understood you, not necessarily understand everything you’ve been through, but we have this shared existence basically” — might give an impression of homogeneity. But Hive City Legacy has its edges too. “Being in a cast where everyone is from London and I’m not from London,” says Shakaiah, eyebrows raised, “it was different. Because there were so many things where they had these jokes, like everyone was talking about EastEnders and I was like, what the fuck is that?” The room erupts with laughter anew. “I get the people of colour jokes,” Shakaiah continues undaunted, “but the UK jokes? I just don’t get them because I wasn’t born here.”
Among the many things I love about Hot Brown Honey is their flair for crafting catchy, zesty slogans. “Decolonise and moisturise” is the classic, and I’m very fond of my badge that reads: “The revolution cannot happen without childcare”. Throughout Hive City Legacy, an illuminated plaque hangs at the back of the stage reading ACTIVATE POLLINATE LIBERATE. That sense of liberation started in the audition space, says Aminita. “They said, show us everything you’ve got, and I was like: yeah, I’m going to pull out my Russian accent that I’m never going to ever get to use in any situation ever, and then I’m going to do a handstand because people my size can’t do handstands.”
That sense of liberation carried forward into the work itself in the invitation to each performer to be absolutely themselves. Before Hive City Legacy, says Shakaiah, “I’ve never really wanted to talk about being trans. In the show this year I touch on different parts of that, and that was so freeing for me because I wouldn’t want to do it in any other space or any other show. It’s based on the fact that I feel supported here, by all these beautiful femmes and women of colour, to be my authentic self and not have to hide in the shadows for being who I am.”
More than that, the performers don’t have to represent race in the way they’re often forced to in the structurally and institutionally racist industry that is British theatre. “You get told what stories you’re responsible for telling,” says Rebecca Solomon, quiet in the interview until this point. “This has allowed us to tell the stories we want to tell. We have been taught by Busty and Lisa and Yami [Löfvenberg, choreographer] to be able to hold our own space and say, I see that I’m responsible but I’m also going to tell the story that I want to tell, not just the story that you allow me to tell. That’s been a really powerful and important thing.”
“There’s also no pressure,” said Aminita. “Sometimes it can feel like directors are saying to you, can you talk about the slave trade or something like that, because I can’t talk about it because I’m white, but you can talk about it. That never happened here. It’s so much a point of the show that we’re all black women but we’re not the same and we can come on and tell jokes for five minutes if we want and that’s still a valid thing for a black woman to do.”
“I didn’t have to tell a black story,” says Koko.
“I just told my story,” says Elsabet.
“And I happened to be black,” say Aminita and Koko in unison.
That has benefits for the audiences too, says Aminita. “When we perform audiences afterwards are like: you put all my thoughts and feelings on stage. You feel like you go through things alone just because it’s not put in the mainstream stories and then you see it and you’re like, I’m not the only person going through this, I’m not the only person that feels this, plenty of people feel this way and think this way and they’re just not allowed to spread the word.”
Better still, says Elsabet, people who might usually try and shut a conversation down don’t have the opportunity. “Because you’re on stage and you’re getting the space and time and people’s attention to tell that story, you’re not having that debate that you might have on a day to day, or you’re not having the white fragility be like ‘oh but actually’. The literal space and time to tell those stories shouldn’t be but is a privilege that actually you do get when you perform. I’ve had conversations with white men where they’re listening to respond, they’re not listening to understand. That can’t happen here.”
For Hot Brown Honey, Hive City Legacy is part of an extensive plan for — well, let’s not mess around here, total social reconfiguration through decolonisation and the dismantling of patriarchy, but as a step towards that they want to extend their own platform, sharing a Broadway-sized stage with a hundred women or more. Given that, I wondered whether it made sense for the same performers (with one substitution) to re-perform and tour Hive City Legacy, or whether the 2019 production should have brought in a new cast, new people to feel its benefits.
For Koko, to do so would make Hive City Legacy “tokenistic. Us coming back and doing it again shows that it wasn’t a fluke: we’re really fucking good at what we do. And us getting this opportunity a second time doesn’t close the door on anyone else. I like to say that lighting one candle off another doesn’t make the room darker. Us having this opportunity a second time doesn’t mean other people didn’t or won’t get this opportunity, it means that we are now able to go far and wide and go: look, we did it twice, now we’re going to do it on tour — you can do it too, whether that’s you knocking on rooms or us uplifting you, shouting about your show.”
Aminita agrees — not least because she’s taken part in lots of outreach and youth programmes at different London theatres and feels an abiding frustration with the ways in which new experiences are prized over consolidated learning. “It feels like we have taken more ownership this time, we’ve been allowed to really refine,” she says. “Last time we were taking a lot of guidance and a lot of learning, which was absolutely valuable, but now I feel like all of us have grown.” Perhaps more importantly, returning gives her the sense that the Roundhouse has grown. “When we did it the first time, it felt like this creative team and cast really believed in it and the audience really believed in it but unfortunately it felt like a tick for the Roundhouse. There’s so many spaces where I’m invited as the diversity tick and it’s just like: hmmm, I’m very aware of what you’re putting on your funding applications right now. So the fact that they brought it back gave me faith in the Roundhouse as an establishment: it really felt like it was real this time, it’s really happening, we’re changing the way theatres programme work, the way theatres see us when they see us.”
But the politics of this go beyond theatre and performance, Elsabet argues. “The way in which something like Hot Brown Honey or Hive City Legacy creates change or creates forward movement for those that witness it is not by them having to be in it. When I saw Hot Brown Honey I didn’t think I need to be in Hot Brown Honey, as inspired as I was. It’s about how did that thing make you feel, how can you apply that to your life, regardless of what you do. You don’t have to be a performer: regardless of whether you’re working a corporate job or you’re a lawyer or a nurse, if you identify with anything that we speak about [in Hive City Legacy], if you felt anything, you’re going to take that away, that’s an energy that you take into your life. It’s not about being in this cast. I’m totally down for that to happen but I don’t think that’s the most effective, sustainable way to create long-term change.”
For Hot Brown Honey too, long-term and sustainable change is the root and the branch of everything. A performance ensemble is a powerful unit, says Lisa — but an ensemble’s chances of survival “takes change from the structures we’re operating in. A tour is not possible without support: a team of nine is going to make a loss on a room of a hundred people.” A shift is needed in how art is valued, she argues, so that funders and theatre institutions understand “that we’re worth investing in just as much as a Shakespeare play”.
Or, as Busty puts it: “What’s the price of the cultural legacy that’s going to ripple through an extremely scary landscape that we’re all living in? What price do you put on shifting the paradigm?”
Bristol and Cardiff tour dates for Hive City Legacy can be found here.