The Melbourne Arts Centre is about to be shaken up in the most sensational way when Hot Brown Honey opens this week.
“We’re just an explosion of colour, culture and controversy, that’s how we roll,” says Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers, the show’s musical director and co-creator. “All kind of wrapped up in intersectional feminist theatre.”
The brainchild of Bowers and longtime collaborator, choreographer and designer Lisa Fa'alafi, Hot Brown Honey mixes a range of performance styles, from comedy to circus, beat boxing to burlesque. All the performers are women from colour.
“We were just over not having any space to make work which was our work, which was kinky and crazy and political and fun, so we just created that space,” says Bowers. “We had all sorts of honeys from all over Australia come and join us in that space and Lisa and I went right, we’ll go off by ourselves and write these women onto stage. Centre stage.”
Although Bowers and Fa’alafi are the key creatives, they see their role as collaborative, helping the women of the cast to share their stories.
“We can test lots of ideas, we can explore issues which are relevant to us without tip-toeing around. Sometimes it’s not as easy as that when you walk into another space, whether it’s established theatre companies or something like that, because you walk into a structure that works for them. This time the women walk into a structure that’s specifically made to be open to women of colour.”
For all its promised spectacle, the show is also profoundly personal and unashamedly political.
“This is our story about how we intersect on stolen land. How that as women of colour actually effects our daily lives. Each of the things we explore in the show, each one of us have dealt with.”
The duo say their work is constantly evolving to reflect how they and their cast are feeling the world at the time of performance. Which adds a certain sharpness to the Melbourne season, happening as it does in the midst of a particularly politically charged time.
“Now’s the time,” says Bowers. “I just go, well the lines in the sand have been drawn. They’ve been there the whole time but now we can clearly see them. People have to work out where they want to be. That’s what this show’s about as well, we’re asking people, we’re encouraging them, we’re giving them a different way of looking at things and we’re asking them to stand with us because we actually know how to change the world.”
Art for Fa’alafi and Bowers is a powerful tool for social change, not just through telling their stories but also by giving audiences a space to celebrate and analyse their own place in society. Standing by the door as the audience leave after shows, they say they receive an overwhelming response that people are going out feeling they can make a positive change.
“Just from seeing our show we’re confident that small changes in peoples’ mindsets, small changes in how they see their own privilege are all embedded in what is also a really fun night out.”
While the show’s content might be very Australian, this hasn’t stopped Hot Brown Honey resonating with audiences overseas, or scooping a Total Theatre Award for Innovation, Experimentation and Playing with Form at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
“I think one of the biggest things that resonated was the fact that people are pretty clear about what’s going on in Australia,” says Bowers. “They know about Nauru, they know about Don Dale, they know all about the political context that we’re coming from but they haven’t yet heard from us. People were really excited to see women like us, women of colour, from First Nations background come and talk about our experiences.”
“And party,” she adds, laughing.
While the two have busy schedules with their separate careers – Fa’alafi with her Polynesian dance troupe Polytoxic, Bowers with her work in sound design – they clearly have a special fondness for working with each other. “We get goosebumps from working together, it’s special actually.” I think that’s Bowers who says that but we’re doing the interview via conference call and ideas flow so easily between them sometimes I almost miss when the conversation passes from one to the next.
Bowers, who lists among her influences feminist writer Audre Lorde and Salt-N-Pepa, has brought her background in hip hop to the fore in designing the soundtrack for Hot Brown Honey. “Hip hop is an amazing art form because it is the voice of the marginalised,” she says. “That’s what it began as anyway, giving space to a story that wasn’t told but was continuously happening. “
She could, she says, talk for hours about the issues facing the art form today, from rampant misogyny to artists whose voices go unheard while they languish in refugee detention. “Hip Hop is a reflection of society, so what’s happening in the greater or macro world is also happening within different things, whether be that hip hop or theatre or dance or whatever. That’s why we want to break that down. With Hot Brown Honey everything is intersectional, everything is cross cultural, everything references who we are today.”
Fa’alafi says that from a design perspective, intersectionality is also reflected in the structure of the show, in the way it draws across art forms. “That’s been a fun part for me, as a maker and a director, is how we can use forms to tell the stories we want to tell in a way that people might not be waiting for. It’s definitely a fast paced ride. We don’t really give people much time to digest, we’re always onto the next, onto the next, which actually lets them digest interestingly enough.”
Bowers adds enthusiastically, “I feel we are pretty much on the cutting edge of what theatre is and what it can be.”
From something that started as a side project doing small acts or party pieces in their home town of Brisbane, to playing the Sydney Opera House, international festivals and now Melbourne Arts Centre, Hot Brown Honey has certainly come a long way.
Says Bowers, “Just to be where we are right now is such a huge success for all the women involved in this work. Like really, where we come from, and what’s expected with stereotypes around women of colour, we shouldn’t be where we are. But we are. Because we have worked really hard.”
“We’re humbled by the journey but we also believe we deserve to be there,” says Fa’alafi. “The next task is to continually stay there and keep doing new and wonderful things.”
In the near future this will involve more shows in the UK, where they clearly made quite an impact, and they are getting the cast ready for an extended tour in 2017.
“We’ve got kids on the road as well so it’s not only supporting women of colour but also supporting mothers in the arts,” says Bower. Her own young daughter tours with her, an experience she describes as both crazy and amazing. “She’s got to see so many shows, way more than I got to see. She’s started rating shows and giving them stars. This is an experience that not many kids like her would every really get so it feels like a gift actually… to go ‘this is the world, it’s not just the tiny place where you live and go to school, this is actually the world that we are in and that we get to build and see together.’”
For all that all they have already built, I get the impression it is still only a small step toward a bigger dream. I ask what they would do if they had no limitations or budgetary constraints.
“We could put on the biggest show ever,” says Busty.
“It wouldn’t just be six honeys”, adds Lisa.
“It would be every honey that we know would have a place on the stage.”
“Like those old movies,” adds Lisa, “where they just had hundreds of women. We just want hundreds of brown women doing choreography together, fighting the power.”
Hot Brown Honey is now playing at the Arts Centre Melbourne, until 13 December 2016. Visit www.artscentremelbourne.com.au for details