Bertie Did Burlesque!

Back in the autumn of ’16 I had the privilege of watching the fierce, fabulous, queer, Canadian, Burlesque wunderkind that is Rubyyy Jones perform at Ku Bar’s first ever Kindness Kabaret. They stripped to sparkly underwear, they sang and they stuck two fingers up at the God awful patriarchy. Suffice to say it was love at first sight and a year and a half later I found myself in a small dance studio in East London being coached by Rubyyy in the art of Queerlesque.

I signed up to the course for two reasons: one, I do actually love Rubyyy and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend more time with them and, two, I wanted to turn my overly-intellectualised dissatisfaction with mainstream beauty norms into something practical (put my money where my sparkly jock strap is, sort of thing). The Queerlesque classes themselves were a wondrous adventure – I learned about classic burlesque, neo-burlesque, lip sync, choreography and costume. I also got to do the course with five other epic folk, all there for different reasons and all of whom taught me lots about dancing, stripping, living and being queer. The course culminated in a graduation show at the Hackney Showrooms (just last week actually) and, given I had never done anything like this before (discounting singing and dancing in front of the mirror), I had to come up with an act. It came in the form of Bertie. He cropped up as an idea early on in the course and gradually took shape: a former public schoolboy and Oxford University graduate conditioned into toxic masculinity and poshness but yearning to reveal his inner queerness (sound familiar!?). Cue chinos, loafers and a tie being stripped away to reveal tights, jock-strap and mesh. And then I had to perform the thing in front of an actual, live audience!

Rubyyy led the way and one by one we did our acts until my name was called. Pushing my need to pee aside I stepped up onto the stage and, basically, had fun. I wasn’t there to prove myself to others or try and be sexy for them, I was there for me and for Bertie. Besides, sexiness is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t control that, but I can bare my body and own it. I can occupy space and queer it. I can be me and have fun. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of nerves, but I did what my acting friends do – I acted confidence until I felt it. And it felt great to rip off the layers of posh programming and show the real(er) me beneath and it felt great to get applauded for it. So, for one night, myself and six others (we had a bonus guest appearance from a previous Queerlesque course), led by the fantastic Rubyyy, kittened by the fab Lydia, shared a bit of our souls and varying amounts of our skin. Together we created the world we long for – queer, fabulous, inclusive, just and joyous. At least that’s what it felt like to me. Now, here’s Rubyyy…

 

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The Depth Of My Longing

In an age of so-called self-made-men and hyper-individualism it seems we’re destined to go it alone and build ourselves from scratch. This, of course, is just one of many bullshit lies fed to us by an economic-political system that thrives when we’re unhappy and buying more crap. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy but it’s kinda true that miserable folk make for better consumers and what better way to make people miserable than make them feel alone. Certainly, loneliness has long been a friend of mine, and something it has taken me years to change my relationship with. Now, periods of loneliness, while still making me sad, do not necessarily have to dunk me into depression. Yet under the loneliness I’ve recently found something else: longing. The longing to belong and to be part of something, namely, a tribe. And it was during a snowy week in February that I found a place that felt like home – the Arcola’s Queer Collective.

In its own words, “a performance collective exploring queer identity and how to present it theatrically…the group is open to anyone identifying as LGBTQI*.” Theatre and queerness, what’s not to love! However, what surprised me in between rehearsals of my play The Cluedo Club Killings – think a queered Miss Marple meets Skins with farce – was the depth of my longing. As someone who has striven hard to find community, be it in valleys in rural Wales, at Buddhist retreats in Scotland and occasionally on the dance floor (and often found these places to be distinctly unqueer), reaching my longed for destination proved both heartblowing and heartbreaking. Suffice to say, at the after party, a lot of tears were shed.

I think I cried for many reasons: because the weather was so damn awful; because a show we had so much fun making was now over; because I had been able to fully express my queer self through a piece of theatre; because I fell over on the ice (it really hurt, particularly my pride, but that’s another post); and because that journey to find community had been such a long one. From the corridors of boarding school to the Arcola stage, my longing ran deep, and it was only when I found the Queer Collective and the wondrous people who make it, did I begin to grasp those depths. All those tears for all those years of longing. Yet having found a destination I can finally put faces, places and names to my longing. I know what’s possible now, a privilege my 10 year-old self was never allowed. Nevertheless, thanks to the Queer Collective I believe 10 year-old someone elses and queer folks of all ages for that matter have something tangible and inspirational to look to. Long may it continue.

The Cluedo Club! Photo courtesy of Ali Wright

 

What A Complete Bastardography

“Gay, precocious and mentally unstable from an early age.” That’s how Simon Jay is described on the back of his memoir, Bastardography, and it’s also an apt description of his one-man show of the same name on at Theatre N16 in Balham. Jay hand picks a selection of experiences from his youth whether it’s a fellow kid turning a DIY flamethrower (Lynx can + lighter) on him for being gay or his obsession with the film Psycho and not forgetting his many dalliances with psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses as he skirts Borderline Personality Disorder. The result is a revealing romp through recent history with one of the funniest guides.

Jay isn’t even 30 and this isn’t his first show – his unique take on America’s latest dictator  president, Trumpageddon, sold out at the Fringe before hitting London, he’s put on a musical about a girl with a robot arm and he even collaborated with me on a series of monologues called Universally Speaking (they were particularly good) – but what’s most impressive about the guy isn’t his talent in directing, acting or writing, no, it’s his resilience. That the world threw so much shit at Jay and he turned it into this really rather fabulous production is testimony to his strength. He cracks many a joke, disregards the fourth wall, points out his penis collage, attempts to circle the stage in heels, is candid with his experiences and does all this to a soundtrack of Pocahontas, Glenn Miller and film quotes. Tickets here!

Margaret Thatcher spoke at the start of the play and her words stuck with me. It was her famous speech of 1987 in which she bemoaned the fact that “children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay” and subsequently “cheated of a sound start in life.” The next year she introduced a number of anti-gay laws including Section 28, that forbade any school from teaching that homosexual relationships are ‘acceptable’. Jay was born in 1987 and I was born in 1988. The law was eventually repealed in 2003, when I was fifteen. I wonder what it might have been like to grow up in a world where I had role models and cultural narratives to turn to and I imagine Jay wonders the same thing. Perhaps if things had been different we wouldn’t have been cheated of a sound start in life. So kudos to Jay for turning a legacy of hate into a queer, creative, mental health odyssey that, whilst very dark at times, always shines with love.

The Cocoa Butter Club: Not Proud To Be White

There are many things about my identity of which I am proud but being white has never been one of them. I have never felt my body thrill with the pride of having pale skin nor stood arm in arm with others as we’ve identified around the activity levels of our melanin. I’m proud of other things and, for me, my skin colour has never been an issue. However, whilst that might sound like a good thing – that I’m not a racist – there’s still something else going on here. Namely, white privilege, and last night the epic Cocoa Butter Club reminded me that I’ve got it in spades.

The Cocoa Butter Club celebrates performers of colour within cabaret. In their words: “as Creatives, when faced with the issues of cultural appropriation, lack of representation and even black-facing in cabaret, we had no choice but to create!- create something beautiful in response. So, we set up the alternative option for those who don’t want to see trivializing, appropriating or clowning of our cultures, but perhaps experience how fabulous our histories and  cultures are, as told by us.” And at the Hospital Club last night there was a whole Supershow of epic performances. Some highlights for me include: the outstanding Miss Knock Out Noire who, for her first act, revealed a great deal whilst dressed in a banana themed costume and for the show’s final act performed an electrifying burlesque to a mix of Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit. Meanwhile, Symoné twirled at least ten hula hoops at once (I can barely manage one), Loraine James did some ace dj-ing and Carlos Maurizio sung some moving tunes. There were many others and if you want to watch them, which I highly recommend, go find the Cocoa Butter Club wherever they are next (and give them your money!).

But back to white privilege. During the show speaker and activist Kayza Rose asked if there were any allies in the audience. Me and my white friends released a tentative whoop, I was a bit scared that I was about to get told off for being an ally when I should be an accomplice – y’know, trash the system and make a better one rather than just talk/blog about these issues. She then asked again and we cheered a bit louder this time. And this is the thing, fellow whites, people of colour don’t need our hesitancy, guilt or white tears let alone our disregard and indifference they just want us to do something. To challenge that racist joke our friend just made, to educate other whites, to join protests and to co-create safe spaces that people of all colours can enjoy. Sure, it’s tough(ish) to have to realise that we whites benefit from centuries of the oppression of people of colour and, yeah, it’s not as if we’re as bad as our slave-owning ancestors but the white person’s identity crisis is not something with which people of colour need to be bombarded – they have enough issues to deal with, namely, having to deal with institutionalised racism which exists in many places including the cabaret scene. We can have our crises at home with our fellow whites and then, when we’re feeling empowered, clued up and ready to get hula-hooping we can take the fight to the government, workplace, street or wherever oppression is playing itself out. Don’t get me wrong, I am not pretending I’m doing enough to sort this problem out, I also cheered when Rose asked if any of the allies in the room felt they should do more. But I do think the quicker us whites can acknowledge our white privilege the more active we can get in trying to make society more equal. Plus, as Miss Knock Out Noire’s performance proves the struggle for equality can also be a lot of fun.