Burlesque conjures images of buxom women in diamante and feathers, flaunting their figures in cheeky routines with perhaps a bit of acrobatics tossed in. Add in radical politics and unflinching questions of race, culture, nationality, post-colonialism, feminism, and the pulsing defiance of club music (and perhaps the highest concentration of middle fingers flipped in a 70-minute run time), and the result is Hot Brown Honey. The company – whose shows are difficult to limit to one genre – combines spoken word, song, quick costume changes, and more conventional cabaret acts to engage the audience in a carnival of protest.
The show was founded in 2013 when, upon observing Australia’s nascent burlesque/cabaret scene, performers Lisa Fa’alafi and Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers thought “Where are all the brown boobs in burlesque?”. Five years later, the eight-woman cast – all descended from first-nation Australians – command the stage in complete control of their voices, histories, bodies, and message to the world. The show starts with Fa’alafi’s exhortation to move, to cheer, to chant, to treat this as a club night with just a little bit more rage against the colonial patriarchal status quo. This party-like atmosphere turns rage into a celebration – one just as satisfying and soul-reviving as a night on the town.
The dynamic, assertive performers – helmed by Bowers emceeing, goddess-like, from atop a gigantic beehive – quote Audre Lorde (‘your silence will not protect you’), Angela Davis, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as they present their stories free of the roles and stereotypes imposed by the historically colonial media – a motif begun after the opening number and continued until the curtain call. Sometimes the approach is tongue-in-cheek – for instance, one of Bowers’ mantras: ‘decolonise, moisturise’ – sometimes it is angrier, as in a song entitled ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’. In both instances, humanity and humour carry a defiance that echoes louder than the audiences’ cheers and brighter than the lights on their honey-filled backdrop.
Sometimes the anger is too much to celebrate; an aerial dance dealing with domestic violence is deeply unsettling and difficult to watch. This is exacerbated by the fact that these acrobatics often garner the most applause in more traditional cabarets.
As in much burlesque, women’s sexuality is centre stage. Hot Brown Honey is especially unapologetic about the fact. Women’s bodies and pleasures are to be celebrated and expressed with over-the-top, larger-than-life elation (and a fair amount of well-timed confetti and in-your-face audience interaction that never tips to discomfort). The performers’ supreme confidence in their bodies and politics make these demonstrations more empowering than titillating.
During Bowers’ opening emcee speech, she says that ‘fighting the patriarchy never tasted so sweet’. Hot Brown Honey is a fierce, furious, joyous party that forces the audience to examine systems of oppression while getting involved in the festivities. It is the closest thing to essential viewing the 2018 Fringe Festival is hosting.
Hot Brown Honey plays at the Gilded Balloon Teviot (Debating Hall) every day at 19.30 (except the 15th and 23rd). Tickets cost £16.50 (£15.50 concessions) and are available through the EdFringe website.