It’s a chilly twelve degrees as I walk into the Sydney Opera House’s iconic Playhouse Theatre for a Tuesday night dose of cabaret. The glowing amber show poster illuminated outside says ‘Cabaret like you’ve never seen before!’ with as many five star reviews as one graphic designer could cram onto a poster. The critically acclaimed cast of Hot Brown Honey growl off the canvas – they’re enraged and I know why. Because “Fighting the Power Never Tasted So Sweet!”
Created by Director Lisa Fa’alafi and Musical Director Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers, Hot Brown Honey takes on some serious decolonisation along with a powerfully provocative cabaret cocktail of circus, contemporary dance, burlesque, hip hop and beatboxing.
The stage packs a power punch of political performance art – fighting activism with agency through subverting well-worn images and stereotypical characters. These Honeys certainly don’t shy away from concerns integral to feminist identity politics, such as critiquing rampant sexism, misogyny and inequality within patriarchal culture.
Hot Brown Honey “interrogates the effects of racism, colonialism and an inherent fetishisation of women of colour that exists in postcolonial Australia” (French, 2017). The 2016 cast consists of Maori beatboxer Materharere Hope ‘Hope One’ Haami; Indigenous contemporary dancer and proud Kamilaroi woman Juanita Duncan; Tongan soul vocalist Ofa Fotu; and Crystal Stacey, hula hoopist and aerialist of Indonesian/Anglo decent. Juanita was injured for this performance so the cast was joined by a phenomenally talented Torres Strait Islander dancer Ghenoa Gela.
The Harbour Bridge is twinkling and a waxing moon reflects onto the sails of the Opera House. I think about the place in which we meet, Bennelong Point, the original meeting place of the Indigenous Australians, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. This place is known as Tubowgule, which means ‘where the knowledge waters meet’. As the bell starts to warble and signal to the riff raff to rush to the doors, I wonder what knowledge this audience will gain from engaging with the queer, feminist and racial politics of Hot Brown Honey.
“Sydney, it’s time to get sticky!”
A chilled RnB vocal hum fills the theatre as we take our seats. Cast members are roaming around the incoming audience with a charity donation box collecting funds for mothers working in the arts, telling us that, “The Revolution Cannot Happen Without Childcare.”
While people are funnelling in, one of the cast members sporting a tracksuit with their signature beehive pattern on it says, “This is a Hot Brown Honey Space, you’re not in the Opera House anymore.” It sets a scene that both welcomes us to their house and acknowledges the suspension of any prescribed assumptions.
MC Busty Beatz says, “You’ve looked at us and acknowledged who we are – those who don’t usually look like they’re gonna poop themselves.” Ofa invites us to stand and stretch our arms to the sky and be open to the concepts in the show. She introduces us to the show’s battle cry, “Make Noise!” before explaining that this call to arms is an untapped natural resource of power that comes from the swimsuit region.
Lisa reminds us that it doesn’t matter what’s down there. Whoops and hollers from the audience ensue, before the real noise begins. “Make Noise!” The audience screams in response. “Make noise!” Screams. “Make Noise!!!” The screams get louder as the audience warms to the interactive experience of the cabaret show. “Welcome to the Hive!”
The lights go down, lightning shocks the stage, thunder rumbles, and a voice of The Hive, aka The Mother, proclaims, “It’s time to send in the help!” A body illuminates centre stage above a glowing beehive. MC Busty Beatz gets the mood going with the jazzy backtrack from the Bring It On movie. In sound activated response, the letters HBH flash on the hive, “Sydney, it’s time to get sticky!”
Sunflower prop fans pop their unwieldy heads out from the opening of the hive, which moulds the light and forms shadows behind it. Voiceovers from conservative Australian politicians boom in bellowing backwardness, highlighting the rampant disrespect Australian politics have in regards to women’s issues in this country.
The choreography is flawless; each of the six women are holding a prop which is an innovative combination of parasols and feather fans. The hive lights up like a luminous disco-ball and the troupe strip their outer trackydak layers and tear-away pants to reveal a screen-printed shirt with Oprah’s face on it. The final tearaway layer reveals – wait for it – a fucking maids outfit.
Busty Beatz explains using the words of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: “the single story creates stereotypes and problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make ONE story and become the ONLY story” (Adichie 2009). Busty Beatz continues, “You are not the maid.” The Honeys then utilise the maid’s costume as a clever stage clearing segway. The casts’ bodies evaporate into darkness.
MC Busty strongly resides at the top of the hive, like a Queen Bee in a DJ booth. The placement forces the audience’s gaze upwards, commanding respect. “Fighting The Power Never Tasted So Sweet! When I say ‘Love’ you say ‘Respect’” Love! Respect! Love! Respect! is chanted in call and response as the words light up in the hive.
These transitional scenarios utilise lines of dialogue throughout the show that are uplifting and powerful. The message of the show is peppered with rage-filled need for change. However, the show is not in any way violent or hateful, but rather full of love, humour, and joy. Late in the show, the Honeys repeat, “We rage because we love!” Reminding us that revolution can come out of celebration as much as it can come from trauma.
The Honeys come out in traditional/contemporary garb for the next group number. Wearing a large Maori jade neckpiece, Hope One begins to sing a moving vocal solo a cappella in language. Then she delivers a powerful quote, “We are not witches, bruised faces – we make noise.” Beyonce style backing begins and Busty Beatz fades in a beat under the words, “We are game changers, collaborators, peacemakers.”
A seemingly white woman, toting a fake Louis Vuitton bag, bleached hair and Aussie flag shirt smashes her body onstage. She is the epitome of a drunk Bogan Australian – I recognise her all too well but so do many of the audience members – who giggle as the voiceover sets the scene for Aussies holidaying in Bali. She grabs a huge drink and a hoop, tears away her blond wig to reveal tiny braids, and rips off her shirt to reveal an Aussie flag bikini. She snorts an unidentified but highly suspect line off her ‘servant’ and spins all her hoops at breakneck speed, rushing back and forth in her drug-induced mania.
The MC interrupts as the Bogan woman yells – Aussie Aussie Aussie! A few unsure people behind me go to call out Oi! Oi! Oi! But quickly realise their response has been predicted and Busty Beatz tisks and tuts them, “Aren’t Aussies great when they travel overseas?” She goes on what she calls “one of her black feminism rants” ending with, “The age of entitlement is over, bitches.”
As the show progresses, Hope One comes to the front and straddles one of the audience members and begins to beatbox while giving the audience member a lapdance. Man’s World kicks in and Ofa comes out in an oversized golliwog outfit and begins to sing. ‘Holy hell, what a powerful voice!’ I think to myself.
Her golliwog outfit is stitched out of felt and embellished with an Arnott’s biscuit label at the bottom (a popular Australian biscuit company). Her bowtie is made of Aussie brand labels and I can see the colours of a vegemite label poking its head out. MC Busty holds a golliwog doll above her head – “Decolonise, moisturise, reconnect.” Drumming African beats begin, and the hive lights up.
The cast come out dressed in their maid costumes. They begin to make monkey screams and Busty comes out with massive oversize bazoombas with the cast terrorising the audience. Busty finds her victim and begins to smash his face violently in her fake breasts – he looked like he was having the time of his life. They surreptitiously pull a very straight looking guy on stage and dance manically around him making sure his eyes stay forward while Busty motions fucking up from behind. This number is pussy fuelled twerking featuring oversized cat faces over said pussies.
Music sets the scene for Pacific Island. The quaint melody begins and Lisa Fa’alafi appears onstage as an Islander girl in a grass skirt with her back bare. A headdress made of leaves bends with motion as she softly sways in time with the music. Then all of a sudden, she begins bashing violently and fashions herself a shoe, then a handbag, a cap and a tailpiece.
Spinning around with her nipples revealed, she places two leaves over her breasts as pasties; her traditional leg tattoos – the Malu – are spectacular. She fashions a necklace, a headdress and tears away at her skirt and makes it into a backpack. A leaf blower comes onstage and Lo! Beyonce moment with wind tunnel hair action. Her final outfit piece is a pair of raver style glasses. The leaf blower clears the stage of mylar confetti.
“Australia, sun, surf, stolen land.” Ghenoa soberly steps out in a bell style gown made of the Australian flag; a ruff-neck renaissance style collar, hood and a massive flag train drags along the ground behind her. She tears at the collar and dramatically discards it. Her hood is last, symbolically wearing an Australian flag mouth covering.
Huffing, she tears the top down and her undershirt says, “Still here.” She hurls the flag train and the underskirt is made of a tarp stuck together with gaff tape. As she dances, her large-build body swoons with incredible lyrical movement, throwing powerful shapes before she picks up clacker sticks and performs an indigenous dance. At the end of the number the MC articulates, “What the actual colonising clusterfuck?”
MC Busty appears in an even larger afro and announces that it’s time for some cultural awareness training. Two bodies appear next to her, Hope beatboxes, while Ofa sings Don’t touch my hair by Erykah Badu. The words NO NO NO NO light up the hive, breaking it down with a slow gospel refrain before Hope punches it into gear with some intensely clever rapping.
The Honeys join dancing in the forefront – forearms bared like crosses, doing the NO dance. Cue the most intense hairography whipping to the the lyrics, “I got the power from my head to my snatch.” The number transitions into screamo death metal headbanging – windmilling from go to wo! Guttural screams gush forth, “NOOOOOOOOO!!!!” I’m whipped into a frenzy like a teenager in the mosh pit at Soundwave!
Hope One the Beatboxer takes the solo spot, illuminated under downlight. The spits beat forth like bullets. Double, triple tongue – clicking ammunition fired round with all the explosive might of a fully automatic weapon. There is a torrid depth of sound underneath in counter rhythm – while she says, “Stand the fuck up!” And the bari sax wails as Busty Beatz says, “When I say stand the fuck up,” and then the Shakespearian quote, “Something wicked this way comes”.
Clad in a bright pink moo-moo, pink feathered neckpiece and frangipani flowers, Ofa begins to belt once more, “Hello, is it me you’re looking for? You used to call me on your cellphone when you need my love. Consequences. I put a spell on you because you’re mine.” Love illuminates into the lights of the hive. A Dedication to assimilation.
Crystal Stacey rushes onstage in a torn night dress, screaming. The hairs on the back of our necks prick. She rips her robe off and straps drop from an aerial point. The air is sucked into the chest of every audience member and we cumulatively hold our breath as she pulls her neck into a powerful hang. Her body pulses and contorts as she holds strong.
I recognise this scenario all too well and it hits home as MC Busty delivers an Audre Lorde quote: “We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.” That cuts straight into the heart with a spear. “We deal with this together…” and tears slide down my face.
The audience is visibly stirred as a voiceover announces the microaggressions song. “Where are you from? Really from. What is privilege?” The words “if you have to think twice about calling the police” are poignant as the lighting illuminates the cast’s faces and they raise their hands.
The Hive speaks, “Will you stay the same or rock the boat? It’s time to rock the boat!” And with that, the sunflowers make their final appearance and bow to rapturous applause. The audience has laughed and clapped along to these fiercely approached topics of race, feminism, domestic violence, decolonisation and cultural appropriation. Decolonise and Moisturise.
We get up to leave Hot Brown Honey. The entire audience was not just entertained, but changed. You can hear the titters of the audience’s conversations as they line up for pictures with the cast at the media wall. This show has powered conversations that need to be had and fuelled discussions that will help move this country forward.
This powerful show is decolonising Australia, detangling presumptions and assumptions, and setting straight lingering stereotypes. The Honeys have harnessed the power of entertainment for social change itself.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. (2009), “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED Talk. (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story)
French, Sarah. (2017), “Fighting the Power Never Tasted So Sweet’” Hot Brown Honey and Concluding Remarks.” Staging Queer Feminisms, Contemporary Performance Interactions. Palgrave MacMillan, London.
Video Footage: https://youtu.be/PA3OIkUX_X8
Hot Brown Honey: The Revolution Never Tasted So Good written by Alyssa Kitt.