Features Edinburgh Fringe 2019 Published 25 August 2019

An Odyssey of Onstage Queer Orgasms

Francesca Peschier writes on the shows bringing ecstatic moments and authentic queer people of colour's experiences to the Edinburgh fringe.
Francesca Peschier
Pink Lemonade by Mika Johnson at Assembly.

Pink Lemonade by Mika Johnson at Assembly.

My friend B and I are locked in a wordless debate as to whether or not we should stand up to get a better view of Mika Johnson’s orgasm. Our eyes are locked, thighs tensed as to whether one of us is going to go for it and pop up like a voyeuristic meerkat in the back row of Pink Lemonade’s audience. ‘I’d have done it if you had’, B admonishes me later. I attempt to justify my inaction: ‘I was worried I’d look like I was walking out in disgust’. ‘Bollocks’ B counters, ‘Like me, you thought they’d think we were massive pervs’.

You know what they (don’t) say, you wait for a Queer onstage orgasm from a person of colour and then three come along in one Fringe like massive sexy buses. As Travis Alabanza has observed, the Fringe is still disproportionally white , and whilst work including the #TransFringe hashtag and Queer Meet-ups are making indents, the festival can still be an unwelcome space for queer, black, brown and beyond the binary bodies. The fact that I have been lucky enough to see three glorious, filthy climaxes speaks volume of the type of work I seek out to watch. I’d like to think that a random lucky dip through the Fringe guide could yield similarly rich pickings, but somehow, I doubt it.

But I’m not here to have a moan – oh WAIT, YES I AM. A magnificent moan sprinkled with screams and grunts and weird whispery little squeaks. In Pink Lemonade, Johnson is giving their lover Simmi multiple orgasms. A lot of labour for a girl who refuses to acknowledge Johnson as a romantic partner. Simmi compartmentalises the sexual joys Johnson brings from them as a person, as if Johnson was just a Lelo with a pulse. Simmi shrugs off their connection within pillow talk, retorting ‘I’m not a lesbian, I like dick too much’. Johnson remains silent and not just from the lockjaw. It’s a slow, drawn out heartbreak – waiting for the joy that they give to be acknowledged not just taken.

‘I normally get very nervous when I see this many white people looking at me and laughing’, grins Kilara Sen, dressed in a full kimono that compliments her pink hair. Foc It Up, The Femmes of Colour Comedy Club, takes place in the venue where I worked as a tech on my first ever Fringe. It is an especial delight to see that stage, once almost solely occupied by very white improv and acapella being ripped up by hilarious women of colour. The featured femmes on the night I was honoured to be in their presence included further stand ups Mr Lorraine and Aditi Mittal. The joy of hearing NEW jokes from NEW perspectives cannot be over-egged. MC and past Funny Women champion Thanyia Moore is unbelievably good. Her audience interaction is so generous and warmly mocking. She is also a dreadful flirt, offering a dance-off with a woman in the front row to win the hand of her girlfriend.

But you came here for the sexy times – don’t worry I got you. Andrea Spisto, better known as the Butch Princessa, starts by cutting up the stage in a jubilant barefoot ballet. This transitions into a mimed sexual tableau where a bit of friendly fisting between gal-pals turns into a full body reverse-birth. What could be crass or grotesque in less (hurrrrmph *fans self*) careful, skilled hands, is an exultation of desire and lust. The Princessa is delighted to have fully climbed into her invisible lover’s vagina, swallowed up like a porn-y Jonah and the whale. How often do we get to see women, and even more so queer, women of colour on stage or screen in having a total party-party celebration of their sexuality? Please, let’s start a watch list as an antidote to every terrible lesbian sex scene Hollywood every foisted upon us.

‘Splintered’, on at Bedlam as part of the Edinburgh fringe

The last time I heard Trinidad mentioned this much in the UK was when my ancestral home won medals three years running at the Chelsea Flower Show (1999 – 2001 we are REALLY good at flowers ok). Now in Splintered, there are three women of colour in front of golden foil curtains like the best pub back room in the world making us chant ‘carnival is gay as shit’. In Trinidad a Lagahoo is a shape-shifting creature that roams the night, shaking its chains and waiting to drag you into the undergrowth. Lagahoo theatre are less likely make you their prey (unless you ask very nicely) but they do shift between voices, playing out the experiences of real queer Caribbean women many of whom feel chained by their homophobic society. It’s is more of a sketch show that a cabaret and is at its best when it stays close to the material. A section where the three women mime along to the real recordings is arresting and layered.

Lagahoo are a vital platform for work that celebrates Caribbean culture, and Splintered’s focus on queer experiences opens a rich potential seam of stories and under-confronted issues. Director and writer Emily Aboud skewers the misogyny of dancehall music, the daily micro-aggressions and the genuine, constant threat of violence that come with being gay in Trinidad and Jamaica, without descending into despair. The base material and the performers, Sanaa Byfield, Charlotte Dowding and Natasha Simone, are solid but the translation into structured performance is on the shaky side.  Punchlines don’t quite land and there is a tendency to tell us what we about to see or have just seen rather than letting the routines speak for itself. However, Harry and Sally ain’t got nothing on Simone’s orgasmic re-enactment. It is a full body trembling, carnival call that shakes the stage and scares off any duppys lingering in Bedlam theatre’s neogothic walls.

I’d like to think that it says something hopeful about the landscape of the Fringe that there is at least a peppering of pleasure screams coming from those who have been most denied them across the festival. But then, if I was playing Fringe bingo, there’s also been an unprecedented level of plays involving trousers-on mutual masturbation. The majority being joyless, reluctant hand-jobs – although I must give a shout out to Tamsin Shasha’s contortionist tumultuous wank in Everything I See I Swallow. Having rediscovered her sexual self-courtesy of her reflection in some lovely pants, Shasha’s character draws the changing room curtain tighter and gets to work. This Fringe has also contained far too many comparisons to Fleabag, which was so praised for its no-nonsense approach to filth. Maybe we’re moving towards somewhere more interesting in the representation of sexuality, somewhere that is yes – more inclusive and just as importantly, includes ownership, desire and lustful, blissful carnality. And if not, hell baby – try and enjoy the ride.

Shows referenced include: Pink Lemonade at Assembly Roxy, Splintered at Bedlam, Foc It Up at Gilded Balloon along with an honourable mention to Everything I See I Swallow at Summerhall.

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Francesca Peschier

Dr Francesca Peschier is a dramaturg, lecturer, writer and ex-designer based in the New Works department at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. When not writing about or watching theatre she concerns herself with back-combing her hair to Dolly Parton heights and trying to create passable aerial hoop routines to goth rock classics.