Hot Brown Honey—a burlesque/cabaret/hip hop show that brings the stories of Australian women of colour to the foreground—is back. At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, reviewers labelled the piece everything from “phenomenal” to “angry”. Amongst women of colour who work in and around the world of British theatre, Hot Brown Honey was a revelation. While I can’t speak for all of us, Hot Brown Honey was referred to in reverent tones by so many of the people around me.
Chatting to the show’s director, designer, and choreographer Lisa Fa’alafi via email, it was clear that Hot Brown Honey’s international reputation and widespread critical acclaim is something the group is embracing. “It’s been massive!” Lisa says. “It’s been pretty cool that the peeps have come on board for the Honey ride. We have just come off a sell-out season at the Sydney Opera House that was wicked on many levels. To perform in such an iconic venue as well as prove that audiences want to think and be challenged as well as party has been delicious. In the words of the Margaret Cho: ‘The power of visibility can never be underestimated’. Word to the Mother!”
Lisa’s enthusiasm about the show and the women she shares the stage with feels infectious. Every sentence needs an exclamation mark, every statement is said as though she’s simultaneously announcing herself to an audience of thousands as well as whispering in your ear. Beyond the fact that they are a group of non-white women creating work by, for and referencing people who look like them, they’re also unapologetic about it, using everything from soul music to dance to MCing to get their point across. But what is their point? And what actually is Hot Brown Honey?
Lisa’s carefully prepared answer is as simple and complex as the question is itself. “Hot Brown Honey is a smash-hit, genre-defying, award-winning, decolonizing firecracker of a show! A theatrical explosion of colour, culture and controversy.” Bringing together a cast of black, brown and mixed-race women with global First Nations heritage, the show “represents how we as Women of Colour intersect, smash stereotypes, poke fun at the world around us and rock the boat. We’re the latest models of our ancestry [and] we’re here. Centre stage, fiercely feminist, and deliciously disobedient. Fighting the power never tasted so sweet!
Hot Brown Homey’s ‘Hive of phenomenal women’ includes beatboxer and dancer Hope One, soul singer, dancer and “Myth Slayer” Ofa Fotu, comedian, contemporary dancer and “The Ground Breaker” Ghenoa Gela, “The Peace Maker” Crystal Stacey (a hoop artist, clown and air dancer), and HBH co-director Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers (“she’s The Queen Bee, [our] Musical Director, Sound Designer and Host”). The show also drawns from well known women of colour from Maya Angelou to Beyonce, “phenomenal women [who] have paved our way and we give our love and respect. Everyday.”
But how did Hot Brown Honey come to be? Lisa explains that “Busty and myself met around 15 years ago, we both were working in remote communities doing music and dance workshops. Over the years we often dreamed of lots of different projects and we worked on each other’s work when possible. After being fed up with the lack of opportunities in Australia, Busty, her sister Candy and myself decided it was time to take up more space with other talented women of colour artists working on the fringes. We started doing block parties where we would throw together small variety shows where we could go hell for leather on whatever we needed to say most. Not surprisingly, even in these early days each work had a strong social commentary element. In 2013 Busty and myself decided to take it a step further—it was time to sit down and write all of our sisters onto centre stage. We thought of all the women working on the fringes and started to invite these brilliant artists to work with us.”
Hot Brown Honey might have began on the fringes, but they haven’t stayed there. After their 2016 Edinburgh run they are returning to Scotland this year as well, and we email a week before Hot Brown Honey takes to the stage as part of the Latitude Festival theatre programme. At Latitude, they’re hoping and planning to “whip up a frenzy of Radical Fierce Love! [We] embrace women who are as fierce and powerful as they can be. This show is for peeps who like their theatre as political and innovative as they like their clubs pumping with phat beatz. Make noise!” When it comes to the this year’s Latitude theme, ‘Come the Revolution’ and what that means for Hot Brown Honey, Lisa is clear: “Bring. It. On. Hot Brown Honey takes stereotypes and smashes them to smithereens. We shine a light on often untold stories and create a space for audiences to interrogate their own views. We ask everyone to Stand Up, Wake Up, Rise Up and take charge of the change they can make in the world. We will spark the revolutionary flame!”
“We are super excited!” Lisa says when ask how the Hive feels about returning to the UK. “The response to the show last year was more than we ever imagined, sold out shows, 5 star reviews and even a Total Theatre Award for experimentation. Audiences are with us to the point where most peeps are dancing in their seats the whole show.”
While there’s no shortage of so-called political theatre making waves at the moment, Hot Brown Honey’s attitude and political message have clearly struck a chord with British audiences. The co-director continues “as soon as you put a Black, Brown or Mixed body on stage it is political. Our bodies have been categorised, labeled, graded and judged. Our stories have been erased, rewritten, manipulated, rejected. It’s not surprising that many Artists of Colour are compelled to make work that addresses and aims to reposition our stories from a place of truth. Hot Brown Honey aims to change the gaze and decode and dismantle all that has been ingrained in psyche of the colonised mind. This is our opportunity to find our freedom and celebrate the possibilities. We use bombastic beats, dance and song—fiercely funny and entertaining forms to get the message across.”
When Hot Brown Honey bring their message, the best part of it all is that it works. People are listening and paying attention to people who, traditionally, have long been ignored. Saying that, navigating the British and Australian theatre worlds hasn’t been easy. When I ask Lisa if things have been difficult, she replies with a simple “yes, it has”. The reason? “Structural and institutional oppression in direct correlation with the colonial, heteronormative patriarchy. Goddamn! Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Hot Brown Honey definitely don’t.
Alongside dealing with the establishment, however, Hot Brown Honey also find themselves dealing with other women of colour in the arts, and Lisa acknowledges the ways the show and the women who make up the show are answerable to their peers. “As First Nations Women, as Black, Brown and Mixed Women, as Women of Colour? Our responsibility is political, cultural and personal. We [have a] responsiblilty to keep making space—to keep pushing open the cracks and let the light to shine through. By whatever means necessary.”
So, what’s next for Hot Brown Honey? “World Pollination is our aim at the moment.” When it comes to slightly more concrete hopes for the future, however, they want to “take this show to as many places as possible, meet as many other Honeys making work on the fringes, and inspire each other to keep telling our stories. We of course also imagine what 200 talented Honeys on stage might look like… yep, Broadway and the West End, you will see us all very soon. WE ARE READY!”
Hot Brown Honey will be at Latitude Festival 13 – 16 July; and Assembly Roxy 2 – 27 August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.