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Features Published 3 April 2017

Le Gateau Chocolat: “I’m always in some kind of exhausting drag.”

Maddy Costa talks to alternative cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat about puncturing drag stereotypes, making work about depression, and surviving in a world where “We have to keep fighting for the things and the values that we hold dear.”
Maddy Costa
Le Gateau Chocolat performs 'Black'. Image: Robbins Photographic

Le Gateau Chocolat performs ‘Black’. Image: Robbins Photographic

Le Gateau Chocolat is in the midst of a schedule that could make an onlooker feel exhausted just reading through it. In the past four months he’s performed three of his own solo shows – one of them, Black, returns to London this week, in a new version scored for orchestra, played by the Psappha New Music Ensemble; toured Australia in a collaboration with Jonny Woo; and sandwiched in a starring role in a double bill of Chekhov shorts at the Young Vic. Two days after the run of Black finishes at Theatre Royal Stratford East, he’s into rehearsal with Emma Rice on Twelfth Night. He’s not shy of admitting that fulfilling these commitments brings with it tiredness and “a huge level of anxiety and apprehension”, especially at the prospect of working with the classics. But with the memory still fresh of being made redundant by NHS Direct and struggling on a bank loan (“thank you HSBC, you irresponsible fucks”) to get himself established, you suspect he wouldn’t have it any other way.

There isn’t much difference between Le Gateau on stage and the commanding man called George Ikediashi sat at a wooden table in a wine bar on a Friday lunchtime. His stonewashed waffle boiler suit might be one of the more toned-down items in his daily wardrobe, but it’s still nothing like the suits that surround him; and those immaculately manicured, obsidian nails glimpse the flamboyance of his performance outfits, a meld of male and female, hairy chest plumped buxom by boned corsetry, painted lips gleaming amid a bustle of beard. There’s performativity even in his regular speech, not just because his voice is such a resonant, crimson-plum baritone, but because his face delivers an emoji palette of expressions, punctuating sentences with a fine line of side-eyes and hmmms. Text is totally the wrong medium to encounter him; even audio would be a waste.

He’s the kind of person who radiates destined to perform – but as a teenager, he thought his stage would be the courtroom. “My dad is an American citizen as well and has a house there, and I remember being absolutely infatuated and besotted with the American law system, like Ally McBeal. It’s so performative! It’s just how you argue and the art of debate.” It was while studying law at Sussex University that he found his way to cabaret, spending every Thursday night at the club Dynamite Boogaloo. “I’m only 34 but still I feel like I can say that was in the good old days, when clubbing was a real thing: you weren’t on a smartphone, phones were in bags in the checkroom and you would go home smelling of smoke.” It was while he was on the dancefloor, “having another religious experience, singing at the top of my lungs”, that he was overheard by co-host and Brighton institution Dolly Rocket: she started giving him cabaret spots at the club – and so Le Gateau was born.

Drag as a performance is the positive spin of a more negative drag he had always employed, growing up in Nigeria where being gay was anathema – and still has to adopt now. “I’m always in some kind of exhausting drag. Sometimes I feel I have the strength to be myself, even though I know that will provoke, and sometimes I don’t so I wear jeans and what I consider really beige, I turn the dial right down. These are constant decisions I make daily, like knowing when to put my hands in my pockets so they don’t see my nails – little things that as a child you perfect. You really learn the art of drag from a young age, you know how to disguise yourself or distract people with being ebullient and effervescent from seeing your truth.” You’d think, having moved back to the UK, where he was born, aged 16, he would have never looked back; in fact he retains close connections with Nigeria, where his mum still lives. “Being at home is a wonderful recharge, just being around family and love. I don’t have to be anything but a son, a brother and an uncle.”

Le Gateau Chocolat performs his 2012 solo show, 'Le Gateau Chocolat'

Le Gateau Chocolat performs his 2012 solo show, ‘Le Gateau Chocolat’

It’s a very different set of labels that he puts under the microscope in Black, an autobiographical survey of a life spent batting away coarse epithets that attach to being “black, gay and fat”. While he’s at it, he punctures the expectations and preconceptions arising from the labels drag and cabaret too. During the extended run of the show at the Edinburgh festival in 2015, he recalls, “People who had seen my other work came in expecting me to do a sequin ribbon dance. It opens with Wagner then goes into Strange Fruit [the anti-lynching protest song made famous by Billie Holliday]. That’s song number two. So at what point am I…?” His face dissolves into a flurry of emoji then settles again as he sketches the thinking that underpins all his work. “As an auteur, as a maker, there are many things to engage with when you are making a piece. The bottom line is entertainment: people have paid money and they want some level of escapism – laugh, cry, something – and in my opinion a work has to engage with that. But then there are several other rungs of the ladder and you can either engage with them or not: as an artist, because of my history, I take those rungs actually very seriously, as a responsibility, to educate, to provoke, to incite and reinvigorate compassion, to question.”

In particular he’s keen to question attitudes regarding depression. The show is “an epitaph to two very dear friends” who died by suicide, and at the same time “helps me engage with how long I didn’t engage with my depression. That’s why we chose the Maya Angelou quote to be the show’s lead: ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story.’ The overriding need to do the show is the burning desire to keep on hacking away at the taboos surrounding mental health, but also toxic masculinity, the idea that men are the strong ones and you’re not allowed to cry.” Although drawing on his own life, it’s important to him that his audience should find themselves reflected in the work too. During the making process he drew up a list of common phrases hinging on the word black: “Black sheep, black dog, black and blue – all these things which, regardless of your race, sexuality and gender, you would have experienced. At some point in all of our lives we’ve been black.”

At the same time, he has no time for “competitive trauma”, and refuses to countenance anyone who fails to see blackness as particular and non-transferable. “The first time you experience racism you’re incredulous,” he says, “because you don’t walk around thinking, ‘I’m black, they’re white’: you walk around thinking, ‘we’re people’. So when you have pundits who oppose Black Lives Matter, especially when they aren’t ethnic themselves, you’re like…” He pauses for all of the side-eyes. “Nothing I can say can give you that experience. I had a really difficult conversation with a friend about gender fluidity, sexuality and Rachel Dolezal: in all of those instances, there is a level of fluidity which means someone on this side can experience that. A gay kid can say I’m straight – but there is absolutely no way for a black person to be white. That’s the only version of this that’s one way.”

'So Le Gateau Chocolat came on with a woolly hat and a tatty old coat of brown...' Duckie at the Southbank Centre.

Le Gateau Chocolat performs Duckie at Southbank Centre

He drew upon the same pool of experience when making Duckie, his gloriously layered family show which introduced a series of racist, homophobic, body-shaming creatures to The Ugly Duckling and ended on a glorious razzle-dazzle note of self-acceptance. “I have no qualms about repeating that theme,” he says, “because it’s a real thing, it’s a reality that I live. At some point I was told that I am taboo and I was deficient.” He made it in part for his niece, who has moved from Nigeria to Sussex and found it hard to settle into school. “You’re reminded you’re not like the rest of them: why’s your hair different, why is your accent different, your nose looks different… For someone who was severely bullied at school, I made it for two reasons: to help her find her sense of self and embrace the fact that being different is OK – but also to acknowledge that she too could be a bully. That’s just as important, to make sure she sees the values of not being victim or aggressor, just being.”

He’s come to see conflict – especially within feminist and gender politics – as “an opportunity for education”. A conversation that runs the gamut of contemporary politics – starting with Brexit (“I swing from trying to rationalise to an extreme case of schadenfreude where I want us to get the worst deal, I want Scotland to break off, I want Wales to break off, I want Ireland to break off, I want the pound to keep crashing”); offering an unexpected compliment to David Cameron (“The one positive thing he did do was say: this is not the direction I wanted to steer this ship in so I’m going to remove myself – well you know what, Jeremy Corbyn, I think you need to do the same”); taking a detour to roll those eyes at the Globe (“It’s excoriating for the Globe how that whole debacle was handled. If there’s anything that kills art, progress, ideas – customer service – it’s the phrase: that’s how we’ve always done it. There is nothing worse than that, and that is precisely what happened. Every time I come to talk about it I feel incredulous”); and returns to Brexit with a dash of apoplexy at the euphemism “fake news” (“Lies! Let’s stop creating new buzzy spin words around it because this is how we normalise it: it’s just lying. How is it a thing that no one is paying for the Brexit bus: they lied!”) – inevitably reaches the row over Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s comments about trans womanhood and the deluge of criticism from trans women that followed. Le Gateau is measured in response: “If an ally missteps, I don’t think it’s right that we attack them. It’s an opportunity for more education and growth. Let’s go and talk about it – because they’re already in the room. They’re not outside throwing bricks in the window: they’re in the room.”

That desire for conversation is the fuel that feeds his work – along with an idea he encountered on Twitter, shortly after Trump’s election: “We thought progress was linear and it isn’t. We have to keep fighting for the things and the values that we hold dear.” Although the material of the show is compacted with trauma and sadness, he doesn’t struggle to perform Black: “For me it’s about reminding people that whatever guise you see all of us in, we’re very much still human. I’m a clown, I fully embrace that I am – but underneath I am not a masked person. In a way it makes it easy to access the material because I put on the mask to reveal the truth, that we’re here, all of us are here.” The same line of thinking carried him through his first experience of Chekhov and will support him as he embarks on his first Shakespeare too. “As with anything I’ve approached, anything I’ve done, if you mine for the truth, regardless of the vehicle, you’re fine, you’re in the right world.”

Black is at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, April 4-8. http://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/le-gateau-chocolat-black

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa writes about theatre and music, as much as possible at the same time. Preferably with a recipe included. An occasional contributor to the Guardian, she found one blog (Deliq) wasn't enough, so now co-hosts four. She is critical writer, or critic in residence, or embedded critic, with Chris Goode & Company; through her work with them, and with Dialogue, the organisation she co-founded with Jake Orr, she is attempting to rethink the relationship between people who make, watch and write about theatre. At least once a week she decides she should stop writing about theatre and do something more useful instead.

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