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Hot Brown Honey at Judith Wright Centre

BRIEFS FACTORY/BLACK HONEY COMPANY (AUS)
Presented by Brisbane Festival & Briefs Factory in association with Judith Wright Centre

Through word-of-mouth recommendations and a fortuitously available spare ticket, I viewed the critically popular all-female (and one drag queen) production Hot Brown Honey.  Created by performer and dancer Lisa Fa’alafi, the show addresses and attempts to redefine cultural stereotypes, often with a less than subtle criticism on patriarchal colonial systems and their trappings.  

The first irony that I notice, as the audience filled into the theatre, was that a majority of the patrons were not brown skinned.  I was aware that HBH was written to inform people about the issues that accompany cultural stereotypes, but dually conscious that this production didn’t hold back in regards to vocal criticisms of white Australians.  As one of the audience members at my table pointed out though, the performers of HBH had a fabulous and perhaps intended opportunity – to reach people who are often the main perpetrators of cultural misunderstandings.  This ironic tension lasted throughout the show – with audience members laughing at exaggerated versions of Australians (‘bogans’) and the exoticised(‘coconuts’).  These people, not brown people, are not exactly right-winged conservatives – but even the most liberal art lover needs to check their privilege.

While unspoken privileges afforded to non-brown people are not always mean-spirited, they are always offensive.  For instance, asking if someone is Maori…or trying to guess a person’s ethnicity in said person’s presence.  Or asking if someone’s skin is sunburn-resistant because of the pigment (this happened to me). Much like sexuality, I believe ethnicity to be a private right that shouldn’t be demanded.  The privilege should always be when one chooses to share information.  At one point, the entire crew sings a song that chants ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ – an amazingly simple sentiment that is often a result of the same boundary privilege.  Touching a perfect stranger’s hair, for curiosity or any other reason, invades personal space and presumes that you have ownership of the stranger’s space.  (The stranger is brown of course).  The allegory of hair extending to body and expression of culture and sexuality.      

At times, the frivolity and visual excess confused me.  There was an aerial silk aerobatics segment that was incredibly beautiful, but somewhat disrupting.  I did enjoy this performance  – and others of this kind that were featured in the show – however, at times I found the deconstruction of stereotypes to be a bit too literal (eg. The Australian flag worn as clothing, then torn away to reveal a more raw and freed body).  The audience seemed quite happy with the – at times patronising nature of the performances and perhaps the literalness of the show even worked for them.  If I’m nitpicking, the one major gripe I have is the excessive volume of Americana presented.  American songs, American issues and American figures, although undoubtedly relevant to our current social climate, are problematic in providing further noise that has to be deciphered when cultural reading occurs.  The African-American experience as default is a too much of a distraction here and solidifies the stereotype that all brown people have a universal experience.  More specifically, that all brown people have an African-American experience.        

With the very minor criticisms aside, Hot Brown Honey is a clever and groundbreaking smorgasbord of dance, beatboxing, lip-synching, DJing and more.  The writing is strong, witty and strategically scathing (at times inaudible due to excessive volume… FYI Stage Production).     I paraphrase, the exuberant MC Kim Bowers aka ‘Busty Beats’ opened the show with a statement that went something like this: The problem with stereotypes is not that they aren’t true, but that they only present one exaggerated viewpoint.  Therein lies the essence of HBH; a part-satire, trying to convey that people, particularly brown women, are multi-dimensional and too frequently rendered powerless and voiceless through their exoticisation.    

Natasha Matila-Smith

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