JEHAN ROBERSON: Thank you for joining me. I’m Jehan Roberson. I’m the collection specialist for the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library and I’m here today with two of the members of Hot Brown Honey.
LISA FA’ALAFI: For everyone at home, my name is Lisa Fa’alafi. I’m the director of Hot Brown Honey and also in the show.
BUSTY BEATS: And I’m Busty Beats. I’m the musical director.
JR: And DJ, right?
LF: Queen Bee.
BB: Queen Bee, since we’re here.
LF: Sisters of Beyonce at the minute.
JR: Really building on top of her Coachella video that she just released.
BB: We’re like, “Oh my god!”
JR: I haven’t watched it yet.
LF: I think we all spent the day yesterday watching it.
JR: It’s research. We were just talking about how Hot Brown Honey is an interdisciplinary genre-bending performance. How would you all describe the work you do?
BB: We like to say it’s a theatrical explosion of color, culture, and controversy. That’s like our sort of tag. We also have a tagline which is “Fighting the power never tasted so sweet.”
JR: I love it.
LF: It’s a tricky one. Like, when we’re in the street and you’re walking around in this get up and people want to know what we do. What you lead with? It’s like this is feminist theater told through multiple genres. These are our stories that are from Australia and what women of color’s stories can look like from Australia. But also those universal ties to what we all encounter around the world. And we consider ourselves World First Nations women that live in Australia on what we consider stolen land. It’s all of that all wrapped up into a nice pretty bow that says cabaret. If you want to narrow it down into something that people can comprehend a bit further, than, yeah, often we’ll be categorized into cabaret. But it’s definitely pushing the boundaries of that.
JR: First of all, First Nations is amazing too. To center those stories, I think is really amazing and provocative. Still I think in 2019 it’s not a thing that we see enough of.
LF: Yeah we’ve felt that over our time working together in Australia. And that’s why it’s been so important for us to continue to put our stories on stages.
JR: How long have you all been working together? How long has Hot Brown Honey been..?
BB: Well we’ve been working together for over 15 years…it might be closer to 20.
LF: It is actually closer to 20.
BB: We’ve been making stuff sort of separately out in the world and we kind of started Hot Brown Honey as a… it came as an idea just to go, “Wow, we’re kooky, political, doing weird stuff when there is no space for us to do this especially in Australia.” Then we really were like, “Okay, let’s just start a night, see how it goes” and that kind of happened a few times. And then that’s kind of when Lisa and I were like, “It’s time to write this show,” because there are so many honeys out there, all on the fringes and we’re like still not center stage. There’s still not a real…I don’t know whether it’s a push or just you know getting those beautiful brown faces center stage like and that’s across the board.
LF: In Australia it’s a whole other kind of walk-around, getting through the gates. I think part of our strategic thinking was to actually be on, not just center stage, but to infiltrate main stages. You know, like Upper House; we want to be there. Like, why can’t we be there? We’re excellent. So when we sat down and wrote the show, it was with those things in mind. Because I’m sick of walking in the halls of some of these theaters and just poster after poster, nobody looks like me. So that was part of our initial…and it’s worked.
JR: Well you’re touring internationally, that’s amazing. How would you say the reception has been in Australia and also international stages?
BB: Wow, we’ve had some really interesting experiences. We’ve had some really wonderful experiences, like playing in Canada has been quite amazing. At the South Bank Centre in London was off the charts. Then we’ve done some shows in Australia. There are some moments where you know we have all of our people, of course, who were just so wonderfully supportive, and then you have the direct audience general public who are like, “I’m not happy with this situation…”
LF: “But I can’t get out.”
BB: “I can’t leave.”
LF: I think the dialog in Australia…sometimes when we present our stories it’s making our middle-class, white theatre go-er—that’s the majority of people who buy tickets theatre in Australia and it’s probably quite universal—that we’re challenging what an Australian story looks like. Unfortunately a lot of our history is wrapped up in very fierce patriotism, so we’ve felt that feeling of arms crossing. And we’re almost as a country a bit too polite to actually leave, although there are some who’ll leave. But there’s the energy that we feel resonating and we’ve actually felt that most in our own country, because that’s the story we’re trying to uncover and dig out. Then the other side of the scale—some of our Canadian stops—and I think their dialogue around reconciliation and indigenous stories is…it’s definitely being talked about. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s like, “Oh that’s their story, not our story;” whether they more open or more…But, yeah, we’ve had incredible shows there and coming here we’re like, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
JR: Well even in Canada the dialogue is quite different around indigeneity, which I’ve only kind of glanced at, but I think even just the population…I think of indigenous folks in like the way that they are able to mobilize is really amazing and has been really I think a great example to think through: how a settler, colonial kind of country can engage with their indigenous population. I think obviously there is a lot to be done and that’s a continuing dialogue but I think that at the very least the acknowledgement of wrongdoing and stealing the land is far more advanced than many other places such as the United States.
JR: It’s really interesting too, just being able to be a little bit out and about here and going, “Oh, okay, there’s like such a like…” Going to The Public and just feeling there’s this real sense of community, they feed you and then you go and see stuff. And I see these young people doing their thing and it’s just like, “Wow there’s still…” Even though in Australia there’s some tokenism around an acknowledgement of country, I’m just like…just that moment to go, “You know we’re here,” just to say, “Hey this is actually stolen land that were on and we’ve come from you know slavery, stolen land.” That’s all a part of this big picture same with Australia so I find it really interesting to kind of go, “Okay, these are the similarities and the differences.”
JR: What other places have you all performed in? I want to say I saw something about South Africa too.
BB: Oh, we haven’t been. I want to go cause that’s my country. I’m definitely African Diaspora like my parents came to Australia under apartheid as refugees. So amazing. They went to Australia cause… It’s just like you start looking at history and going, “Oh, well, apartheid, like you know, it actually came from Queensland, where I now live, and it made its way over to South Africa and then we moved over to here.” Okay, this is all quite intersectional.
JR: Absolutely. Oh, that’s amazing. So what are some of the things people can look forward to this week with the performance?
LF: I think to have a really good time, ya know. For one, we really do encourage our audience to have an overwhelming sense of community almost. We welcome them into the theatre. We try to, from the moment that doors open, we want people to understand this is our space, this is our safe space. We welcome you, you know, no matter what you look like. But then we also are encouraging people to like engage their bodies, engage their vocal, you know to be open to hearing the stories. So I think we’ve tried to use like a lot of comedy and a lot of fun to just to make some of the harder issues more digestible, not digestible, but more open to them. Because we find that, from our show and from having conversations with audience members or because people write to us like way after as well “Once I’ve had some time to digest,” just that them being on the roller coaster ride almost of like having such a great time and then they get home they’re like, “oh.” Then they have these conversations with their family at the dinner table, or their girlfriends, or their moms and that for us is the most important part. And then for them to want to come and and want to continue that discussion with us whether its online or…
JR: That’s amazing. Yeah I think humor is really good in that way too. It can lubricate a lot of these really difficult topics and conversations and be more inviting…
LF: And for us, we’re very funny people. There’s a lot of laughter in our life and we use that ourselves to get through life. So it was a natural medium for us to take.
JR: I think it’s interesting too what you’re saying because I’m thinking about the the kind of traditional theatrical experience too. You spoke about the traditional kind of audience or you know typical theater goer and I think also disrupting the format and inviting a more participatory experience is always exciting and kind of disrupts these things, these sort of artistic rules. They’re often placed on bodies of color who are performing. It’s also like, “No this is our way of doing this.”
LF: Exactly. Yeah well it feels like a club when you walk in the door.
JR: I’m into it.
LF: It’s funny. We like want to disrupt it. It’s like our work would probably sit really well in a club, you know what I mean? Except there’s not enough lights. We love the theatrics of the theater so we’re trying to sort of cross that feeling of bringing some of those… like a good night out. We encourage it. Sometimes we get it people are just like, “Nah, I’m just gonna dance in the aisles.” And we’re like, “Yes, this is what we want from you.”
JR: I actually think, I don’t know if you feel this way, but a friend of mine who’s a dancer often talks about the dance floor as a sort of utopian space where you get this mix of people that are coming in together to share this experience and kind of co-create an experience.
BB: Yeah definitely, definitely and there was just some research done in London last year that talked about like when people have a theatrical experience, whether it be live music, live theater, at one point in that performance, everyone’s heart starts beating at the same time. Yeah. I was like, “Oh my gosh! That’s everyone.” Doesn’t matter what your views are, your heart is beating in unison.
JR: Wow, that’s really powerful.
LF: We need everyone to have those watches that like…
JR: Like a Fitbit or something.
LF: Yeah, so we can see it.
JR: That would be fun. That would be like a cool thing to have in a club or something: the Fitbit. That’s like everybody’s is kind of like… What do you call that? Like a strobe light or something… So speaking of Beyonce, everything is set in a beehive, right?
JR: And does Beyonce’s music make an appearance?
JR: It’s a selfish question.
LF: I mean we would love to but you can’t actually use Beyonce in theater.
JR: That makes sense.
LF: But that’s fine. We still love her from afar.
BB: Yeah, it is. The beehive we like to call “The Mother.” She speaks as well so she really gives some of the commandments of what’s going on.
JR: Oh I see. Right, the beehive is like this female lead space. Oh I love it. Very cool. And you are the queen?
JR: I am sorry.
BB: Game changer.
JR: Very cool.
BB: So like… basically the story is like the mother’s had enough. She’s like, “I did not give you coconuts for brains. What is going on?” And then she has to send down Busty and Busty has to call the Honeys because you know it’s that vibe: Charlie’s Angels. “Where are you all?” And then the Honeys come into being.
LF: It’s almost like you channel your knowledge through all of the wonderful writers and poets before our time or living.
JR: Wow. That’s really powerful, too, to think about the hive. There’s a lot of… I think that I see that model coming up a lot in really beautiful ways historically, but also presently around sort of that structure as a model for how people can work together to undo all of these sorts of problematic structures in the world.
BB: And I mean we also did a bit of research about bees, so we know a lot about bees. But it’s a matriarchal structure so that’s definitely where we go to every time. It’s like, “Okay, this is a complete flip on the way we live now in a patriarchal, colonial structure. Say, what would it look like if it was the other way around?” That’s the world we want to create. So in the words of Dr. Angela Davis, it’s like we have to act as if it’s possible to radically transform the world and you have to do it all the time. So we are constantly doing it. That’s why we, even on whether it be social media or wearing these tracksuits, it’s like this is about visibility.
JR: And you know what’s amazing is that that story resonates. It’s interesting that you bring up Angela Davis. She was at our 2016 Encuentro in Santiago, Chile and they have a whole villa there that they’ve called like the Angela Davis in Santiago. To see how that message translates across cultures and across time speaks to perhaps the unfortunate part which is that we still need these messages and that there are so many things that need to be changed but also that there is a universality in that. What would you say has changed from the time you started to now in the narratives that you’ve been trying to shift? And what do you think still needs to shift?
BB: Wow. Things have been in making the show…the show still’s like a sort of living breathing entity. But the interesting part is as we’ve gone through the process of performing and making and whatnot, we’re really finding movements come to the forefront as well. So you know whether it be like when we started it was Black Lives Matter. That became visible. Everyone was able to see what was going on and then Me Too. That became visible.
LF: It’s about five years now that we’ve been on the road so it’s been interesting to be a part of these conversations. And more and more conversations coming to the forefront and feeling part of a bigger, bigger, bigger conversation. So there’s been quite a lot that’s been happening in the last five years as far as ours voices. That’s been great. Especially because people then find new ways to connect to our story because they also see that we are another part of the conversation and so they’re not coming in all “ahh.”
BB: Beyonce. When “Lemonade” dropped we were like, “A point of reference for the world to what we do.”
JR: Right. Absolutely. That’s really amazing. It’s exciting to think about what you all are doing in context with what we do over at the Hemispheric Institute because we’re very much centered in the Americas. So thinking through changing the dialogue from like a Western perspective of north to north, Europe to the US kind of a context to a north to south or south to north kind of conversation. So thinking about performance practices to as ways of transmitting knowledge because knowledge should not only be privileged to the literate and the powerful. That’s been the big thrust of our founder Diana Taylor and so it’s very cool to see… To think through that conversation outside of the Americas as well but also with indigenous folks, First Nations folks outside of the context I mean we do definitely work with a lot of First Nations people in Canada, and some in the US, I would say primarily in South America but I think there’s a lot of overlap of what you all are saying about the politics and about the narratives of stolen land. And how you know starting from that understanding shifts an entire conversation and reframes the entire conversation of belonging, of nation, of all of these things.
BB: Definitely and then, in saying that too, it’s like that real getting down to the nitty gritty. Even those microaggressions that we all have had to deal with. Right down to here, and body, and consent, and stuff. It absolutely has to shift that—everything—when you start from that very grassroots level.
JR: And I guess you’ve already kind of alluded to this but do you still find that there’s resistance within Australia or even globally around starting from a First Nations perspective?
LF: Well some of them even read that into it. It depends on where people are coming from to begin with, but there’s definitely different… We’ve had all sorts of resistance to the show and all sorts of love as well. But for people to even feel so angry by us just telling our story sometimes it’s like, “Wow…I’m not saying this is your story, I’m saying this is my story. If you have a minute let’s just celebrate me.” And that can make somebody so angry but then being able to… Sometimes it works, when you can have a conversation, like try, which is tiring. We all know. They all know. Sometimes you want to and sometimes you don’t. So it ranges from that to…we had some lovely although all the white ladies in Canada who were just like, “Thank you very much I’m going to have a good think about things when I get home.” Okay cool. Much nicer. I just never thought about it. Then I was reading a review the other day where a reviewer said that he was overhearing this group of men who thought that they… there’s a tricky thing with our show because sometimes people just look at the poster and come. So we had like a buck’s party, something like that, and they started the show like, “wooo!” And by the end he said that you could hear them muttering and like one said to the other, “Oh, you know never think about this stuff, do you?” So I think there’s many different levels of…well I wouldn’t call that resistance but…
BB: The resistance is often from Australians, like overseas…
LF: Not so much.
JR: Still from Australians.
BB: Well it’s interesting. Even when we’re in a different context say we’re in London and we had that “That’s not what we’re like.” And it’s kinda like, “Well… you know, it actually is.” We’re just reflecting back what we’ve lived.
JR: I think that can be hard for people. When I’m having you know those moments where I’m feeling more generous and I want to talk about race, or gender and sexuality, whatever, I always kind of tell somebody if you’re implicated, don’t immediately—if you feel implicated, don’t resist that or don’t immediately become defensive. Kind of sit with that discomfort and try to see what that is at the root.
BB: That’s the tricky bit.
JR: It’s very tricky. I’ve heard somebody say this in space before that everywhere that there is a privilege, there’s a blind spot: around ableism, around language, gender, anything, race obviously.
LF: We had some very fiery feminists that didn’t like our show in Edinburgh, actually. We were like, “Okay, we thought we were part of a feminist, intersectional conversation.” You just don’t see it coming sometimes.
JR: I mean I’ve had feminists kind of like try to silence me in certain ways. Or I’ve had interactions in particular I’m thinking of one with a white feminist who was sort of policing my speech. I was like, “This should be clear that it is not the best idea to police a black woman’s speech.” It’s not a feminist gesture. It’s a lot of unlearning I think.
LF: And we have been very lucky, too, that a lot of people who love and support us will help come in for that conversation with online social media stuff. Because for us it’s like, “Oh can we do this today?” or it can really like shift the whole team, a certain type of post. We try to monitor that because we’re on the road all the time and our self-care and all of that stuff. But then to feel like we have all of these other supporters that have time and mental space to be able to take that conversation on, that’s been really helpful.
JR: Also I really like what you say about having the time and mental space to take that on because, as you say, that can be very draining.
LF: When we understand that conversation around, you know, it’s not up to us. It just depends how you feel that day. If you feel like you can, go for it. And you know we have ethos across the company that we sort of… I don’t know if retaliate is the right word… We come back with love so whether it’s like just asking more questions, but we don’t…even if we are feeling like on the outside, “Ahhhh.”
BB: And it’s definitely part of our performance practice. As Lisa said the stage is our battlefield. This is where we’re gonna hold this space and this is where this is gonna happen. As part of the show, we do invite people in and talk to them and we do that at the end of shows to thank people for coming. And those are the moments where we have some quite intense conversations sometimes it’s just like selfies.
JR: It’s an important practice.
BB: And it’s also like, “Okay, that’s us done.”
LF: And then we’ve had to learn that too. Over time, we’ve gone, “Actually, this whole bunch of different experiences might spiral,” so then we’re like, “Okay, let’s make a decision as a company right now that that is our battlefield and if we do anything extra that is a bonus but if we don’t then that’s okay.” But especially when you’re having these big conversations afterwards, especially how the other performers or women just go like, just crying because they feel their story is there, we’re their story that we are able to just take that on but not to…
JR: Absolutely. Yeah, not to carry it necessarily that can be…
LF: Yeah we’ve had to learn that. The movement of Hot Brown Honey has been more than we’ve ever expected.
JR: Can you say more about that?
BB: Well, we’ve always been a part of different movements. We all have quite diverse backgrounds, or like coming from Australia you kind of have to. When we made the show we were like, “Oh, we’ll just be telling our stories, you know.” But then we have found that there has been this outpour of just like people going, “Wait a minute, we haven’t had anything like this come from where we’ve come from.” So like Lisa said before where we’re a cog in a massive, massive wheel as this world, this troubling world that we live in moves towards change. We’re just like this little moment over here going, “We want to see this change a lot” as well. Then there’s a whole heap of people that we can affect by that you know. It’s funny we’re not out to go like, “We’re changing the world, yes, this is happening” but like it does sometimes feel like we’re in this massive movement that’s like actually gonna hopefully tip over those others over there.
LF: Having people say to us, that our show change their life… that’s incredible. For real? Is this a compliment? Or is this for real? But it’s been over and over which I just think is like sometimes being able to see yourself differently just makes you go, “Wow I can do this or I could do that.” So we’ve had numerous people do that to us now and like our show isn’t really a one visit show. People keep coming back like even in the two weeks we had in Vancouver, we have people, we’d see people four times in one week. It’s the same show. They’re like, “We’re coming to church.” And I was like, “Okay!” So there’s been that. I don’t know if we expected people like wanting to be a part of our journey continuously. That’s been really humbling.
JR: That’s amazing. It kind of leads into the question I was just thinking of around the ripple effect maybe that you’ve all seen kind of grow from this work and particularly evolving conversations globally around indigeneity. I don’t know if you’ve seen anything kind of emanate from that or what you’ve seen emanate from that rather?
BB: I suppose because what we’ve made we really like…we want activists to come. We want them to fill their cups. We want artists to come and fill the cups. We’ve got a lot of that across Canada, too, like, “You’re giving us some medicine. Thank you.” We really do see those conversations quite literally. They’re happening as we step into another nation across the world. We were like, “Wow, this is another conversation here.” And especially in Australia if you check out Dr. Chelsea Bond who is an indigenous scholar what she has to say about it is actually quite on point about indigenous bodies, about black bodies, about land and how they all connect and how that has been a colonial force on indigenous peoples across the world.
JR: That’s amazing. So you called out Dr. Chelsea Bond and Dr. Angela Davis, who else would you say are sort of in the lineage that you all are pulling from to build this work?
LF: Well, we quote a number in the show.
BB: Dr. Lilla Watson who’s an Aboriginal scholar and also Audre Lorde. Then there’s just a number of readings. I’m always reading. Is that all we have in the show? I’m trying to think. There are a couple of others. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Because they are so…their words are just so important. We call it the word to the mother, word of the mother.
LF: And even just the words themselves, like wanting to flip language, like mother lover, trying to look at each, or taking Shakespeare and making it work for us. I think us growing up in that MTV era or whatever too, we’re very like bite-sized, bite-sized. So one sentence that Busty does might grab from a number of pop culture references. Just being able to see what we can do with reclaiming words, like “cunt.” That’s so challenging for our older audience in Australia. They don’t like women to swear too much. This is what we’ve learnt too. So now we have these little intros that we do; we prepare them. We’re like, “It’s gonna get loud. Really, really loud. And that’s because we’ve been silenced for generations. You ready?” It’s like finding ways to keep their ears open because I think in our earlier shows where we were still learning how to do that, you could see it go “kuh-kunk.” Oop, there goes that person, there goes that person.
JR: They shut down.
LF: Yeah, it’s important for us to try to keep people’s ears open as long as possible.
JR: It’s a hard balance to strike too though, right, because it’s not conceding too much to somebody’s sort of sensibilities that might be built on all of these problematic ideas around respectability and women’s bodies. But also, like, I need to say what I’m gonna say.
LF: It’s funny like even reading reviews for us over the years. It’s like you can tell who’s written them without even seeing a name: middle-aged white guy, old black guy, black woman from over here. Like just the multiple levels of things that people get: this one, didn’t understand it or got everything.
JR: Well, it’s like what we were talking about before we started around sort of these Venn diagrams. I think that’s often how the diaspora works, right? Where it might not be the same exact experience that we’re drawing from, but it all is. They’re all feeding off of each other and linked often sort of tragically, but also in a beautiful way that we can all sort of build communities across these different experiences.
BB: I’m just thinking it an example of that is hair, again. We’ve got a track “Don’t Touch My Hair” but it’s also like Solange has a track “Don’t Touch My Hair,”…every black woman needs a track called “Don’t Touch My Hair” like, you know.
JR: I had to say that to somebody this week. I’ve taken to saying instead of like “In the year of our Lord,” it’s “the year of our Audre Lorde 2019.” Do not touch my hair. I shouldn’t have to tell you this in 2019. Why? Why that’s a thing, I don’t know.
BB: And then we talk to our Aboriginal sisters from Australia, in the Pacific, across the Pacific—hair has such a huge connotation, what’s happened and it’s the colonization of hair basically.
BB: It’s very, very interesting.
JR: What is that conversation looking like in Australia and the South Pacific?
BB: There was a great doco actually on the South Pacific and hair, like the history of hair. Cause it’s always…you can tell when the missionaries have gone into a place like…
LF: It’s like, “Hair, be gone!” It’s like back.
BB: And even throughout South Africa too is like the straightening, all of that stuff, which is carried on from, from my mum actually, as well, until I was like, “No more. That cannot happen anymore.” Yeah, so it’s really interesting because when it comes down to it, it’s all about consent. You don’t touch someone without their consent. And then especially like going in for the hair, I’m like, “wow…”
LF: That’s got a long way to Australia.
JR: I definitely think I agree. I think the ultimate issue is consent. But I increasingly I think as I get older but also as I travel, I’m kind of disturbed by the question. Even if somebody asks me, I’m like, “Why do you need to touch me? Why do you think that’s an okay thing to request?” Is that is that part of a conversation of like…do people often kind of, “Can I touch your hair?”
LF: I mean they come up after the show as a joke some people…We said it over, and over, and over again. Even to the point where we did it in heavy metal version. We thought this was clear but then you’ll see other people go “Don’t do it!” Sometimes repetition doesn’t work.
JR: Or if somebody thinks they’re being a little cheeky and you’re like, “Yeah, no. It’s not landing.” I’m so excited to see the show and to learn more about you know your experiences and where you’re coming from. I haven’t been to Australia or anything but I’m excited to both learn about something new and then also see those moments of connection.
BB: And we found that universality, which has been really interesting. We have an awesome circus artist named Crystal who does a kind of a look at how like people, tourists act. She’s Indonesian-Australian so when they go to Bali and that’s been a really interesting point of call because people are like, “We know this behavior.” It’s really funny because across the UK and even Canada as well it’s like, “Okay, have I done that? To be that disrespectful?” It’s particular with Australians but there are really some points that you go, “I didn’t really realize that would be a point of connection.”
JR: Is this your first time turning the show in the US?
LF: Yes. It’s our debut in the US. Tomorrow night.
LF: Thank you. We put it into the universe a few years back. It’s really nice to see that our mood board worked. Actually, it wasn’t a mood board. I lied. It was a grant application. You have to do the plan like we’ll do here, then we go South Bank Centre and give the finger to Elizabeth. We were like, “Oop that happened.”
JR: I mean they’re kind of the same thing, right? A vision board and a grant application. We’re gonna try and make this thing happen. That’s great. Well where are you headed after New York?
LF: Vermont. Burlington, Vermont. That’s our last stop for this tour. And then back to Australia.
BB: Back to Australia. And then we go to Finland.
LF: No idea what that’s gonna be like. I mean we played Sweden last year but you know we’ve been trying to talk to our Swedish friends: “What’s it gonna be like?”
JR: Thank you. Break your leg tomorrow!
BB: Thank you!
JR: Of course!