I’m making a show is about the word “sexy”. What does that word mean to you? Honestly, I’ve been developing this show for just under a year and still don’t have the slightest clue what it means to me.
It can be hard to justify the extensive study of the politics of the body and sex. Reading the uncompromising words of academics like bell hooks can make me feel like I am splashing around in a paddling pool of “baby” feminism while the big girls are doing the real shit in the choppy seas of real issues. That’s why I’ve been running away from this show for a while. It seemed indulgent somehow. Is that because it’s a shallow subject or is it because (as I suspect) this topic is far more political than the patriarchy would have us believe? Female performers are often derided if their material is primarily focused on their sexuality. Seems to me that men have been making crude jokes about our bodies and what they want to do them to much applause for the longest time. Now that we are talking about our own bodies and desires with agency and frankness, suddenly these topics are “crass” and “crude”.
One thing I am particularly interested in is “artifice” – it’s important to note that the word art is in there. I think it’s overly simplistic to say that things that are performative or unnatural are inherently bad. As someone who has been “performing” femininity my whole life, it has at once been a source of play, exploration and escapism as well as anxiety, fear and comparison. As a femme presenting woman, I love the theatre of clothing – a decadently draped fabric, the sensuousness of lace or velvet, how a brightly coloured scarf or new hairdo can lift your mood in the smallest but most profound of ways. I also fucking love stockings, heels and lace underwear. It’s cliché as hell, but what are you going to do? I enjoy adhering to and subverting what it is to be a woman. It can certainly feel confusing and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish what comes down to genuine personal inclination and what is dictated by external voices of conformity. This is all the more complex when unpacking how my race has affected the way I have presented myself and how able I feel to apply the word “sexy” to myself.
Writing this show has made me realised how, as a teenager, I had consciously found ways to dissociate myself from atypically “black” aesthetics so that I wouldn’t be stereotyped in the overwhelmingly white environment I grew up in. Though I was obsessed with hip hop and R&B music and the culture surrounding it, I used to deliberately avoid gold jewellery or wearing anything that emphasised my breasts. I wasn’t the only curvy girl in my year group at school, but I somehow knew that my figure paired with my brown skin came with a whole other host of implications. I never spoke it aloud and no one said anything to overtly suggest it. But I felt it deep within me, unshakeably. It was a relentless balance of asserting my individuality but not letting my blackness ever be at the forefront of my identity. As I moved from single sex school to mixed school in sixth form, I quickly realised that there was a certain type of girl that got male attention. Having spent much of my early teens feeding myself on a steady diet of insipid rom coms (all with beautiful, white women as the leading ladies) I had all these ideas of the romantic and sexual intrigues that would surely follow once I was in the vicinity of boys. I realised pretty quickly that I didn’t fit into that leading lady mould for a myriad of reasons that certainly included my race. This is a show that addresses that feeling of inadequacy head on, which has been difficult but incredibly relieving.
In my preparation for SEXY (which involves me spending a good chunk of time on stage in my bra and pants) I’ve done some pretty scary things. I’ve been a life model, perfected the art of taking a nude selfie and had a private twerk class from a stripper. I have interviewed female friends and conducted workshops on the topic of sexiness. The stories I’ve heard have been brilliant, hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. It has often felt like a mud wrestle with myself; my head, heart and crotch all seem to yell contradictory things at full volume. It’s hard to unearth a kernel of truth amongst the cacophony, but I’ve come to realise that the process of untangling these threads is exactly what this show is about.
This show has hinged on my foray into the art of burlesque, an art form that often conjures images of people like Dita Von Teese with their teeny cinched waists and meticulous (read: expensive) vintage pin up aesthetic. Burlesque’s roots are actually in cabaret, a highly subversive and political art form which began as a means of poking fun at the establishment. There are many black and brown people who have been erased from its history. This is all the more sinister when to this day white burlesque artists get booked to do culturally insensitive and downright racist acts such as Fafa Bulleuse’s “tribute” to Nina Simone which was performed at this year’s Toulouse Burlesque Festival.
I am equal parts thrilled and terrified by the prospect of being a burlesque performer. This time last year, I was that girl who would get changed in the toilet cubicle at the gym. So, it is an exercise in being unapologetic about my body. Sure, when I get my tits out on that stage it’s mostly because I’m an unrepentant attention whore, but it’s also more profound than that. I am reclaiming my naked body as a site of irreverence and joy, of normality and humanity. I am also recalling the space that brown women had on that stage throughout history and hopefully doing my bit to antagonise the whitewash that has occurred in this art form.
Something I am finding it hard to come to terms with is the overwhelming whiteness of theatre audiences generally. There are many cultural and socio-political reasons why this is the case, but it really is important to me that women of colour engage with this show if they can. There are moments in the story that speak to my experience not just as a woman but as a black woman. My aim here is not for this to be an exercise of voyeurism for a mostly white audience. I certainly encourage people from all walks of life to come and enjoy the show. But it would give me so much heart to know that I can reflect other black women’s experiences back at them and disrupt the assumptions about whose stories deserve to be told.
I wrote this show for us. There’ll be mid noughties R&B and hip hop, dancing, laughter and unflinching honesty. It’s a DMC. It’s a party. It’s a confrontation. It’s a dissection. But first and foremost it’s a journey, albeit with no established destination. Goodness knows where we’re going, but this is an open invitation to come along for the ride.
SEXY will be on at Sprint Festival in Camden on 25th March.
If you can’t catch that date, it will also be at the Bikeshed Theatre in Exeter on 12th April, Wise Words Festival in Canterbury on 6th May, Last Word Festival at The Roundhouse on 10th June, Latitude Festival on 15th/16th July and The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol on 31st July.