Last year, the Edinburgh Fringe had gender fully in its sights. The month long festival of comedy and drama is typically dominated by white, middle class, cis-gendered, heterosexual men, much like the comedy industry itself. But in 2016, women took a key role in reshaping the festival.
This year, Swedish comedian Evelyn Mok is taking her show, Evelyn Mok: Hymen Manoeuvre up to continue the trend. I first saw Evelyn’s stand up at gal-dem’s Women of Colour in Comedy event, where her irreverent blend of sex stories, shameful secrets, and life experiences as a woman of colour on stage stole the show for me.
gal-dem exists as a platform for women of colour to publish and discuss whatever they want – not just topics mainstream editors consider us qualified to speak on (e.g. sexism, racism, and how much we love coconut oil). Perhaps that’s why Evelyn’s comedy spoke to me so much. Hymen Manoeuvre’s subject matter ranges from the challenges that boobs bring, to struggling as a young adult away from home, and to reconciling your own setbacks with your parent’s and family’s seemingly huge sacrifices. When I asked Evelyn how she wanted to describe her show, she said “it’s literally just about not belonging to this norm…living in two cultures almost, and having to create like a third culture just for yourself…wearing these different masks depending on which situation you’re in”. For Evelyn, Hymen Manoeuvre explores her journey into adulthood through her experiences in this “third culture”. It’s a lot to cover.
Despite this, watching Evelyn’s preview show in the sold out Pleasance Theatre, she carried a majority white audience easily through her life, unapologetically challenging the hegemony of white masculinity in the comedy scene with humour and wit, whilst frequently referring to her sex life, body, and “needs” very, very bluntly. If any of the worthy white boys in attendance felt uncomfortable, they couldn’t express it for laughing.
I’m hooked, and I told Evelyn as much in an incredibly gushy phone interview (for which I have no regrets) during her weekly shop. For Evelyn, ensuring that the audience is on the same page as her throughout her often awkward retellings is important, “in talking to this audience, you’re so aware that you basically have to translate, or explain the context for them so they understand what it is you’re trying to say”, she says. It sounds hard, but you wouldn’t know it from watching. Along with her team at Berk’s Nest, Evelyn has produced an incredible show that weaves stories of losing your virginity in your 20s, potentially criminal supermarket activity, and her family’s history of migration across the world. It’s touching, and important. All throughout watching the show, I was struck by how refreshing it was to have a woman of colour in her element, talking about such universal themes that were at once so relatable, but so deeply personal.
For Evelyn, a key theme is her struggles between adopting her parent’s culture and living and growing up in Sweden. “It’s like, when you try to go for the norm, you end up ignoring all of the things that are like, making up you. It’s this thing of finding your way in between assimilation and integration. I think you think you have started off trying to assimilate, but then you realise you shouldn’t be ashamed of your parent’s culture – like I want that with me, but I want to tell my story as my own person.” This tension between assimilation and integration, learning to exist in both her parents’ and her peers’ worlds has shaped Evelyn and her comedy enormously, and Hymen Manoeuvre reflects that. “It’s about being a first generation person navigating your way between your family’s culture and the third culture that you end up creating…also how that affected me growing up, and how it made me lose my virginity at 25.”
Sex, and sex as a woman of colour are a huge part of Hymen Manoeuvre, hilariously and touchingly so. The subtle nuances of sex and losing your virginity when viewed through the lens of being not-white, being an immigrant, and being the daughter of immigrants, are all dealt with with such skill and candour, that I left the show with real tears – both from laughing, and crying. Mok’s poetic descriptions and emotional revealations took me and the audience by surprise, but were always buoyed up with humour and irreverence.
Through the show, you can see Mok enjoying herself as much as we were. Her humour was infectious; I found myself laughing in anticipation of something, just because the next joke, next admission, next hilarious reveal was plain on her face. As we wound up our interview, and I could hear Evelyn battling with the self checkout, she told me, “it’s like I get inside my head about it, but I sometimes feel this thing of ‘I need to tone it down… maybe, maybe I shouldn’t do the period jokes’” she says, explaining the moments on stage when she’s ready to jump with no shame into topics the largely white, male, middle class audience may not be ready for. “I’m like, should I just do the period jokes and sell it? What if I’m nervous in my self I won’t sell periods as well on stage? I’ll just do the period jokes.” And they flow just fine in the end.
Evelyn Mok: Hymen Manoeuvre is at the Edinburgh Fringe 2-27 August. For further information and tickets visit www.edfringe.com
Update 19 July: Alice Jones credited for Featured Image illustration