Hot Brown Honey starts hot then cools

Briefs Factory's production of Hot Brown Honey is at the York Theatre.

Lisa Fa’alafi lets loose in a magically transforming dress in Hot Brown Honey

Hot Brown Honey is a spectacularly well designed feminist pep rally. Over a span of 75 minutes, six Australian women of colour take on sexism, racism, and colonialism one vaudevillian act at a time.

Tristan Shelly’s set is phenomenal. It’s shaped like a beehive with emcee and queen bee Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers poised on its pinnacle, and its cells look like they have been constructed out of hexagonal industrial products—maybe honey buckets. All of those cells are individually lit and the lights are computer programmed. Watching this sculpture as words (POWER, NOISE) and shapes (hearts, smiles, geometrics) skitter across it, you feel like you’re in the best nightclub ever built, or at the best rave ever thrown.

The costuming is full of surprises, too. In a number that takes the mickey out of the stereotype of the resourceful “dusky maiden” of the South Pacific, Lisa Fa’alifi seems to fashion a haute couture ensemble—including a pair of high heels—out of leaves. Her dress is amazing, transforming and transforming and transforming as she dances. It’s like a magic act.

Fa’alafi designed the costumes—except for a stunning piccaninny doll outfit by Colleen Sutherland. She also co-wrote Hot Brown Honey with Bowers, directed, and choreographed it. All hail Fa’alafi!

Another one of the great things about Hot Brown Honey is its flat-out sexiness. This show’s feminism celebrates the female body as it inverts and repurposes showgirl tropes. The fan dance, for instance, is fierce rather than coy. And, when Busty Beatz calls out oppressors as “cunts”, frankly lesbian company member Hope Haami repeats the word several times, leaning into its deliciousness. Elsewhere in the show, Haami reveals that she is a first-rate beatboxer.

So what’s not to like? Well, there’s not a lot of substantial or challenging content. Don’t get me wrong; Hot Brown Honey hits all sorts of big-button issues, but it’s generally happy to treat them as big, vague buttons—and a kind of sloganeering ensues. “Make some noise!” Okay, about what? “Fuck the patriarchy!” Sure. Where do I sign up? And how are we fucking it exactly?

A couple of specific examples come to mind. A musical number about the microagression of touching black people’s hair makes a valid point, but it’s also a familiar point and the number simply repeats the core statement without expanding on it in terms of analysis or personal contextualization.

And, in a dance piece, Elena Wangurra arrives onstage with her hands bound, wearing a dress made of the Australian flag. Throughout the dance, she frees herself and strips down to a unitard decorated in Aboriginal motifs. There’s no question that criticism of colonialism is valid but, for me at least—and I acknowledge that I’m speaking as an old male settler—this exploration of the impact of colonialism is so basic that it does little to advance the conversation. For me, other elements of this show—Fa’alifi’s transforming leaf dress, for instance—address colonialism more engagingly.

Overall, I wanted to go on more of a journey with Hot Brown Honey, to feel the satisfaction of greater challenge and accumulation. As it is, I felt like a got a series of beautifully produced acts that repeated familiar political points and yielded generally diminishing returns.

That said, there are a few more things that I loved that I haven’t mentioned yet. Ofa Fotu, who sings “It’s a Man’s World” in that deliberately offensive piccaninny outfit is a gifted and stylin’ vocalist. And Crystal Stacey contributes two of the most effective offerings in the show.

In one, Stacey plays a drunk white tourist who does crazily skilled things with hula hoops. And, in another, she performs on aerial straps. That piece begins with a chillingly composed soundscape (thanks to Bowers) in which a woman phones 911 but can’t speak openly because someone who has entrapped her is listening. As she performs acrobatic choreography on the straps, the ideas of restraint and liberation find movingly concrete expression.

Hot Brown Honey could have used more of that kind of skillful integration of content with form. As the show stands, its greatest successes—and almost all of its surprises—are in its design.

HOT BROWN HONEY By Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers and Lisa Fa’alifi. Directed by Lisa Fa’alifi. Produced by Briefs Factory and presented by The Cultch at the York Theatre on Wednesday, January 10. Continues until January 27.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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