Hot Brown Honey sweetens their political message with laughter

The woman of colour behind Hot Brown Honey, a raucus Australian political cabaret, couldn't find roles on Australia's mainstages to play except for the maid — so they created an international hit and took it on the road.

2018 High Performance Rodeo kicks off with high octane cabaret from Australia

Hot Brown Honey, from Australia, was the opening show of the 2018 High Performance Rodeo at Theatre Junction Grand. (High Performance Rodeo)

Lisa Fa'alafi couldn't find a part, so she created a show full of them.

The Australian native is one of the co-creators — along with sisters Candy B and Kim (Busty Beatz) Bowers — of Hot Brown Honey, a show that blends political theatre, cabaret, burlesque, beat box and hip hop from Down Under. It opened the 2018 High Performance Rodeo Wednesday at the Theatre Junction Grand.

The show, which played to sold-out crowds at the Edinburgh Fringe, toured Australia and New Zealand and recently completed a successful run in Manchester, England, takes on complex and uncomfortable subjects such as colonialization, racial stereotypes and white privilege. 

The themes get put through a theatrical blender, producing a show Fa'alafi says sends "80 per cent of the audience dancing out into the streets."

But the road to international touring success started back in Australia with nothing but potholes.

Hot Brown Honey combine political theatre, burlesque, circus and hip hop to deconstruct racism and sexism in the show that opens the 2018 High Performance Rodeo in Calgary. (High Performance Rodeo)

'We would really like to write these women to main stage'

"A lot of us have been making work for a number of years," Fa'alafi said in an interview on The Calgary Eyeopener, where she was joined by cast member Ofa Fotu. "And for us, our work existed on the fringes. It was hard to enter main stages. There weren't many roles for women of colour available out there."

That exclusion led to having her work performed anywhere she could find a room, like underground clubs, where Fa'alafi connected with other women she describes as "all of the wonderfully talented honeys" to tell some of their stories in a way that would land them on the biggest Australian mainstage there is: the Sydney Opera House.

"Busty (Kim Bowers) and myself said, 'We would really like to write these women to mainstage.' So we sat down and made it a goal," she said.

The road to Sydney

The company includes performers with a variety of artistic passions. Fa'alafi is a choreographer. Fotu is a soul singer in a Perth band called Odette Mercy and Her Soul Atomics.

Indonesian circus performer Crystal Stacey is a graduate of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus. Bowers is a DJ, producer and musical director who founded an indie band called Spdfgh in the 1990s. Her sister Candy is an actress and performance creator who once was a ring mistress for Circus Oz.

Eventually — following buzzed-about performances at performing arts festivals in Melbourne (at their international comedy festival), Adelaide and Brisbane — the invite came from Sydney.

They have since played the Sydney Opera House — twice — which led to invitations to perform Hot Brown Honey across the country and eventually, internationally.

Tears of laughter

For Fotu, the revelation was that it's possible to transform pain, exclusion and racism into commercial theatre.

"You can laugh or you can cry...," Fotu said. "You can use that laughter to empower definitely. And that's what we're finding out: humour is the best way to attack. To (also) entertain of course, but to talk about these topics people might feel uncomfortable about."

Ofa Fotu and Lisa Fa'alafi of Hot Brown Honey in the CBC Studio with Calgary Eyeopener's Jennifer Keene, prior to opening night of their performance at the High Performance Rodeo. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

And what might those uncomfortable topics be?

"It looks at how often brown bodies are exoticized," said Fa'alafi. "And (also) sort of pulling apart those stereotypes that we have been put in — whether it's being the maid in every theatre production. We take it back and say, 'We are not the maid.'"

She says the audience response has been really positive.

"We didn't know (what it would be like) when we were making it. Is this a bit too in your face? Too loud? [But we've had] lots of people thanking us for inciting even the smallest change — like don't touch a woman's hair if you don't know them. Just because it's a beautiful Afro, don't touch it."

Polar vortex

Their Calgary appearance may not have made it into the show yet, but Fa'alafi, Fotu and the rest of Hot Brown Honey had the misfortune to arrive in town at the tail end of the recent cold snap.

"I've never ever even seen snow," Fa'alafi said. "This was my first experience and it was like, bam! We got off the plane and it was -33 C. We had to go to the shops and buy multiple things."

But when she told the story, Fa'alafi was laughing.

"We just keep putting it out into the universe and putting all our love and energy into it, and it's paying off," she said.

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener