In some ways Lisa Fa’alafi has Grace Jones to thank for her return season at the Sydney Opera House.
Fa’alafi, an Australian performer, writer and director of Samoan background, created a character to explore the “exoticism” of the Pacific Islander. She describes the character as “a village girl who turns into Grace Jones”. A friend and fellow performer suggested she enter the show in the Las Vegas Burlesque Hall of Fame. Despite never considering herself a burlesque performer and having to compete against 800 other entrants, Fa’alafi took her friend’s advice and made it into the show.
That was five years ago. As she became acquainted with the world of burlesque, Fa’alafi realised two things. First, though it’s often misrepresented as titillating striptease, burlesque has a history firmly rooted in political and social activism, thanks to performers like Josephine Baker.
The second – glaringly obvious – realisation was there are still very few women of colour performing burlesque, aside from those being used as the token “hula girl”. “Where are the brown boobs in burlesque?” Fa’alafi says. “Where is the diversity?”
Enter Fa’alafi’s co-creator, the composer, remixer and sound designer Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, and witness the birth of Hot Brown Honey, a sassy, risqué, confronting yet laugh-out-loud funny burlesque show that tackles colonialism, racism and gender stereotypes in a powerful 90-minute rollercoaster ride.
Six “black, brown and mixed beauties” perform the show, including Fa’alafi and Busty, Indigenous dancer Juanita Duncan; Matehaere Hope Haami, arguably this country’s most famous female beatboxer; award-winning Tongan-Australian soul singer Ofa Fotu; aerialist Crystal Stacey, formerly of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus; and 2017 Deadly Funny Winner and newcomer to Hot Brown Honey, Ghenoa Gela.
“We’re a really mixed bunch and that’s what we’re trying to look at: what it means to be Australian and look different. There are some darker issues we know we can hit through humour, although there are moments in the show when you look out and people are crying,” says Fa’alafi of an aerialist sequence that tackles domestic violence. “But we don’t let them stay that way for long. You can’t help laughing when a pair of giant breasts is heading your way!”
Hot Brown Honey has returned home from sell-out seasons in the UK, Ireland and Aotearoa. They won an award for their Edinburgh Festival Fringe season and won Best Production and Best Design in the Green Room Awards for their Melbourne season.
“We’re heading back to the Edinburgh Fringe [after Sydney]. It’s amazing if you put it out there what happens, and now we’re there and nearly sold out!”
Fa’alafi believes audiences are eager to see more non-Caucasian line-ups on their stages and screens, and points to the sell-out Sydney season last year as proof. “It says people do want to see diverse work,” she says, adding that audience research they’d done through the Australia Council revealed many of their ticket buyers had never been to the theatre before.
Despite priding ourselves on being a multicultural country, where one in four Australians was born overseas, there is still an unacceptably low rate of Indigenous and non-white actors getting work.
“Unfortunately for us a lot of the images portraying people of colour in the media are negative. We want to acknowledge some of the stereotypes but really smash them and portray powerful women who aren’t afraid of speaking their minds, women in all different shapes and sizes. Yes there are some shitty things that have been happening in the world, through history, for our country. But we can make change.”
Hot Brown Honey is playing at The Sydney Opera House from June 7 until June 25.
Updated on May 23, 2017.