There's a bunch of things they teach you in secondary school drama classes. Face the audience being one of those. That the back of the performer is negative, not particularly expressive, bad for voice projection, obscures the face, etc. They also used to say things like nobody wants to see your backside: but then Nicki Minaj happened, and that just isn't true anymore. More on her and her booty later.
So how fun that for the first extended chunk of And so you see (19 word long titles are most excellent for a word count, but I won't be that girl) sees the audience watching a pile of fabric slumped in an armchair facing upstage, we soon figure out that this pile of fabric is in fact our performer for the night, Albert Ibokwe Khoza, shrouded beneath layers of unbleached cotton, back of the armchair to the audience. Up stage, a technician operating a video camera, pointed at this shroud, on the screen behind this technician, a projection of a live closeup on the folds of fabric, a kind of abstracted texture.
As we entered, the audience is bathed in an intense red light, at first annoying I cannot read the programme notes, my joke about the colour of my friend's shirt falls flat (Issit you wear blue shirt because the performer is blue on the poster?), but it also had this effect of making me feel quite vulgar (which is never annoying).
I often say that as a drag queen, I feel that I am successful when my mere presence has changed the room. And here we had it, a performer, shrouded under layers of unbleached cotton, back to the audience, un-moving, competing with an audience that was in a much more attractive light, a technician literally facing the audience, a projection that dwarfed us all. Guess what won. Some people just radiate that kind of energy lor.
The first we see of Khoza's actual body comes soon after. The technician starts to unfurl the layers of cotton of the slumped body, it's not in fact dead, it moves, but it's also still shrouded, now in cling wrap (don't get mad, get GLAD!), a kind of wrapped Laura Palmer of colour. A crown of bright blue braided hair tops an otherwise wrapped head, the face totally covered except for a luscious pair of lips, captured and enlarged witht hat video set up.
At this point, I catch myself objectifying a Black person, and focusing on the lusciousness of his lips, I find myself thinking about how this is kinda racist, I am reminded of that awful sketch on Ellen where she had a Black child playing young Nicki Minaj with a plastic butt strapped to her back. But then this is what I meant to pay attention to, it's the only uncovered part on his face, it's what the camera is focused on. But this tension is an idea that the performance comes back to repeatedly. We're meant to focus on these oft ridiculed or objectified physical traits of stereotypical Blackness (or fatness, or queerness), to find them beautiful, and then to also question this gaze.
In her programme note, Robyn Orlin who created the show with Khoza, she writes of a third world being on stage with a first world paying to be part of the show. It is as if Khoza responds by welcoming, and attracting the gaze of the audience, being completely aware of it, reveling in it, and in enjoying the gaze, never rejecting that gaze, Khoza manages to point out how pathetic that gaze can be.
Which is not to say And So You See is all serious and poetic beauty. Khoza, you see, is a DIVA, of the stage. He sings in a gorgeous falsetto, he's gloriously enigmatic, he commands attention like no other. He's also sensual, he also knows exactly what is sexy about himself and he's also wonderfully camp and funny.
Still wrapped in plastic, seemingly blindfolded, he wields a knife, peels, eats, stabs, rips apart a bowl of oranges, juice spraying and dripping all over his body, knife running over his lips and along his tongue, the moment is gorgeous and grotesque. The knife creating a situation that evokes a very uncomfortable wince, the whole time, he's enjoying it all a little bit too much.
This is the first hint at the camp that lies beneath this surface and there's more of it. A lot more of it. And it's delicious, and I won't spoil it.
But never far from the surface is the politics of an oppressed people, and an audience that is complicit in this oppression. Yes, we have a sensuous moment of focusing on his luscious lips, yes, we see him enjoying his fat Black body, and then yes, he speaks of Saarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, she who was displayed in 19th Century Europe as a living exhibit for her Black body. There really is a history to our favourite racist lesbian talkshow host, and singer of Starships.
And yet too, the piece isn't just talking about this kind of racist body politic, it's also talking about capital P politics, of wars, of first world countries using Africa as a dumping ground.
Khoza speaks of it being better to dance with weapons (than to fight with them), near the end, he dawns a garland of enemas. Each filled with blue paint, he covers himself, squeezes each of them, the paint dripping over his skin, blue, in brilliant contrast to brown skin, he rubs it into his skin, following their contours into the folds of his body. He then dances into darkness.