'The Black radical feminist dreamer gaze: A review of Black Honey Company's One The Bear' by Sista Zai Zanda

When it comes to the spoken-word theatre genre, Black Honey Company never fails to deliver. As originators of the genre in Australia, Candy Bowers and Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers create innovative work. Each production speaks to the zeitgeist, giving their audiences the language and frameworks to articulate socio-cultural phenomena that we are either oblivious to (as a consequence of denial or privilege) or still grappling to find the words to articulate. As creators of cultural products in a context where the violence that is part of a colonisation perpetrated through continuing genocide, Black Honey Company produces work that simultaneously heals our colonial wounds, exposes the insidious ways in which neo/colonialism functions and has us all laughing raucously while pissing our pants.

Earlier this year, I flew from Melbourne to Sydney and made the long drive out to Campbelltown Arts Centre to see ONE THE BEAR: A FAIRYTALE FOR THE HIP HOP GENERATION. I had worked on the script as one of the dramaturgs but I was also keen to experience the story unfold – not just as words on the page but with the costume, set design, soundtrack, choreography and the rapport between two triple threat and Afro-descended Australian artists, Nancy Denis and Candy Bowers. Written and devised by Candy Bowers, One The Bear manages to challenge you to think critically; the power of comedy is intelligently fused with drama and a keen understanding of both local and global historical context. As with their other works (Australian Booty, The MC Platypus & Queen Koala Show and Hot Brown Honey), since watching One The Bear I feel better; I am better equipped with language to name the violence I experience and therefore I am better placed to engage in the conversations that are a fundamental starting point for anyone engaged in shifting culture and raising consciousness.

One The Bear premiered at Campbelltown Arts Centre during the same time that Black Honey Company’s production Hot Brown Honey played at the Sydney Opera House. This holds great significance. The chosen location required us to travel into Sydney’s Outer West, suburbs purposefully created to ghettoize migrants and Aboriginal people so as to maintain Sydney proper as a white business, social and cultural centre. This is a theme that also runs through One The Bear; the play opens in a garbage tip, and the action climaxes when One has ‘made it’ to the epicentre of material wealth and celebrity, which is an all-white space. On one level, the choice of location implies that all people, regardless of socioeconomic status and cultural background, deserve access to great art and well-resourced arts institutions.

I spent a few days in Campbelltown, getting to know the place that formed the consciousness of the Bowers’ sisters and the communities whose shared experiences of exclusion and oppression formed the backdrop against which Black Honey Company created work. As I walked the streets and listened to Candy speak of growing up in Campbelltown, I realised that, on another level, the choice of location teaches us that we should not separate art from social and historical context. We must learn to consume art in the context that created it and allow the people living in that context to take leadership over creating the art.

Interestingly, the premier of One The Bear (and the opening of Hot Brown Honey 2017 season at the Sydney Opera House) coincided with two or three Netflix releases that document and historicise the rise of Hip Hop from the ghettos of urban USA into the mainstream. Sitting in my living room in urban Australia, temporally and geographically, I am located far from the context that gave rise to a global culture. Yet, a growing and nuanced understanding of the rise of Hip Hop in Australia allows me to appreciate parallels on a global level – the poverty, the lack of basic healthcare, food deserts and so on. However, as I watch ‘The Get Down’ for example – although I appreciate the history lesson – I find myself asking why there is no in-depth analysis from women about women in Hip Hop and the era in which Hip Hop came to prominence. The erasure of Black women is very evident.

In comparison to One The Bear, these accounts are so male-centric that I catch myself questioning whether I actually grew up in an era listening to countless femcees and loving Hip Hop because I was more enamoured by their presence and their experiences. Women like Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt N Peppa (and the list goes on) were also part of the birth and rise of Hip Hop from the ghettos of the United States of America to the world. Where are their stories? Why have we excluded their narratives? One The Bear is a play that starts to explain the erasure of Black women’s voices but also offer their story for us to witness.

One The Bear is written from the Black radical feminist dreamer gaze. As such, One The Bear not only speaks to the cultural appropriation of the form and the watering down of its political edge for commercial viability and mainstream appeal, it also highlights the hypersexualisation of the Black female body by men and how this process of colonising the Black female body enables the commodification of the experiences that birthed art out of Black oppression. Hip Hop Artists like Akua Naru in songs like ‘One Woman’ and ‘The World Is Listening’ have long advocated for a Hip Hop culture that makes ample room for Black womens’ stories told in their voices and on their terms. One The Bear answers that call from the Australian context.

In Australia, we still live in a deep denial (fairytale) that erases the history of oppression and enables continuing injustice. One The Bear perfectly contextualises current social justice concerns in a history that we will not find in text books or on the television in Australia. In this way, One The Bear is a warning to everyone who has forgotten that the US Civil Rights Movement (which greatly informed Hip Hop) is anchored by the promise and push for a radical transformation of systemic and institutionalised oppression. The play reminds us that instead of liberation, we have settled for the opportunity to access material riches through and within the existing oppressive systems and structures. This is the challenge for One – access to material wealth is vital for survival, and yet it can also lead to a premature death.

Although this conundrum plays out throughout the play, there is also a strong sense of hope; in line with Black radical feminist dreaming, the play teaches us through the abidingly loving friendship between One and Ursula that our survival relies on our commitment to nurture connection, build community on the principles and practices of self-care, reciprocity and care for the natural environment, which is as badly exploited as certain groups of human beings.

Although we might think of the themes and issues under discussion as too mature for young minds, One The Bear is billed as ‘a fairytale for the Hip Hop generation’. It is a play written with young people in mind. On both nights that I attended, I saw Black (First Nations and African) artists with a first hand experience of the racialised and gendered dynamic of the Australian Hip Hop and entertainment industry. After watching the play, they all expressed a deep desire to bring their children along to watch the play. Why is that? Probably because they know that this celebrity crazed culture presents Hip Hop as an alluringly easy and comfortable road to riches and fame (a fairytale about a city with roads paved in gold). Like any concerned parent whose life experience has taught them better, they want their children to learn the lesson early and become savvy creators and consumers of the form.

One The Bear has arrived in time to speak intelligibly to a generation raised amidst readily accessible screens, 24 hour entertainment and celebrity culture. This is a play that not only gives language but also facilitates critical and consciousness raising dialogues about poverty, wealth, environmental degradation and the historic injustices that underpin the ever-increasing gendered and raced wealth-divide. These are the conversations which ought inform how our urban communities grapple with gentrification – not just of our physical spaces but also of our intangible cultural spaces. The same way my father introduced me as an eight year old to documentaries about Ghandi, Steve Biko, Mandela and so on, I highly encourage you to take your children to see this play and ask your school to host a workshop. The education on offer here is deeply transformative and will plant seeds that provide young minds with a nuanced and complex understanding of issues that will assist them to continue the work of making this world a better place for all.

Sista Zai Zanda is a storyteller, educator, radio producer and Dramaturg. She is the host and curator of the Pan Afrikan Poets Cafe, the home of new, cutting edge and classic Afrikan literature. Her latest work is God Is A Black Womban. On Sundays, catch Sista Zai playing tunes on the Hip Sista Hop show on 3CR.

One the Bear is the latest from the international award-winning team Black Honey Company. Two best-bear friends raising a ruckus against the dystopian rule of hunters, spit rhymes and fuse feminist hip hop, afropunk and global music to tell their tale. One and Ursula demand more for their tribe as they explore identity, friendship, exploitation and appropriation in a celebrity-obsessed world.

One the Bear is playing at the La Boite Theatre in Brisbane from 10-21 October. Get your tickets here.