20 September 2013

New fat theatre! Fat actors! Validation at last!

You wait for donkey's years to see something on a stage that bears some relationship to your life, your body and your values. You learn not to hold your breath or hope too much because, excuse the pun, the pickings are slim. Then a load of it comes at once and it turns out that the desert isn't as barren as it used to be. Is there something in the air? I don’t know.

I've written about Scottee and Amy Lamé's performance work, and my own ventures in Homosexual Death Drive, elsewhere on this blog. No doubt I'll come back to them but for now I want to turn my attention to two performances that I've seen recently where fat is a big part of the picture.

I doubt that anyone behind Phone Whore or Love n Stuff sat down and thought: "Aha! We'll make performances about fat people!" and it's true, these are not 'fat plays', and people who are not looking for this stuff would probably not notice it. But I am looking for fat performance and, to my eyes, these pieces are dripping with it.

Phone Whore is a solo performance written and acted by Cameryn Moore, who makes part of her living as a phone sex operator in North America. The show takes us through a busy shift, we get to see Moore in action, see how the business works, and consider wider philosophical themes about consent, fantasy and sex work. Phone Whore is one of a trilogy of shows and two street performances, all touring, that take a candid view of sex and invite the audience to examine some of their preconceptions. What makes this such a great piece is that you are able to witness Moore's skill as a performer and as a sex worker. She can really tell a story. There's none of the sanctimoniousness that often colours rhetoric and policy about sex work, Moore has empathy for her punters, and she invites the audience to judge less and understand better.

Moore has a long history as a radical fat queer activist. I once had the pleasure of participating in one of her workshops, an unforgettable experience of big, collective embodiment and movement. Phone Whore could not be described as particularly physical theatre, though the discrepancy between the fantasy women to whom she gives voice and her own body is central to the play, so in that sense there is a profound physicality to the work. This is not to say that she presents her fat self as inferior to the fantasy; she also claims her own sexual space in the performance. Both fantasy woman and solid, embodied, fat, queer can exist in the same moment, without judgement. I think this is what makes her portrayal of a fat sex worker so engaging and remarkable.

Love n Stuff by Tanika Gupta is a very different kind of performance. It is currently showing at the beloved Theatre Royal Stratford, home to theatre that is political, accessible, and rooted in the local community. A two-hander, Love n Stuff build on characters I first encountered in Gupta's show-stopping Wah Wah Girls, which played at the same theatre a year ago.

Rina Fatania and Tony Jayawardena star primarily as Bindi and Mansoor a middle-aged couple from Stratford. Mansoor is sick of E15 and has decided to move to Delhi, the problem is that Bindi does not want to go with him. In the process of resolving their differences, Fatania and Jayawardena play more than 20 characters between them, with only a few props and effects. Coupled with the breakneck pace of Gupta's script, the effect is speedy and electrifying. On the night I went, I saw people in the sell-out audience (always socially diverse at this theatre), me included, weeping and shaking with laughter.

This isn't a fat play, I think it's basically about love and belonging, a sense of place, with some thoughtful references to gender and the legacies of colonialism too. Kerry Michael, the director, is a lean kind of guy but Gupta ain't so skinny, and neither are Fatania and Jayawardena. Sometimes their bodies, Fatania's especially, are used for familiar laughs. Mansoor's retort that Bindi "used to be thin" is a punch-line that got a big reaction the night I was there, and her portrayal of a sexed-up woman was also familiar turf in the canon of fat stereotypes.

I rolled my eyes but forgave these moments because the rest of the play busted apart clichés at every turn. Bindi is a fat Asian woman with a PhD, she talks about never having had the calling to have kids, she has an emotional moment on the phone to her mum who is unable to recognise her achievements. Mansoor is an engineer, he has a career, he is a skilled person. Their marriage is mixed, he's Muslim and she's Hindu. Phone Whore takes place in a milieu that might recognise and name genderfuck, and here too the actors represent other genders seamlessly, queer roles, but it is to a mainstream audience without the usual postmodern self-importance. The actors in Love n Stuff are very physical. Fatania uses her heft to make space for herself, to punish and to seduce. There is at least one dance sequence. The performers are extremely active, jumping in and out of the many characters seemingly effortlessly. Their virtuoso skills light up the stage, it is fantastic to witness.

In his book and film The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo reclaims the queer actors in cinema history that were always on the margins and never got a look-in. I often find myself doing this with fat characters, not only onscreen but also on stage, and in fact in any kind of performance. Like Russo and his readers, I think I am hungry for representation that speaks to me, and I scavenge it whenever I can. Neither Moore, nor Bindi and Mansoor are background characters, they are fully present at the centre of the performance. But my reading of them in terms of fat is still marginal; in many ways it feels like a sneaky reading, one that was not necessarily intended by the performers, playwright or director.

It's amazingly validating to see people like me telling stories about themselves. I am not Asian but I am a working class woman with a PhD and I live in Stratford and encounter people who look like Bindi and Mansoor every day. Part of the video backdrop for Love n Stuff was filmed along my road, these characters could easily be my friends and neighbours. I've also chosen not to have children and don't think of this as tragic in any way. I am not a phone sex worker, but I've thought about it, and I am an occasional pornographer. Free speech around sex, and feminist debates about that, are important to me. Seeing these tiny touchstones reflected in performance enables me to feel real in a context where I often feel, like Vito Russo's cinema queers, pushed to the side.

Phone Whore and Love n Stuff are enormously rich theatrical experiences in their own right and also as great examples of fat performance and fat culture-building. That fat is part of the way Phone Whore and Love n Stuff tell their stories is the icing on the cake, as far as I'm concerned. Seeing these performances makes me think: that's us, these are our stories, here are possibilities for what we are and might become. We are here.

Cameryn Moore will be back in the UK with a new production next year.
camerynmoore.com

Love n Stuff continues at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, until 5 October.
stratfordeast.com

1 comment:

none of your beeswax said...

thanks for the reviews, the plays look interesting. i would like to see Love N Stuff, it's too bad it's only running for another week.