MAVERICK LIFE OP-ED
‘Big Sister – A Musical Tweet’ — sordid concoction with a tender heart
Look, it’s one thing to shut down the theatre industry for months on end, but don’t mess with a drag queen. Keith Bain goes to the theatre for the first time since lockdown began and hears more swear words in one night than during six months of isolation hell.
If you’re looking for a sweet, innocent night out, this isn’t it. Nor is it a show suitable for prudes, Mother Grundys or purveyors of any form of culture-cancelling political correctness.
Things will get uncomfortable, in fact, so you might want to order plenty of booze before the lights go out.
The three leggy lads comprising Cape Town’s most professional drag trio are angry as hell and they’re letting it all out – barbed fangs, manicured claws, plenty of thigh – on a stage in front of a live audience. Times being what they are, they’ve had to snip their theatre space, eschewing Gate69’s downstairs bar and editing out the food service in order to reduce ticket prices. But they’ve relaunched their intimate, velvet-festooned theatre with a vengeance, and they’re fearlessly saying (and singing) what’s on their minds.
Especially bitter is the trio’s writer-in-chief, Christopher Dudgeon, who for their new show, Big Sister – A Musical Tweet, has dipped his quill in expletive-spattering venom, sparing not one jot of shame nor rendering any mercy for the countless despoilers of the great human project we call society; for our incompetent rulers and ignorant neighbours he feels literally zero fucks.
The Gate69 triumvirate, comprising flight attendants Cathy Specific (Brendan van Rhyn), Holly (Dudgeon, himself, looking strikingly svelte and Vampira-like) and Molly (Rudi Jansen, whose bouffant orange wig and big-eyelid make-up conjure a ditsy plaasmeisie version of the late Baltimorean drag superstar, Divine), aren’t merely recovering from months of being unable to perform, but are also plainly working to save their small theatre from the economic abyss. At a time when countless commercial spaces across the city stand empty, many permanently shuttered, and while most other theatres nationwide remain at a standstill, they’ve been gagging to pop Gate69’s lockdown cherry.
The premise of the Trolley Dollies’ new show is that they’ve stepped off their final pre-lockdown flight only to find themselves, not at the baggage carousel, but in a small dark room which turns out to be their isolation cell/hell for the foreseeable future. While they’re in there – with a rapidly dwindling loo paper supply and no food – they confront many of the issues that have floated to the surface of our collective consciousness during the pandemic.
Of course, something they do have is access to is Wi-Fi – and social media. Cue circumstances for what Dudgeon calls an era when “everyone thinks they’re Ellen DeGeneres”. The problem with social media, we’re told, is that it facilitates the expressing of opinions; and, to be blunt, “Opinions are like arseholes – everyone has one.”
Indeed, aside from the economic devastation and political debacle, what seems to have gotten Dudgeon’s goat is how lockdown made everyone believe they were starring in their own reality TV show. All the banana breadmongery and Instagram make-up tutorials are debunked as “a virtual wank” and when Holly’s asked by the other two if she’d like to be in a live-stream show with them, her deadpan retort almost knocks you off your chair. “I’d rather have a harelip,” she intones, droll and unflinching.
Later, we hear an equally un-PC sentiment many South Africans might have subliminally muttered at the height of our collective quarantine: “I’d sell my mother for a papsak right about now.”
No, this is not high art. In case you were wondering.
Nevertheless, if you still harbour some lazy, cynical belief that drag culture is purely a fun, uproarious outlet from some Queer culture niche, or that drag shows are merely an opportunity for women and straight men to join in the multihued rainbow of gender-bending entertainments, you need to think again.
Drag is necessarily a form of activism, and the best drag artists aren’t doing what they do simply for shits and giggles, but to stir reaction, get a rise, provoke dissent, or – at the very least – get a conversation started. The bitchiness and ribald and coarse humour are a jumping-off point, a way to access the funny bone before delivering a punch to the gut.
And when you witness three beefy guys transformed into statuesque goddesses – you come to realise what a glorious thing a drag queen actually is. You should realise, too, the suffering they endure for their art. Most drag queens will admit that there’s a nightly agony, in fact: The dancing in stilettos, the make-up, the extensive shaving, the tight-fitting costumes, and the mysterious tucking of dangly bits – these are all part and parcel of the great event of showing up on stage dressed as a woman. But somehow that physical transformation bestows great power, enabling gay men to be heard. It’s an opportunity to speak the truth, even when the truth makes us uncomfortable.
What you get in Big Sister is a drag at its most unhinged, untampered, unfiltered. It’s an on-stage purge, a chance to let all the anger, hatred and vitriol out of their – and our – systems. Things that many of us may have muttered, thought privately, been too afraid to air in public, are given a very vocal airing.
Which is the point Dudgeon is aiming to make: He’s wondering out loud how, why and when we, as a people, became so emasculated, so deprived of the will to stand up in defence of social justice. When did we acquiesce, tucking away our collective fury at the way our country is mismanaged, looted, compelled to suffer crippling restrictions during a time we were at our most vulnerable?
And this is where the show gets interesting: Dudgeon’s frequent low-brow stabs at the ineptitude of our government and the stupidity of social media addiction are actually a jumping-off point for his disgust at a culture of self-censorship and taking offence. He pulls a big fat middle finger at those culprits-in-chief, Generation Z, tearing them a new arsehole as he bemoans their sense of entitlement and mindless outrage at whatever the most triggering issue of the day happens to be.
In some sense, Big Sister is about reclaiming the right to offend, because as they say, “No one fucks with a seven-foot drag queen.”
The show, with its mix of smut and earnestness, is a bit preachy, a bit sleazy, a bit uneven. Which means it’s a good reflection of life right now. The difference is, it leaves you on a high. Plus, the Trolley Dollies have never been so musically tight.
Their shtick, unlike the majority of drag acts around the world, is that they never lip-sync. Instead, they belt out – in their own voices – not just show tunes and diva anthems, but a diverse mix of songs. Some feature touching lyrics, a few are just wholeheartedly filthy. There’s a rendition of RuPaul’s Call Me Mother that will knock your socks off – it’s sexy, high-energy, and executed alongside some deliciously choreographed moves. Witnessing it performed live is like being in a club – I wanted to jump on the table and dance.
And, by contrast, Molly’s solid, stoic interpretation of the Afrikaans Koos Du Plessis ballad, Skielik Is Jy Vry [Suddenly You’re Free], is riveting as much for its tenderness as for Jansen’s heartfelt rendition of it.
The songs most people will walk out remembering and end up singing in the shower, however, are both entitled Fuck You – there’s the massive Cee-Lo Green hit, and there’s Lily Allen’s quasi-gay anthem. Both songs are at least a decade old and conjured here in order to give a series of passionate and literal middle fingers to anyone who has dared curtail our basic freedoms.
To some extent, turning up to watch Big Sister is worthwhile even if only to see what its three stars look like when they welcome you in their pre-show black face masks and matching outfits. Once they get on stage, of course, they throw out plenty of foul, bargain-basement jokes – the sort of dirty quips no amount of hand sanitiser can absolve. But woven into this sordid concoction is a message with an unexpectedly tender heart – a plea, even. I guarantee this is the first time the words, “Ubuntu, motherfuckers!” have been uttered side-by-side on any stage in the world, ever. To discover how Dudgeon and his colleagues arrive there, you’ll need to save up and catch their cabaret. Take your friends, influence your followers; just leave the prudes at home. DM/ML
Big Sister is playing at Gate69 on Cape Town’s Bree Street every Wednesday through Saturday until 28 November. Tickets will run you between R390 and R450 and must be pre-booked — and masks worn on arrival.
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved