Guest Blog: Lochlann Jain

Award-winning writer and artist Lochlann Jain tells all about how categories affect gender and sexuality in new book Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosity (University of Toronto Press, available here from 7 November)

Lochlann Jain is an award-winning writer, artist and professor of anthropology at Stanford University and Kings College London Lochlann Jain. As a bi-racial, non-binary, queer person living across the UK and USA, Lochlann Jain is constantly fighting the world’s everyday obsession of stereotypes and categorisation.

They explain: At birth, gender bequeaths a baby’s humanity, not vice versa. Is “it” a boy or a girl is the question that directs all others: Does he have his father’s nose? Does she have ten fingers? Knowing “Xavier is a boy” leads to asking “what kind of boy is Xavier”—not “what kind of person is Xavier.”

This sorting by sex and the ongoing project of “boying” and “girling” our children through intensive instruction is largely considered the most natural thing in the world. Induction into the social codes of masculinity and femininity teach us what to wear, how to spend time, our habits of posture—and most importantly, how to relate to others. Girls are girls and boys are boys, identities stuck on with the same enthusiasm—and good intention—we use to tape that oversized pink paisley bow to a bald baby’s head.

While the vast majority believe in a gender binary, many good liberal westerners, at least in theory, believe that girls should also have access to the things that until 5 minutes ago have been the exclusive rights of boys and men: to inherit, become doctors and engineers, defend their country, be paid equally, play football in public parks, become prime ministers and presidents. And similarly, that boys and men should get to unapologetically cry, parent, cook, and make close friends. In other words, that humans should have opportunities to physically and emotionally flourish.

Various strategies have made some strides in levelling the playing field, as it were: redistributing funding, mandating inclusion, improving educational opportunities and so on. But why, then, is it recent news that an all-female crew of astronauts conducted a space walk? How could that possibly have taken 50 years? Clearly, there are limits to such measures’ success.

In part, this is because unequally gendered access to public culture is not just about the here and now. Male access, lives, and accomplishments have been materially and intellectually cemented into everyday life. From street names to war memorials, from emperors to CEOs, from super heroes to sports heroes, when we learn about, and experience, how the world came to be, it is through the stories of men, by and large.

Roughly half our children tend to be “boyed” in infancy, in a process that encourages them to identify with representations of maleness generated through these myriad historical and fantastical figures. These youngsters may not become King Arthur or Maradona but they can code their behaviors and entitlements in line with them in ways that are straightforward and with little effort.

“Girled” children, on the other hand, can’t simply be Batman or Einstein with the ease and clarity that a boy can. Even the girls with the most progressive parents find themselves surrounded by ubiquitous and glorified boy-characters. It takes some mental gymnastics for someone told they are a girl—the opposite, the complement, the foil, or whatever, to a boy—to find kinship with the male characters that dominate the social world. When girls want to be engineers, kings, street names, or genius entrepreneurs, they have to first take one great leap across the invisible, internalized barrier of what is even possible, and then navigate the judgement (and sometimes outright scorn) reserved for the suspected ambitious girl, the tom-boy, the lesbian, or trans-boy.

It’s this history of representations, built and instantiated over generations, that is so intractable. It’s said that JK Rowling dreamed up Harry rather than Harriet Potter because, while girls will read anything and everything, boys will only read stories about boys. Possibly apocryphal, the story rings true. And since a culture geared to selling—whether it’s books, movies, or overpriced plastic wands—is unlikely to challenge this, and because all our other efforts toward equal pay, equal representation, and equal opportunities are less than triumphs, we need another strategy.

What’s left? Could we nip this in the delivery room, so to speak? What if we resisted boying and girling our children for a few months or years by not showing or telling them which gender they ought to identify with—at least not right away.

This would be a stretch for most people, no question. To make the effort to think around, rather than through, gender would take some linguistic heavy-lifting and ongoing work. It would be a significant ask of friends and family: it’s difficult to talk about a baby without using he or she pronouns. But it’s not impossible—after all, we are known to take care over our babies’ names. And from there, decisions would have to be made about clothes and toys. Would we move toward gender-neutral greens and yellows, or alternate between pink and blue?

This may feel deeply unsettling. That’s because we have been trained see a genderless baby as a rootless baby, an unmoored baby. How would the baby know how to slot themselves into the world? What games would they play? And later, which bathroom would they use? The bow and the bow-tie are the paths of least resistance for already exhausted parents.

On the other hand, a new generation is expanding feminist and queer movements in new ways, questioning or shunning gender binaries. Their giant leap of imagination is to be liberated from these exhausting codes, or at least to have some say in how they are re-written. Arguably, this model of gender-deferral offers a much less violent approach to the current practice of telling our girl-children that they can do anything boys can, while offering mostly male models for doing so, and thus requiring inhuman psychic contortions for them to merely conceive of the conditions for their own success.

Consider the opportunities for self-actualization available through this proposal. What if it turned out that once the stigma of changing diapers or being a nurse were removed, in fact a good portion of little people welcomed the role of caretaking, regardless of what was under their clothing? One imagines that a lot of people might be great at it, and some of those would advocate to give the history of care-taking a larger—even equivalent—role in institutions from actual hospitals to military museums. The history of care-taking would no longer be “women’s history” added as an afterthought among the vast halls of swords, chest-plates, and medals, but would take its rightful place as a fully-fledged component of human history.

To be sure, it’s not a solution, but at least it’s a thought experiment with the goal of unburdening future children from the trap of history. It’s worth considering why it’s so hard to wrap our heads around giving up gender; what we are afraid of; and what the real stakes are of reproducing the gendered roles and hierarchies that most consider to be, and many experience as, retrograde and diminishing. Assuaging our own fears may not warrant the stunning losses in cultural capital that they continue to produce.

Lochlann Jain’s Book: Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie is now available to buy.

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Review: Escape from Planet Trash

By Sink The Pink
At The Pleasance Theatre, London until Dec 22nd 2019
4 *

For a concept so inherently camp, pantomimes rarely fulfil their possibilities. When LGBTQ collective Sink the Pink put one on at the Pleasance, my hopes were high.

The set smokes with anticipation as we get settled, like it’s lying in wait. Through the play it transforms multiple times, with a fun design and characterful dressing that make creative use of the stage, and thoughtful lighting to complement the shifts in setting.

We start with a barrage of exposition, much of which I don’t really follow, then a neat segue into the first musical number. This is a hint of what’s to come; the loose story strings together what feels more like a series of related sketches.

Mairi Houston commands the stage as Star Corps captain, and delivers some of the best songs. David Cumming’s character, Sonny, drives much of the emotional arc, and he carries it well with a peculiar and endearing presence onstage. A couple of issues with audio mean that some performances don’t quite get done justice, but the cast cope well.

Some of the most fun moments happen when everyone is onstage. They’re clearly delighted to have a rotating stage to play with, and it’s a pleasure to see them make good use of it. Having them all onstage at once also gives us a chance to enjoy the full range of the outrageous and wonderful costumes.

The jokes are pantomime quality, and perhaps I hadn’t drunk as much as I should have, but I’d have liked more of them. Jokes about weight and ambiguous genders are standard for panto, but it’s a little strange to see a few employed here without more complexity. Other comedy lands more powerfully; the second half introduces a spectacularly satirical pair of space travellers who skewer the trope of exploitative, photo-happy tourists.

If you’re looking for a pantomime that strays from the fairytale but hits all the usual bases, Planet Trash is the place for you – as long as you can cope with the smell.

© Anna Lewis 2019

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© Image Ali Wright

Review: Oh Yes Oh No

Battersea Arts Centre 12th -23rd November (not 17th) 8pm
BSL performance on 19th November

It’s been nearly 24 hours since I’ve seen this show and I am still processing it. ‘Oh Yes Oh No’ is not like anything I’ve seen before. It is incredibly honest and also off the wall.

Writer/performer Louise Orwin tells us that this is ‘not a show about female desire but it is about what it is like to attempt to understand your own experience of desire and sexuality when you live in a culture which tells you day in and day out that sexuality if not for you’.  This is a performance that combines a very light playfulness with discomfort. The audience is an active participant even in its passive state, watching everything unfold.

Upon entering the space there is humming, throbbing kind of industrial soundtrack. Louise is sat on a chair dressed in black, her hair long and white  – a life sized doll. And then you see the exact same set up but in miniature with a Barbie doll sat on a chair. There is a beautiful kitsch aesthetic to Kat Heath’s set design, which I loved.

Louise then introduces herself, speaking through a microphone, which distorts her voice into something plastic and robotic. Initially I found this a little jarring, as it was all I could focus on. However I did quickly get used to it and it is an incredibly effective use of sound, particularly in how it very quickly creates this idea of fantasy and play.

We are told this is a fantasy space. An audience member becomes part of the action and is representing all of us. There is a particular excitement that comes into a room with this kind of interaction and I love the idea how depending on the person, this could greatly shift the energy in the room.

There is also a large screen at the back onto which text is shown throughout the show. The way this is utilized throughout the play gave me a sense of a kind of dystopian karaoke (which is a great thing!) and also conjured up a sort of J.G Ballard mood.

Oh Yes Oh No walks a line throughout of fun and games but with the threat of danger, always the threat of danger and manages this intricate balance with great consideration but also utter rawness.  This is a piece of theatre that cannot fail to move its audience in some way though do please note it may be very triggering for some people.

The sound design by Alicia Turner was bold and effective. The use of voiceovers was really powerful and proved to me that when done right, a voiceover can really feel like a physical presence in a space.

Finally, Louise Orwin. Wow.

This is a thought-provoking piece of theatre at its boldest. 

© Sarah Browne 2019

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Image © Alex Brenner 2019

Review: Aladdin and The Feast of Wonders

The Vaults, London
Until 15th Jan 2020

“Ladies, Gentlemen and the elite that transcend the gender binary”… if there’s an experience worth having this winter, Aladdin and The Feast of Wonders is IT! It’s crude, it’s bawdy, it’s salacious – it’s completely and utterly belly-shaking hilarious. Where to start? I suppose at the beginning, we are welcomed in to Widow Hankey’s Lauderette: White Washing, where we learn that the she is struggling for cash, and also that Princess Jizzmine only has until midnight to find a suitor or risk losing the crown – the race is on!  It’s got all the trimmings of a traditional panto, with a large side-helping of delicious noodles – or Mama’s Noods as they are known in these parts. Before too long we are whisked from the laundrette and on to a grand banqueting hall, where the Feast of Wonders commences. What made this immersive dining experience stand out, was that as much attention has been paid to the delightful menu, as it has to the set, as it has to the performance, offering a spectacular treat for all. 

The humour is filthier than some of the laundry in Widow Hankey’s launderette – however, unlike traditional pantos, they avoid humour targeting minority groups and cis-het inuendo, which can often leave queer audiences standing on the sidelines. The Feast of Wonders is delightfully free of gender binaries and norms and heterocentric language, which for me was what made this panto one of the best in a long time. As well as this, the Vaults approach to zero-tolerance of cultural appropriation in terms of dress code feels like an incredibly hopeful and positive step forward regarding the damage and oppression pantomime in the UK has historically caused. 

The talented cast are clearly having a whale of a time performing the show, which results in us having a whale of a time watching. Angelo Paragoso plays the entirely lovable Villain Jaclose, whilst Janina Smith brings cheeky, chappy Aladdin to life and succeeded in some hilarious audience banter while we partook of the feast. 

The food is sumptuous, a slick operation run by Pop Co, means each course is served swiftly between scenes. Vegans – you’ll be happy the jackfruit features heavily in this feast, in fact they cater for all diets, as long as you let them know in advance! The food is themed around the story and each course brought together a blend of delicious flavours; Princess Jizzmine’s Milk was almost a little too graphic for me to stomach, but so delicious in actuality, I more than managed!

The ending of the show is unexpected, touching and a complete breath of fresh air, it’s riotous and triumphant .  One slightly tipsy punter tried to incorporate herself in to the final scene, and was gently led to the side by Window Hankey – this was a sure sign of success for the production, I too thought how much I desperately wanted to be a part of the fun they were having. Fortunately for that over-zealous punter, everyone is invited on stage at the end and there is the chance for a dance, as well as to meet the characters. 

I could not recommend this experience more, and with tickets costing from £40 (standard) to £75 (for VIP) it’s an absolute steal – you’d be ridiculous not to to get yourself down to the Vaults as soon as you possibly can!

© Amie Taylor

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Review: We Dig

Ovalhouse, London.
This production ran from 5th – 19th October 2019

I imagine, many of us as children found there was nothing quite like digging a hole, whether that was in the sand at the beach, or somewhere in the back garden, away from the flower bed, or else your Mum wouldn’t be best pleased. Add to that the joy and excitement of your friends being with you. The anticipation of digging a really big hole. How far down could you go before uncovering something? The stories you would share in the process, the plans, the hopes, the dreams…

Emma Frankland and company have been given a unique opportunity to do just that at the Ovalhouse. As Emma casually addresses the audience at the start of We Dig, we find out the building is soon, sadly, to be demolished. To be replaced like so much has been in the Vauxhall and Oval area in recent years. The audience can already see that the stage area has been ripped up and all that is left is a fenced-off crater, into which Emma climbs back to dig away with a small plastic spade. What she needs are some friends to make it bigger and they arrive, literally breaking through a brick wall in order to get into the space, with some shovels and picks. What ensues over the next seventy minutes is a carefully choreographed and thoughtful build up to the messages this production is trying to portray.

This is a story about friendships, sometimes eclectic, sometimes challenging and what it is that binds them together. Each person has their own individual story to tell, which develop throughout the play. We hear about their joys, challenges and setbacks in different parts of the world. At the same time, each member of the cast seem to be trying to physically deal with something on the stage, whether that is breaking through a large slab of concrete, stopping a flowing leak from the ceiling, trying to grow crops, to stopping a fire. Throughout the hole gets bigger and objects unearthed.

Peppered throughout the play Emma does what you expect, providing strong eloquent monologues, even whilst operating a pneumatic drill. Aptly, whilst the play was running, the Extinction Rebellion protests were happening, and Emma talks about the use of natural resources, always taking and not having anything left for future generations. This is a useful analogy to what is going on onstage, as we see each character struggle with the individual resources they have as they try to deal with the physical challenges. By the end, we see them come together in collaboration using the leak for example to put out the fire, or to water the crops planted and celebrate what they have achieved, the obstacles overcome, new resources found or created and what brings them together.

You are not going to see a performance quite like this. It has a rare setting and the boundaries of what you expect to see in a physical theatre space are pushed beyond conventional limits. Expect Emma’s unique style but intermingled with those of her friends on stage, giving the play an even greater perspective. There is so much you will take home with you. For me the most poignant was the burning of negative remarks and comments, disappearing, magician like into thin air. This is a Trans Femme story and perspective on issues that can affect many of us. I have held back on saying that, because, as said in the performance, that shouldn’t be the main theme. It just happens that all the characters on stage are and their stories reflect that. What we take from this is up to us.

© Grace Johnstone 2019

This performance has now closed. Follow @elbfrankland on Twitter for information and updates on future work by Emma.

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© Image Rosie Powell

Review: Queer Week

The Drayton Arms Theatre, London
This Production has now closed
CW: Suicide and Mental Health

As is often the case in theatre, we are observers and listeners, not actively participating in a series of events unfolding rapidly in front of us – we sit down in the dark to watch stories and listen to the lives of those far different to our own. Some theatregoers prefer this separation between the performer and the audience, while others delight in the rambunctious banter that can occur between those on the stage and those in the seats.

The latter of these is what I experienced at the closing night of Queer Week 2019 at The Drayton Arms theatre space, an intimate and modest venue on Old Brompton Road in South Kensington. Throughout the evening we were exposed to a myriad of performances – namely music by the entrancingly husky- voiced Jakob Noah, the deliciously witty dragged-up stand-up from Steve (single-use name, á la Cher) and an important verbatim musical about mental illness amongst queer people, fittingly titled Here, Queer and Mentally Unclear.

I immediately noticed the sense of community within the room that night – Jakob Noah’s opening numbers were met with enthusiastic applause. Steve’s cabaret act was as camp as they come, with a healthy spoonful of sarcasm. He performed to his mother, sister and husband, who cheered him on from the audience that roared with laughter at his jokes. And not just jokes – we listened intently when he addressed the conversation within and without the queer community around trans people and their rights. It was a room brimming with support and acceptance and a familiarity that is truly intangible and often not visible in theatrical spaces.

The verbatim musical Here, Queer and Mentally Unclear is a telling of the struggles and successes of queer people, with specific aspects of these stories being encapsulated in song. I could only salute the bravery of the performers at their honesty and courage in reciting words that have clear ties to their own personal journeys – and when they sang through their tears about gender dysphoria, depression, bipolar disorder and suicide, it made the reality of mental illness amongst queer people sink in.

While the show is stripped back and not for a patron of more expensive, showier productions, its value lies in its incredible sense of community and the electrical energy it sends throughout the room. Representing queer people is not something we can do too much of, and to have a week celebrating queer work and artists outside of what seems like our designated pride season is a positive change and this writer hopes that we will continue to have many more queer weeks ahead of us!

© Killian Glynn

For full listings of shows that took place in Queer Week – visit the Drayton Arms website.

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Review: Out of Sorts

Theatre 503, London, until 2nd November

Out of Sorts examines what it means to grow up as a first-generation British Muslim, balancing and straddling the two worlds; of that which is at home and that of the outside world. We see the events of a weekend unravel so that Zara, our protagonist is unable to keep the two worlds apart any longer.

The writing reflects the complexities of whiteness, privilege and racism in a way I haven’t yet seen touched on in fringe theatre. Whilst some of the dialogue is flawed, the commitment in writing beyond siloes without perpetuating stereotypes results in exciting and necessary theatre.

Myrian Acharki gives a stand out performance, she brought an authenticity and truth to the character of Zara’s mother, Layla. The penultimate scene between Layla and Zara is executed skillfully and with heart as we explore what depression, though never named as such, looks like in its many manifestations. For the first time we see a rage and frustration from Layla that she is only seen and defined as an immigrant and speaks to just how limiting this lens that is put upon her, really is. A particularly memorable line that shot straight to the heart, ‘Everybody has a private thought, no matter who they are’. The affection and warmth of Layla’s unconditional love is touching and beautifully packed in to this scene.

Claudius Peters gives a memorable performance as Anthony – every line delivered with a considered and gentle truth. The second act delves further into internalised oppression, with Anthony telling Zara “You have self hatred running through you and that is the worst poison of all”- a line that really hits home thanks to Peters’ powerful delivery.

The script is careful to present the complex and differing ways in which prejudice is experienced for different people depending on skin colour, nationality and even class in a way that I have not previously experienced onstage.

Oznue Cifci gives an impressive performance as Fatima, Zara’s younger sister. The character’s poetry and music teases us throughout the play, before eventually the audience is treated to Cifci’s beautiful singing voice.

The play dances on themes of depression and eating disorders with a light touch that allows room for the exploration of identity. Improvements could perhaps be made by adding detail in design and direction, however, Out of Sorts is a beautiful portrayal of what happens when we don’t talk about the issues we face and how that manifests. It made me think, cry and I’m certainly going to be on the lookout for what Danusia does next.

© Roann McCloskey 2019

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Image © Helen Murray