Queer variety show sparks joy.
With the evolution of T:>works going beyond pure theatre alone, their line-up of programmes has similarly undergone a transformation, welcoming new mediums and productions that refuse to be constrained by genre. And after seeing everything from visual art on display to digital anecdotes from the marginalised, we’re getting yet another new venture from the company – the variety show.
Rounding off N.O.W. 2021, Cabaret Joy is exactly what it sounds like – a madcap evening of performances paying tribute to cabaret acts and entertainment, bringing together everything from live singing, to improv poetry, to lip syncs, to stand-up and even burlesque. But as one might expect from co-creators Becca D’Bus and Deonn Yang, there’s an additional element to it that makes it a little bit more special – all the performers involved are queer artists, each one popular in their own right from the club scene to social media.
Kicking off with the Charlie’s Angels theme song, one already expects an element of camp and kickass women to characterise the night, with host and resident ‘soft butch‘ Deonn Yang taking the stage. With social distancing measures in place, there are three ‘spaces’ involved in the performance – the stage in front of the audience, where performers must remain masked; the stage further away from the audience, where performers are unmasked; and finally, the audience experiencing the entire show online. While this may seem confusing, it’s remarkable how the team have managed to play with 72-13’s space and transform it into such an intimate, up-close experience, despite the pandemic’s restrictions.
Opening with a short stand-up act about dating apps and self-deprecating humour about being unable to get a date, Deonn’s opening set is an interesting throwback to N.O.W. 2019, where she was involved in Sharul Channa’s comedy workshop. Two years on, and she’s still doing comedy, charmingly awkward and endearing in her anecdotes to warm up the audience.
Perhaps what makes Cabaret Joy work is the sheer variety of performances that give audience members a good range of pacing and energy throughout the night. Deonn’s opening is followed by drag queen Dahlia Rose as she performs a lip sync to a mashup of Nicki Minaj’s Starships and Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s Rain On Me, representing modern day RuPaul’s Drag Race style of drag performances, with reveals and high energy choreography.
In contrast to this, drag performer Elnina, famous from her Boom Boom Room days, represents a more classic style of drag, emerging in an exotic gown adorned with a parrot print, a sparkling boa, long red gloves and a headdress for the heavens with countless feathers. Performing a lip sync to Patti Labelle’s cover of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Elnina brought the drama and presence to stage without a need for reveals or tricks. Both forms of drag are valid however, as we see later on with Dahlia and Elnina collaborating on a lip sync to Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, each showing off their own signature style of drag.
If we’re talking about performers that embody a song and ooze sex appeal however, then look no further than Lychee Bye. In each of her numbers, the burlesque artist isn’t afraid to show a little skin, and show off her expertise at chair acrobatics. Her song choices are wholly appropriate – L Devine’s Girls Like Sex sees her doing a striptease, feeling up her body before revealing glorious, sequinned cherry pasties on her breasts. Meanwhile, her performance to Shania Twain’s Man! I Feel Like A Woman sees her taking on a cowboy persona, turning the country song into a full-on burlesque number, clearly confident as she lands with a split, body to the floor as she rolls and spreads all over it, while donning killer stripper heels. Ending off on a reverse strip tease, Lychee imbues the song with purpose, bucking the ideas of gender and quite simply, feeling her oats in one of the most appealing numbers of the night.
Elsewhere, Cabaret Joy gives us stand-up, in the form of Quen Wong, who shares jokes about her experiences as a transwoman in Singapore, and suddenly finding that she’s an ‘aunty’ to everyone. In a similar vein, Stephanie Chan’s comedy is anecdotal, and raunchy with her observations on bisexuality; clearly she’s a little more seasoned with this, playing not only on orientation, but making little quips about being Singapore (yes, she’s ‘buy-sexual’), and isn’t afraid to address issues like cunnilingus and the pressure we put on women to perform sexually.
Perhaps the most popular act of the night however, would be lesbian singer-songwriter Jean Seizure, who performed three songs in her set – ‘Do You Wanna’, her hit song ‘Night’ (with over 2.6 million streams on Spotify); and a more obscure song that’s literally about going down on someone else. Jean’s voice, persona and casual attitude work in tandem to present a singer who you can’t help but be starstruck by and attracted to, evident from the Zoom chat’s thirsty messages and calls for encores, and she’s definitely an artist we’ll be adding to our playlists from now on.
As we moved onto the final segment of the evening, Cabaret Joy has a minor intermission that takes the form of a clipshow, introducing us to four other queer artists – drag and trans artist Brown Sugar Biscuit (Ambika Raichand) who incorporates Indian culture into her performances; poets Xuan and Kokkila Annamalai, both reciting poetry that can be found in EXHALE: An Anthology of Queer Singapore Voices; and finally, trans fashion icon and now social media chef ‘Datin’ Amy Tashiana, who shares about her experience as a trans woman in Singapore.
Cabaret Joy ends off with ‘Orifice Hour’, a decidedly kinkier, more raunchy segment of the show featuring Singapore Literature Prize-winner Marylyn Tan performing improv poetry and storywriting. Marylyn, dressed in a pleather dress and a fur coat, certainly seemed to be in charge, as she took on audience’s responses to things that turned them on, including but not limited to: ‘moist buttholes’, ‘spanking’, ‘Isabelle from Animal Crossing’ and ‘susurrations’ (which she reappropriates and insists means ‘milking’). With each story or poem, Marylyn and co-host Becca d’Bus narrow the list down to about 3 responses, and gives her a prompt, ranging from ‘erotic novel from the 70s’, to ‘Her World sex advice column’; resulting in some truly titillating and hilarious original pieces to end off the night.
Cabaret Joy never overtly pushes a ‘queer agenda’, but by virtue of its existence, there’s something altogether quite revolutionary about managing to have it staged in conservative Singapore. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of joy, not only from the quality of the acts, but simply being able to revel in this queer space (even if watching via Zoom), and being a small part of a work that represents freedom, courage, and confidence in being exactly who we want to be.
Cabaret Joy played from 29th to 31st July 2021 online. The 2021 Festival of Women, N.O.W. (not ordinary work) runs online from 13th to 31st July 2021. More information and full lineup available here
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