Article by Laurie Mompelat
How many of us have grown up without reflections of ourselves in media and arts? Faced with the issues of cultural appropriation, lack of representation and even black-facing in London arts scene, a collective of creatives set up The Cocoa Butter Club, a monthly Cabaret night to showcase and celebrate the art of performers of colour. Two years after its creation, The Cocoa Butter Club has grown exponentially and just accessed its first England Arts Council Funding. And the fight for better representation on stage carries on.
‘We had no choice but to create, create something beautiful in response, for those who don’t want to see trivialising, appropriating or clowning of our cultures, but experiencing how fabulous our histories and cultures are, as told by us’ – The Cocoa Butter Club
The fight against racism in the UK takes many different forms, and is often carried by BME individuals tired of waiting for someone to make space for them in a society that structurally devalues their contribution. Sadie Sinner the Songbird is one of those. She founded The Cocoa Butter Club in 2016, hoping to draw attention to the diversity and quality of talents from people of colour who kept being ignored or underrepresented in mainstream institutions.
By showcasing performers of colour in regular Cabaret shows, they were hoping to hold a mirror to productions, asking if they were actually even trying to include non-white performers and the messages their art carry. When I interviewed Sadie and five other regular performers from The Cocoa Butter Club, they shared their difficulties in finding their place within the arts scene. Beyond recurrent feelings of alienation, they must also navigate the discomfort of remaining tokens and quotas used to round up often all-white line-ups, and the restrictions that come with the few roles and opportunities available to non-white performers:
‘When I come to other castings and for other jobs [than for The Cocoa Butter Club], it’s still like you have to be this type of black, or you have to be this type of mixed race or they want you to be black but with a weave and following every single european beauty standard possible…’ - Silver Tears (dance and performance artist)
‘Performers of colour are underbooked and underrepresented, but through no fault of their own; The people who write the stage and screenplays didn't grow up seeing bodies like ours in the positive or multifaceted light, so they don't write positive or multifaceted roles for us.’ - Sadie Sinner The Songbird
Another aspect of The Cocoa Butter Club’s work is its emphasis on Queer performance, that is to say art that emphasises alternative and non-conforming expressions of gender and sexuality, often by LGBT performers of colour marginalised as both ethnic and sexual minorities. The Cocoa Butter Club monthly shows have thus quickly become a safe space and a Home to many LGBT+ people and/or people of colour craving to see themselves represented on stage, in a society that often erases them.
‘I go to The Cocoa Butter Club to be cleansed, as an audience member. And it’s just a really nice place where the buzz of casual racism just isn’t there and you can just relax and truly be yourself. And from that point of view it just gives us life!’ - Zayn Phallic (Drag King)
What it offers to performers, on the other hand, is the rarity of an audience that does not other their identities. By coming together into one space and one stage, they get to finally speak and perform on their own terms and to express the diversity and complexity of their experience, beyond the custody of mainstream representations. It also allows them to make important and unapologetic statements about racism, homophobia and oppression without fearing of not being understood.
All in all, The Cocoa Butter Club emerged from a place of frustration but turned into a site of resistance. It is a creative clap back that turned on its head the toxic narrative that people of colour were simply not good enough to perform. Since their inception, they have indeed been invited to bigger shows at Roundhouse and the Arcola Theatre, and their success encouraged other people of colour to make their debuts.
‘I wouldn’t have performed if I hadn’t come across The Cocoa Butter Club. I’ve wanted to perform ever since my early teens, and only now having turned 30, has the Cocoa Butter Club given me a place to feel welcome and comfortable enough to do so. In the back of my mind, I always felt that because I was someone of colour, queer, and didn’t fit the mould of what a performer looked like, that there was no space for me. That my experience was not as valid as someone else’s, or that no one would care.’ - Rudy Jeevanjee (singer, drag artist and burlesque performer)
This week, The Cocoa Butter Club is bringing their ultimate showcase to Underbelly Festival. Featuring La Soirée hula hooper Symoné, British ballroom legend Jay Jay Revlon, politically charged drag of Lasana Shabazz and internationally respected neo-burlesque star Lilly Snatchdragon, amongst many others, this ‘One-night Extraordinaire’ will be bursting with creatives of colour, both rising and critically acclaimed. Taking place on Thursday 13th of September, it is the occasion to see what decolonising the arts scene can look like, and to celebrate a facet of British culture that has for too long been erased.
Laurie Mompelat is currently Project Assistant on Runnymede’s Common Cause Project. Co-founder of the ‘Decolonising Sexuality Festival’ , she just completed her masters at LSE in ‘Inequalities and Social Science’.