Challenging Norms Through Art: How one local director harnesses art’s power to challenge social norms and practices

A report from Trinidad and Tobago’s Guardian.

Late at night, in an Eng­lish night­club, TrinDad & TooGayThough takes the stage. A neat­ly-fold­ed Trinida­di­an flag sits at the top of the per­former’s head like a crown and fa­cial hair lies flat on his face; a pro­nounced uni­brow and chin­strap. Dark strokes of hair peek out of a black vest (or what we Caribbean folks call a “wife-beat­er”). It’s tucked in­to bag­gy den­im shorts with box­ers hang­ing over the edges. Oh, and an ites-gold-and-green striped belt keeps it from falling to the floor, of course. Be­low, there are clean, new­ly-pol­ished Clarks with no socks in sight. One thing is cer­tain: The per­former’s ap­pear­ance and be­hav­iours re­flect those of a man, but there’s a woman un­der­neath it all.

Emi­ly Aboud, a Trinida­di­an-born Lon­don-based the­atre di­rec­tor, film di­rec­tor and writer, prides her­self on be­ing a drag king. Now, you’re prob­a­bly fa­mil­iar with drag queens, which re­fer to men im­per­son­at­ing women dressed in stereo­typ­i­cal fem­i­nine cloth­ing adorned with elab­o­rate make­up and wigs. Drag kings are just the op­po­site—but for some un­clear rea­son, they’re rep­re­sent­ed less than drag queens in me­dia and pop cul­ture. Nat­u­ral­ly, you might car­ry a slight sense of shock while hear­ing about it or see­ing it—and that’s ok, be­cause that’s the whole point of the art form, any­way.

Per­form­ing in drag isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly root­ed in ques­tion­ing one’s gen­der, al­though that’s what it’s com­mon­ly per­ceived to be (and of course, this ex­plo­ration is valid). Many fem­i­nist, in­ter­sec­tion­al­ists and queers per­form drag to en­ter­tain and to chal­lenge gen­der norms through lip-sync­ing, danc­ing, stand-up com­e­dy and po­et­ry. For Aboud, dress­ing like the av­er­age Caribbean man and lip-sync­ing misog­y­nist lyrics from artists like Vy­bz Kar­tel, Pop­caan and Machel Mon­tano seemed like the most ef­fect way to bat­tle sex­ism. “Satire is the most im­por­tant art form to spark change. When you want to change some­one’s mind, yuh had­da make them laugh,” she says. “When women are play­ing men, it can be so sexy, then ul­ti­mate­ly con­fus­ing be­cause the per­former is mess­ing around with your per­cep­tion of gen­der.” This is some­thing she felt in­clined to share.

Alas, there’s a new show in town: “Splin­tered: a cabaret of em­pow­er­ment”. With lead­ing acts by Cherisse Berke­ley, an­oth­er drag king, and Dene­ka Thomas whose cho­sen weapon is spo­ken word, the show held last Fri­day, at Big Black Box (33 Mur­ray Street, Wood­brook) kept every­one on the edge of their seats, doubt­ing prac­ti­cal­ly every­thing they thought they knew.

Cabaret is broad­ly de­fined as “a per­for­mance of pop­u­lar mu­sic, singing, or danc­ing, es­pe­cial­ly in a restau­rant or bar” (thank you, Cam­bridge dic­tio­nary). “Splin­tered” is a plat­form for mar­gin­al­ized voic­es and young artists who are fe­male or queer —what Aboud refers to as “splin­tered off of so­ci­ety”—to ex­press them­selves. She rent­ed the space and in­vit­ed oth­ers to ex­plore what it means to be an out­sider and to chal­lenge het­ero­nor­ma­tive and pa­tri­ar­chal con­structs. Al­though she di­rect­ed the piece as a whole and host­ed the event as MC, she says it is more about the fa­cil­i­ta­tion of young artists. This is not the space for in­di­vid­ual di­rec­tion, this is a space for ex­plo­ration and shar­ing. “I just want­ed a place for us to play,” she says. “And self­ish­ly, I want to per­form my act at home.”

At the ripe age of 10, Aboud saw Lil­liput The­atre, the is­land’s first chil­dren’s the­atre com­pa­ny, in con­cert at Queen’s Hall. Short­ly af­ter, she ea­ger­ly joined the troupe and stayed in pro­duc­tion up un­til leav­ing for uni­ver­si­ty. Earn­ing a schol­ar­ship to study sci­ences, she en­rolled at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ed­in­burgh and split her time even­ly be­tween the the­atre and lab­o­ra­to­ry. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, Aboud set out to fol­low her dreams in the world of dra­ma, mov­ing to Lon­don and com­plet­ing her mas­ters in the­atre di­rect­ing at Mountview Acad­e­my of The­atre Arts—be­ing the first Caribbean woman to do so.

You’re prob­a­bly think­ing, “How can those two co-ex­ist?” Aboud ex­plains, “I be­lieve that sci­ence and art are the same. They’re both ask­ing the same ques­tion, which is ‘Who am I?’ Art looks in and sci­ence looks out.” Her back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing plays in­to the­atre tech with move­ment, lights and sound. In 2018, Aboud di­rect­ed a show called “Fire­works” in which char­ac­ters’ faces were il­lu­mi­nat­ed by the light re­flect­ed in mir­rors strate­gi­cal­ly placed on set. The year be­fore, she di­rect­ed a 5-star sell­out run of the mu­si­cal Spring Awak­en­ing at the Ed­in­burgh Fringe Fes­ti­val in Scot­land. She cred­its her en­gi­neer­ing back­ground, which aid­ed the de­sign of the set, us­ing sim­ple wood­en chairs to be­come mul­ti­ple set pieces—a pi­ano, a sta­ble, mir­ror. “That’s just math,” says Aboud. “It’s won­der­ful and in­ter­est­ing.”

Aboud has worked with the Unit­ed King­dom’s Hamp­stead The­atre, The­atre503, The­atreN16 and the Pol­ka The­atre. Most re­cent­ly, she won a di­rect­ing schol­ar­ship at the Bush The­atre, be­com­ing an as­so­ciate artist. She will be able to pur­sue her own work while re­ceiv­ing sup­port and guid­ance from the artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Bush The­atre, Madani You­nis. In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the oth­er schol­ar­ship win­ners, a play­wright and pro­duc­er, the three will take over the the­atre in June 2019, di­rect­ing pieces and run­ning work­shops. She formed her own com­pa­ny, la­ga­hoo pro­duc­tions, to write and de­vise fem­i­nist work for Caribbean au­di­ences.

Even though a decade has passed since Aboud left Lil­liput, she cred­its her men­tors No­ble Dou­glas and Wen­dell Man­war­ren for her suc­cess. From a young age, Lil­liput en­cour­aged her to cre­ate her own pieces and use her body as a medi­um to tell sto­ries in a dif­fer­ent way. “There, we used the­atre-for-the-op­pressed tech­niques that’s miles ahead of what I did in uni­ver­si­ty,” she says, “just read­ing scripts from Shake­speare and oth­er old, white male play­wright. It’s bor­ing. It’s not rel­e­vant to me.” What she learned at home as a teen is still ap­plied to her prac­tices every day, liv­ing as a di­rec­tor in Lon­don.

Last year, Aboud dis­cov­ered drag and fell in love with its abil­i­ty to trans­form how we view and un­der­stand gen­der iden­ti­ty. Be­ing born and raised in Trinidad, Aboud loves both dance­hall and so­ca, but can’t ig­nore its sex­ist con­duct. In the cho­rus of Vy­bz Kar­tel’s All Out, he sings, “Shut up your mouth and take f*#k”. There’s hard­ly any dif­fer­ence be­tween that and Machel Mon­tano’s lip ser­vice: You got de wine/Don’t waste me time/Ah tired of de lip ser­vice. Both songs de­mand that women hush and do their “du­ty” serv­ing men sex­u­al­ly. “It’s hard to be­lieve they’re talk­ing about an­oth­er hu­man be­ing”, says Aboud. “They could lit­er­al­ly be talk­ing about blow-up dolls, which is prob­a­bly ex­act­ly what they want us to be.” And by danc­ing along in night­clubs and at fetes, we al­low our lo­cal artists to preach and praise ho­mo­pho­bic and misog­y­nis­tic prac­tices.

To com­bat that, Aboud ap­plied for a times­lot in one of Lon­don’s drag shows and be­gan dress­ing like a man to mock the “ridicu­lous” lyrics that our Caribbean artists record. She didn’t want to play vic­tim by per­form­ing “a sob­bing or nat­u­ral­ist” piece con­demn­ing it. In­stead, she chose to make peo­ple laugh in dis­com­fort. “Mak­ing the au­di­ence high­ly un­com­fort­able forces them to recog­nise the flaws in their per­ceived re­al­i­ty,” she says.

While play­ing a man, Aboud feels pow­er­ful. Her thoughts are more ag­gres­sive, her con­fi­dence is height­ened and her sex­u­al­i­ty is in­ten­si­fied and un­for­giv­ing. In her new role, she’s free to move her waist how­ev­er she wants on the dance­floor and ex­press lust in ways women are not al­lowed to with­out slut sham­ing or ridicule. “Every woman should be a drag king—or at least try it once,” she says. “It’s the most mag­i­cal thing.” •

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