The indomitable Sadie Sinner the Songbird has been performing on the London cabaret scene ever since she hosted a jazz night at Brixton’s now-closed Electric Social club, back in December 2012. Four years on and she’s amassed an eclectic display of productions and performances in her portfolio, whether its creating shows for exclusive members’ clubs like The Hospital Club or presenting her infamous freakshow cabaret, The Royal Tease, at Camden’s ill-fated Black Cap (and later Bloc Bar). More recently she featured on the front cover of QX magazine for its Black History Month issue, becoming the first black woman to do so.
But for all the variety on display in her career, there has at least been one constant throughout.
“Performers of colour are frequently the novelty or token cast member in line ups,” explains Sadie. “This is damaging. That person of colour can’t represent every single person of colour and people aren’t going to see themselves if there is only one person of Colour in the line-up. So we’re gonna see the same homogeny that’s in burlesque essentially: these one type looks and only a few people being represented. That’s dangerous.”
As a respected cabaret producer, she is often approached by her peers to help diversify the all-white casts they’ve put together for their own shows. She’s happy to help those with the right intentions, who care about celebrating performers of colour and their art, but there are those she’s reticent about helping.
“For some I’m a bit reserved to give them names of performers because I feel like they’re just trying to tick the boxes,” says Sadie. “Too many white performers and white producers just don’t recognise our art. And that’s because art is a creation of yourself and our stories are different
It’s because of this fundamental difference that the issues Sadie describes – a lack of bookings, diversity and respect for performers of colour – are so damaging.
Despite the innate difference, it hasn’t stopped some white performers from attempting to tell the stories of people of colour. Earlier this year two burlesque performers in Germany – both white – portrayed the tale of an explorer and a savage who meet, squabble, then fall in love. One of them spent the entire performance in blackface.
After becoming aware of the show through social media, Sadie co-wrote a piece about it with Coco Deville for online publication 21st Century Burlesque. Her anger was all too familiar though and really, she felt it was time to take the conversation in another direction: if current performance spaces can’t adapt to respect and value performers of colour, then new performance spaces are needed. It was time for a “creative clapback”. Enter The Cocoa Butter Club.
“It’s so easy to fall into ‘angry black woman’ and it’s so easy to also have your argument disregarded, because everyone thinks ‘oh you’re just pulling the race card’,” says Sadie. “We didn’t want to do that. We’re so sick and tired of people downplaying performers of colour or saying our experiences aren’t valid. I’m so sick of people not booking enough performers of colour. But instead of us saying ‘you guys are awful’ we created this space where people can come and see performers of colour in an abundance.”
Taking place on the last Thursday of each month in Camden’s newest venue, Her Upstairs (situated above Bloc Bar), The Cocoa Butter Club is pitched as a night celebrating different cultures, as well as an opportunity and platform for performers of colour – no matter how experienced –to try out their art. Judging by the night’s first rendition in September, with five flawless acts performing to a venue filled to capacity, it stands to be a huge success.
Performance artist Travis Alabanza was part of The Cocoa Butter Club’s inaugural line-up, blending spoken word, poetry and pre-recorded soundscapes with messages of fetishisation and discrimination. Growing up in Bristol, they describe their path into the arts as “messy”, a combination of youth theatre groups, bedroom recording and graft. Though they were able to draw inspiration from literature – from Dean Atta to James Baldwin –Travis saw very little of themself on stage at the local theatres. Like Sadie, they knew success would mean forging their own path.
“In mainstream queer culture…performers of colour don’t have the same opportunities, so we’re working ten times harder to get even the slightest bit of exposure that white queer artists are naturally given,” says Travis. “And what happens when we do get that exposure is that it normally only happens to one of us, so that means who are we leaving behind in the queer and trans POC community? It’s emotionally draining…to consistently have to work through white bookers and face the micro aggressions that that brings.”
As well taking pleasure in performing to a diverse audience, many of who could understand the messages about discrimination and racism first hand, Travis revelled in the fact they could give a totally authentic performance without having to hide or alter any aspect of it for the predominantly white audiences they’re used to.
“I could give a different part of myself,” says Travis. “There have been times where I’ve performed to an all-white audience…and people have been dancing and screaming along to it but not really understanding it.
“So I thought the night was so beautiful, so powerful, to be in a room that was so packed and really jamming with energy and then to share a stage with artists of colour. It felt really beautiful to not be a token, to be on a line-up and not be isolated. It was even nicer just to chat about silly things in the dressing room behind the stage that you would only really chat to with other artists of colour. Even stuff about moisturising and hair care.”
Burlesque performer Lilly Snatchdragon – another of the night’s performers – set out to become an actor four years ago. Despite having trained as a world performance actor and studied the likes of Japanese Noh theatre and Chinese opera, her roles were limited by the narrow mindsets of producers – for Asian roles her accent was too arty and her boobs too big, for white roles she was simply too Asian.
“I was always the protagonist or I was the woman scorned – those were the roles I was always typecast,” says Lilly. “I wanted to do Shakespeare, but with all of the discrimination I faced with regards to stereotyping and being put into a box, I gave up after two years trying to make it up as an actor.”
After meeting Miss Cairo (who also performed at The Cocoa Butter Club) Lilly made the move into burlesque, starting out as a ‘stage kitten’ (a term used to describe assistants in the dressing rooms). Just two years later Lilly has become an established figure on the London scene, as much for her stage management as her performances.
At The Cocoa Butter Club her first act consisted of a lip-sync to Alaska Thunderfuck’s ‘Nails’ interspersed with conversations from a nail salon. It’s a typically ‘Lilly’ routine, taking ignorant Western stereotypes of Asian women and exacerbating them to an extreme. Her performances are a subversive blend of everything she’s ever been called coupled with the idea that if anyone’s going to mock her culture, it’s going to be her.
“I represent all of south east Asia because we all look the same,” she says. “All of the subject matters are things that have personally said to me or implied because I’m Asian. So of course, because I’m Asian I must do nails. People ask me if I do nails, if I eat dog, have I ever tried dog, does anyone in my family eat dog.
“I used to get comments of ‘oh my goodness you speak English so well, when did you learn English because your accent is incredible’. I’ve genuinely been asked when I came to England to find a husband or a passport. So I want people to laugh and I want people to find things funny, but I also want people to go ‘oh that’s what she’s saying’.”
Like Travis, her performance at The Cocoa Butter Club was perhaps the first time she’s felt the audience truly understood the message behind her act.
“There were people who chose to be there and they wanted to be there and it was supportive,” she says. “It did feel like one of my best ones I’ve ever done. It just felt really nice to feel so supported and to have people in the audience to go “yes I know what you’re talking about, yes I understand”. A lot of people don’t understand and it’s important that we have a platform.”
The next The Cocoa Butter Club will see Miss Cairo return to the stage, along with Coco Deville (who helped with the concept of the night), LadyFKA, Katy Jalili and Victoria Sin. Sadie Sinner will of course return as the night’s unapologetic host. And while the stage boasts a line up consisting solely of performers of colours, she’s quick to stress that the show is for everyone.
“If you want to celebrate Performers of Colour you are welcome” explains Sadie. “If you can handle for one night…that you might not see yourself on stage, that you might feel very weird when you’re watching something, that you might feel shamed if you’re watching something which is discussing the relationship between white people and people of a certain race…then yes, you’re welcome.”
“That’s how it feels to be a person of colour,” she continues. “What we’re asking white people to do is a very awkward thing. It will be awkward in the beginning because you are invited, you are welcome, but you’re a complete guest. Which means you really must remember that performers of colour need to be respected when they’re on this stage.”
After the immediate success of the first night, Sadie has already begun putting together a larger Quarterly show at The Hospital club and has even put in a call to Arts Council England, hoping to secure funding for a much larger yearly show.
“This needs to be done on a bigger scale,” says Sadie. “We need the funding it deserves, so we can pay the performers what they deserve. I want us to ultimately have a yearly show…which is maybe at somewhere like Hornsey Town Hall, because then we can have the West Indian catering, and to just to create this amazing space and to do what we did times a million.”
Photography by Biju Belinky.
The Cocoa Butter Club returns on Thursday 27 October at Her Upstairs, 18 Kentish Town, NW1 9NX. For more information visit the Facebook Event.