Capturing Queer Geographies in Performance

Exploring Frutas Afrodisíacas by Simon(e) J. Paetau, Jair Luna, Iury Trojaborg, Michaela Muchina and Laura Paetau at Ballhaus Naunynstraße (18-20.10.2017)

One of the reasons I loved Frutas Afrodisíacas is because I am fascinated in the area of theatre geography. This summer I read for the first time Alan Reed’s Theatre and Everyday Life (1993), and was struck by his notion (in the chapter ‘Orientation’) that we need to develop a geography of theatre as a counterpart to the already well-established study of theatre history.

This idea really excites me. How do we trace the influences of geographical pathways, trade and movements – not to mention urban and natural environments – to develop an ecological picture of performance? How do spaces, and what happens within them, produce the places we find ourselves transported to when we visit the theatre? Such questions reveal how a piece of performance is just a single pinpoint in an enormous map of global-local interrelations. They are also the questions which underpinned Frutas Afrodisíacas, a piece of theatre that drew the audience into an intimate, multi-media collage of queer geography, locating the performance within the wider contexts of personal, local and international narratives.

On arriving at Ballhaus Naunynstraße on Wednesday evening, a member of staff greeted me and informed me that we would not be taking the usual route of going up into one of the theatre spaces that evening, but instead would be heading down into the basement theatre bar. At 8 o’clock we descended the steps. As the audience shuffled in and bunched together on the benches around the edge of the room, the performers – Simon(e) J. Paetau, Jair Luna and Iury Trojaborg – were smiling at us as we arrived. Everything already felt more intimate than your usual trip to the theatre; under the honey-coloured light of the bar, we could see the performers as clearly as they could see us. This starting-point of intimacy became the lens through which we caught glimpses of Geschichte (stories/histories) that drew pictures and pathways across both the city we were in and across the Atlantic to South America – the continent where the three performers were raised and lived before they came to Germany. Across the following hour we watched as through storytelling, singing, dancing and film, Frutas Afrodisíacas created a collage, interconnecting different journeys, spaces and places. The piece wove together personal narratives, the history of colonialism, the AIDs crisis, and the landscape of the Berlin queer scene – paying particular homage to the Tunten movement of the 1970s and 80s and a Tunten-ensemble called Ladies Neid*.

By showing footage of interviews the Frutas Afrodisíacas performers had conducted with members of Ladies Neid (now mostly in their 60s) alongside footage of their performances, Frutas Afrodisíacas paid deep respect to the historical and geographical context of Tunten culture in Berlin. At the same time, they engaged with colonialism and parodied the European exoticisation of South American people and culture. The performance was funny, political and at times raw. For instance, when the performers began to unveil some of the individual struggles they had faced in their own lives, within their families, homes, towns and cultures.

In linking all of these pathways and contexts, Frutas Afrodisíacas created a queer geographical collage. Although this may seem complex, there was a simple grace to the piece. The performance gently and ephemerally tied-together multiple narratives of alienation and oppression into an intimate web. At the end, one of the performers began singing Caetano Veloso’s ‘You Don’t Know Me’. Slowly the other performers joined in. Then, when the music kicked-in, members of the audience also began to sing along:

You don’t know me. Bet you’ll never get to know me. You don’t know me at all. Feels so lonely. The world is spinning round slowly…

This moment – with Veloso’s flowing English and Portuguese lyrics, which he wrote in exile in London in the 1970s – seemed to perfectly capture the moment of warm connection in a map of multiple, intersecting, glocal struggles. A lonely voice became an impromptu choir. It was just beautiful.

 

* In West Berlin in the 1970s Tunten emerged as a distinct, self-organised and highly politicised queer, cultural movement, distancing itself from more mainstream Drag Queen culture. As Lisa Underwood unpacks in The Drag Queen Anthology (2013), “The Berlin Tunten may be compared best with the New York – East Village drag queens of the 1980s, where Drag was described as a fierce and wild thing” (p. 61). Tunten came out of the West Berlin SchwuZ: Schwulen-Zentrum (Centre for Gay People), and grew into a strong presence within the organisation itself. In the 80s, the SchwuZ-Tunten organised themselves into loose political collectives and artistic groups. They saw their community as family and organised AIDS benefits, the first mobile AIDS-homecare service, and the premiere Gay and Lesbian artists’ agency. The heyday of Tunten-culture was arguably when the ensemble, Ladies Neid, performed with 30 Tunten onstage.

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