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‘The Revenge of the Popinjay’ kills queer stereotypes with humour and music

By David Cutting

PuSh Festival musical turns queer comedy into a royal bloodbath.
Photo: Jordan Geiger

VANCOUVER — THE STRAIGHTS ARE IN DANGER!

For one night in January a fictitious serial killer is on the loose and only visible, physical homosexual stereotypes will save you. The Fox Cabaret is going to be turned into a safe haven for straight people. Hold hands with your bro, kiss your girlfriend, do anything you can to ensure you are visibly homosexual. For one night, heterophobia will reign supreme and the choice will be clear — appear homosexual or die.

Studio 58 graduates Anthony Johnston and Nathan Schwartz are ANIMALPARTS, a performance company based out of New York. They are bringing their show, The Revenge of the Popinjay, to Vancouver for the 2017 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Using hip-hop and rap as the musical medium, the story satirizes clichés of homophobic culture, misogyny, male dominance, and aggression.

“We use unabashed sexualized gay imagery which isn’t heard in contemporary music,” says Johnston. “We decided to tell a lot of this story through the language of hip-hop culture. We do our best to use those motifs to our advantage, trying to click into homophobic and misogynistic culture, which can be found in hip hop. This piece of theatre is exciting because it isn’t like anything else, people don’t know how to categorize it.”

The world that is created is inspired in part by the lack of queer characters of depth in pop culture and mainstream media.

Photo: Freja Mitchell

“The Popinjay is just an act of extremism fighting back against all of that stuff. I think what’s been interesting about the show is that people get really uncomfortable having a white gay man saying the things he is saying in the way that he is,” says Johnston. “The Popinjay is a piece that explores grief and loss and is the middle part of a trilogy of work that we’ve been creating for over six years. They all stem from the death of my sister. This show contains a character that is aggressive, anti straight, and a potentially violent, gay rap star. It came out of our need to try and explore the darker side of grieving and the question of what would happen if you let your grief manifest itself as an actual literal monster. What would that look like?”

Gay men are often faced with being put in minute roles as the sidekick or best friend, often reduced to the simplest humour or sassy dialogue. The idea of seeing a character or piece of art exploring the complexities of these diverse individuals and what happens when we ask questions of their experiences and emotions becomes something of a swan song.

“When we first asked the question we had no idea exploring that question is where The Popinjay was born,” Johnson says. “It comes from the need to understand personal anger and how an oppressed group (the queer community) looks if that blows up in some sort of extreme version of fighting back. The world that is created through this is interesting and engaging.”

Photo: Freja Mitchell

Without having homosexual culture overtly in the mainstream, the opportunity exists to share it authentically. The beauty of this piece of theatre is that the themes are fresh since they aren’t served to us daily. Hopefully we are secure enough to not have to fight for our place in the mainstream so that when a piece of art goes there, it can act as booster shot of tolerance for those who may be ignorant of such explicit, liberating behaviour and language that exists from being oppressed against. The Journey of coming out takes resiliency and, with it, comes a lot of liberation within each individual.

“What really excites people when they come to see the show is that the piece takes people through a lot of places on a journey, from the first moment of a white guy rapping about eating cum and getting fucked and killing straight people, seems kinda ‘haha’ funny. The idea of being heterophobic is kinda hilarious in its absurdity to us because it’s not even a thing. It’s almost like reverse racism — there is no such thing,” says Johnston.

Schwartz elaborates: “We didn’t want to make a piece of theatre that preached to the choir. We can make a statement about homophobia and misogyny to a bunch of theatre people but I feel like they share that point of view. We wanted to challenge it a little further and ask ‘can we have a gay serial killer character who is definitely a bad guy and trying to get the audience on board with mass murder as an answer to feeling oppressed?’”

Art has a way of helping bend individual worldviews on subjects and, at times, theatre aims at being created for that sole purpose. The Popinjay is a collaboration that stems from improvisations and workshops around the creators’ conversations on real life experiences in grief, homophobia, and, at times, being the minority in a situation.

Photo: Freja Mitchell

“All of this work was created through improvisation, both through text and movement. Ideas and things that maybe at first seem like a joke, we would then be like, ‘actually that thing that you said yesterday, shouldn’t that actually be in the show?’ We both agree that if it’s said, then it came from somewhere,” shares Johnston of the creative process between the ANIMALPARTS collaborators. “I think that push to keep bringing what’s authentic to the show and go to the edge with it helps us to find really exciting ideas. We have conflicting ideas at times and, at the end of the day, we end up with something a little more interesting than if we had been attempting to make something on our own.”

Promising an experience that is immediate and that gives an environment which sets the tone for the show itself, The Popinjay will get revenge and we won’t ever be the same.

“The end of the piece is kind of a political rally cult leader calling to arms the audience, asking them to join him.” Johnston queries, “Where is the line drawn between people raising the roof and this funny rapper who is being sexual and lewd, grabbing his crotch in his tighty whiteys?”

The Revenge of the Popinjay is being produced by ANIMALPARTS and ZeeZee Theatre for the 2017 PuSh Festival. Join the experience January 28 at the Fox Cabaret.

BeatRoute Magazine January 2017 B.C. print edition cover.
Photo: Jordan Geiger

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