Michelle Tiwo Speaks on Black Queer Visibility, Poetry & Being Non-Binary

Michelle Tiwo is a star. Their talents shine brighter than their smile and with more than a few jobs under their belt, they are currently taking centre stage at the Bush Theatre as the one of two queer black performers having joined Outbox Theatre’s And The Rest of Me Floats last month. Outside of being a poet, a broadcaster, an actor and 1/3 of SISTREN, Michelle is dedicated to being a true reflection of their community, making it a priority to be seen and heard. I spoke with Michelle just a couple of hours before they headed to the stage about black queer visibility, poetry and being non-binary.

Firstly, congratulations on the play And The Rest of Me Floats. Could you describe for me in your own words what the play is about?

And The Rest of Me Floats to me is an unapologetic celebration and examination of gender, sexuality and queerness. We explore our own journies and experiences with the audience and do it in a fashion timeline but not in chronological order. 

And The Rest of Me Floats runs until March and consists of a cast of different trans, non-binary and queer actors/performers including yourself. You are one of two black queer performers in the show that explores how you’re seen in society. Can you tell me about the message behind that?

For me, it’s an interesting one being the only black person in the cast and also being non-binary. I don’t mind being called ‘a black woman’, I’ve lived in a black woman’s body my whole life so I will never deny that and for me, it’s interesting because on some nights I only see white faces and maybe just a dot of brown and I’m just like wow, I’m really in front of these people telling them my story. I’m really taking up space here and I like it, I think that’s really what the essence of the show is, it’s us taking up space, it’s us saying we’re here, we’re queer, fuck you if you’ve got a problem with it you bought a ticket so HA!

How’s the response been to the play?

It’s been really good. At one of the shows, we had a woman come on stage at the end and she was crying like literally sobbing just saying thank you to all of us and it was touching. It’s rare to be a part of a show where the cast asks the audience questions during the play so we ask for their coming out stories. It’s weird because they actually respond and sometimes it more than just one person it’s like five people who felt comfortable enough in a safe space to share their stories with us because we’ve just shared ours with them. The exchange is really beautiful, it’s like alchemy. All the reviews have been awesome so I’m pretty happy.

Essentially, you’re playing yourself in the show where you talk about all the things that you’ve gone through in your life, how did that feel?

It feels strange sometimes cause as much as I’m okay with talking about myself and sharing my experiences and my stories, it’s still quite an intimate thing. To share it with a bunch of strangers every night sometimes in the afternoons too feels weird because it doesn’t mean that they know me, it doesn’t mean we’re friends and you think to yourself, okay maybe someone’s gonna relate to the story and that’s a nice feeling to have but also overwhelming. Sometimes, I sit back and I think I don’t know a single person in this crowd today okay…mad…cool cool cool cool, there literally all strangers to me and it makes you wanna shrink sometimes.

Let’s talk about the importance of black queer visibility in the arts. You are one-third of broadcasting trio SISTREN and the importance of being black and queer and visible in today’s world, especially in the arts is important to you. How do you feel about it?

Doing this play, I’ve been so in awe of everyone’s story that I’ve really been questioning why does this not exist in the black community. Why is there not a show where the whole cast is black and the whole cast is queer and non-binary and trans and it’s us taking up space on prestigious stages? Why has it always got to be in a community centre or in someone’s church hall? Why can’t it be in the Bush Theatre? Why can’t it be at The Young Vic or The Old Vic? Like why not? Representation is very important. There are so many barriers other than just race and sexuality because people like to separate them but you forget that there are people in the middle existing in both these worlds, where people have triple the baggage and hey guess what?…they’re called black womxn. Where are they? I wanna see more of them. More black queer visibility please!

The show brings me nothing but excitement because people come to Bush Theatre and see a whole queer cast. Hopefully…possibly one day, we’ll have a whole black queer cast on stage. Thing is in big big 2019, I don’t see it as revolutionary, it should already be happening, it should already exist. Black kids exist in this world, why can’t they see themselves on stage as well as on film? It’s as simple as that. The younger generation needs to have access and that’s why representation is so important. They need to see themselves in others. I heard the other day that Tobi Kyeremateng and a group of her theatre people are coming to watch see the show. I don’t know when she’s coming but I’m excited about it because they all get to see another queer black women exist on stage.

Were you ever comfortable or uncomfortable with the idea of sharing these intimate parts of your life on stage? 

I’ve never been uncomfortable sharing parts of my life. It’s in the line of work that I do. As a poet, an actor, a podcaster, I just chat about myself all the time. I’m just sharing all my deepest secrets with everyone on stages and it’s like that’s my career. This play is more of a challenge for me because as much as it is a performance, it’s all real so it’s like okay, I’m not using poetic form, I don’t have my books to hide behind, I can’t look down at my books, I can’t close my eyes if I want to, I have to connect and make eye contact when I tell my story to these strangers. My mindset is always ‘okay, your gonna see me today, this stranger is gonna see me today’ so it’s a challenge. A challenge for me to allow myself to be seen.

One of the lines in the play is “Do You Really See Me?”. Tell me what that line means to you as a queer black person? What do you feel when you hear it?

Good question. Obviously doing the show, you hear it so many times it runs past you but it’s a great line because do they really see me? It makes you think of not only all your friendships in the world but all the romantic situations you’ve been in like does that person or them people really see me and all the different things that I am? Do they understand my complexity? Do you see that I have no boundaries when it comes to gender? When it comes to sexuality? Like do you see that? Do you see all the things I’m not telling you? Can you see me fam?! Are we eye to eye or not? It’s about an understanding and I think that I have that amongst my friends. They see me, they get it, they know and I think it’s also about understanding the joy of what someones experienced in life. To really see them and understand that even with what you know, you’re never gonna know everything but can you still see them as a whole human being instead of separating them into all these things. Can you see them as one?

I’m a shapeshifter, I’m an alien, I’m not even really from this planet. I’m literally like mother ship where art thou?! In terms of gender and sexuality, representation is key. Audiences that normally come to the Bush Theatre don’t see someone that looks like me on stage, that identifies as genderless essentially that looks like a woman. To them, that doesn’t really make any sense and they’re just looking at me like oh your just a black woman and I’m like no there’s more to me than that. When I say “Do You Really See Me?” I’m asking do you see my community? Do you see us? Do you see the work that we create and the spaces that we create, do you see were magical?

You often run poetry workshops, so I want to ask how easy was it for you to get on stage and essentially capture the same energy from your poetry workshops on stage?

I’ve always been pretty comfortable on stage so for me it wasn’t hard to write my pieces. It wasn’t hard to find the stories to access the trauma essentially. It was more so finding the moments in each speech to remember the emotion that I felt at the time cause obviously overtime once you’ve made peace with certain things, your not angry about them anymore but there are certain parts of the play I have to find that anger again and I’m like ARGHHH! That’s exactly how it feels doing poetry sometimes. You know that as a poet, you could just change the poem and you don’t have to do that for anyone but sometimes the poem has to be read and it’s just like wow, you really want me to go there but with a play you have to go there every night so it’s different. It’s the getting used to it and finding ways to come out. I can’t just run home.

Tamir Amar Pettet in And The Rest of Me Floats © Helen Murray
Josh-Susan Enright in And The Rest of Me Floats © Helen Murray

In your poetry workshops, you to include a bit of drama in there and I saw in your performance in And The Rest of Me Floats there’s quite a bit of singing pop songs and dancing in the show. It’s very different from poetry, how was it for you?

It’s all part of it. The choreography in the show kinda resembles the structure of life in a way. The idea of this grid of people walking up and down, here and there, all around each other, it’s how we’ve all been raised to live life because of this capitalist structure. You go this way and you go that way and you don’t interact but then there’s a crossing and you catch someone’s eye and your like oh who’s that person. The singing is just an extension of the same stories. For me, 100 Ways To Be A Good Girl by Skunk Anansie was a great find. It’s all I heard in my ears growing up and I would ask myself why can’t you be like this, why can’t you do that? And my parents used to laugh at me a lot and I was like the weird kid that wanted to wear weird clothes and just like be a bit punk and they just didn’t get it.

I liked Skunk Anansie. I needed her when I was 13. So I basically get to emulate that energy on stage and for me it’s really funny because there’s a scene where I’m wearing a dress and then, later on, I talk about my parents laughing at me and asking why don’t I wear dresses. Doing that song and then doing that speech, it’s like quite jokes cause in my head I’m like little do they know their idea of what a woman should be is not who I am, I am me and I will do whatever the hell I want. I’ll wear a dress with boots and I’ll sing.

Is it difficult separating Michelle from SISTREN to Michelle onstage?

Who am I onstage and who I am in SISTREN are both the same and different. In SISTREN, I chat shit for days, I’m in and out of voices for days but when I’m on stage, this is my work. These are real parts of me but I’m also a performance artist so I’m gonna perform them for you and your gonna get to know me a little bit. It’s the same with SISTREN or me performing on stage or acting solo, it doesn’t mean you know me. You’ll get to see parts of me but if you know me off the stage off the mic, do you really know me? So I’m cool with that and I find that I’m finding the balance of that more and more and being like okay when I’m on these platforms. I’m still me. I don’t have to give away things I don’t want to. When I’m with my people, I’m relaxed and cool. I’ll even start spitting proverbs and shit.

What future projects do you have coming?

Well…the play actually ends the day after my birthday so if anyone wants to send me a box of Olu Olu’s Plantain Crisps, it would be really appreciated, slide in my DMs for the address and we can make that happen. After the show, I’m gonna go and finish the music I’ve been working on and I’ve got video ideas that I’m planning with other people like collaborate stuff. Also, in terms of SISTREN, we’re planning a premiere of ‘Talk the Ting’ so hopefully that should be happening sometime this year.

You can follow Michelle Tiwo on Twitter and Instagram. And The Rest of Me Floats is running at Bush Theatre, London until 16th March 2019. You can get your tickets HERE.

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