Womanhood and Power: Perception Festival

Each year, multi-award-winning independent Clapham Omnibus Theatre hosts their Perception festival which celebrates and explores different topics and themes relevant to our modern-day society. Perception 2019 theme, ‘nasty woman’ explored the, ‘perceived notions of femininity and womanhood in a rich and riotous range of voices’. The line-up was a compelling collage, ‘of theatre and performance created by an all-female-identifying mix of uncompromising theatre-makers’ that all honoured the re-claiming of the term “nasty woman”. The festival consisted of six shows across October, including Futures Theatre’s ‘I’D RATHER GO BLIND’ by Somalia Seaton, a new touching piece of writing exploring what it takes to be a mother in a world that is closing in around you, inspired and informed by women who have lived through the criminal justice system.
Fireraisers introduced their touring production of FEMME FATALE by Polly Wiseman, an unconventional dark comedy based on a true story about fame, failure and feminism. ‘HAVISHAM’ by Emma White, is a delectable provocative show which tells the story of Vicky and her greatest desire which is to be the perfect hostess. The play questions whether traditional perfection can really make us happy, or if we should wave goodbye to our great expectations.

Lastly, I have to mention Phenomenal Cocoa Butter club which was also a part of the line-up. Cocoa Butter is known for showcasing fierce talent which celebrates performers of colour. The 1st POC cabaret show has become well-known for celebrating diverse talent from burlesque to spoken word, voguing, beat-boxing to live singing and more. Cocoa Butter never fails to entertain and I must say I have enjoyed myself every time! The performers of Cocoa are the embodiment of power, magic and fearlessness.

Last week, I was invited to Clapham Omnibus for the first time and saw, ‘FEMME FATALE’. The play was set in 1697, New York and centred on the life of Valerie Jean Solana’s who was an American radical feminist and author known for writing the SCUM Manifesto (society for cutting up men), which she self-published in 1967. Mostly notably, she is known for attempting to murder Andy Warhol in 1968. To be honest I wasn’t sure what I had walked into and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The play was a two woman show (one depicting Valerie and the other portrayed Andy Warhol’s muse).

I couldn’t identify with the play as it explored European history, culture and differences while addressing the rapidly changing Art world in which Andy Warhol’s work was becoming more prominent and popular. Despite this, the play touched on themes such as, ‘Homophobia’ while asking the question, ‘can lesbians be happy together? and live happily ever after?’. ‘Poverty’, ‘war’ and ‘fame’ were also reoccurring themes woven throughout the play. For me, the most important takeaway from the play despite a lack of representation was the need to amplify the voice of women in a male orientated world. Although the idea of the SCUM manifesto seems slightly eccentric (it argues men have ruined the world and only women can fix it while suggesting overthrowing society and eliminating the male sex (crazy right)); Valerie highlights, ‘Men get all the best gigs in town, it’s time for women to rise up’. The play also highlights, ‘things need to change for women’ as well as the atrocities of rape and the injustice and mistreatment of black individuals. The night allowed me to reflect on the hard-ships women have had to and still face but also the developing power and presence of women in today’s society. It also allowed me to reflect on my own achievements as not only a woman but a black woman and we have to remember to celebrate and empower ourselves as well as each other. Women have come along way and we still have many battles to fight such as acquiring equal pay and taking over CEO, executive and other ‘high up’ positions.  Although I do not believe in exterminating the male sex! it sure is our time to create, define and reclaim our voice and the words used against us while confidently showing our sass and strength proudly and loudly.

In relation to Perception Festival 2019’s theme, artistic director Marie McCarthy said;

“Nasty woman. The term once used as a sexist slur, now reshaped as a rallying cheer for unapologetic feminism, fuels our fifth annual Perception Festival. This year we bring together an explosive mix of female-identifying artists who will explore notions of womanhood through performance, song, spoken word and storytelling.”

I also had to chance to catch up with Marie McCarthy and ask her a few questions:

Why do you think it was important for you to explore the notions of womanhood as themes for the Perception Festival 2019?

When Donald Trump referred to Hilary Clinton as a ‘Nasty Woman’ during the 2016 US Presidential campaign and when he dubbed Meghan Markle as the second recipient more recently, I was interested in exploring what are the perceived notions of women’s behaviour – how should we behave. Programming work made by women that are challenging traditional roles about womanhood is extremely important because although big strides are being made, there is still a massive amount of work to be done.

How do you think young women are currently being shaped by modern day society? 

Compared to my generation, more young women are challenging gender norms and stereotypes. There is an openness that seems to exist today that didn’t when I was growing up. Hate and prejudice is still rife but it is being challenged publicly.  More platforms are available to express themselves, shape self-identity but equally there are also potential negatives with peer pressure to conform. 

And what do you think helped you become the woman you are today? 

There was a point in my life when I started not to care so much about fitting in and at that point, life just got easier. Trying to be authentic, which I don’t always manage took the pressure off. My job is really challenging but is without doubt, the best job I have ever had and has forced me to be resilient. I work with almost exclusively younger team and I am inspired by them – their courage, their sass, their confidence. They really make me laugh. 

We have got some fantastic role models. Really great women, queer women who are forging ahead, and are fantastically inspirational. Thinking back to when I came out in the 1980s and how secretive I was and frightened, that still exists today, there’s no doubt, so it’s really inspirational to see a younger generation pushing boundaries. I’m also aware that we have got a shed load of work to do.

Do you think we have the power to truly reshape and reclaim the word, ‘nasty woman’?

Yes, absolutely. It’s in evidence. The minute those words were said they were reclaimed and were reshaped by many women and men. It was kind of almost a gift Trump gave us, in some respects. It made us stronger. That is the thing about any kind of repression, it can with the right ingredients, make you find the right resources and give you resilience. 

And what creative devices did you employ to achieve this goal? 

I’ve always really wanted the themes for Perception Festival to come from our organisation and the people who work here. This year, our marketing officer Ellie Grice, came up with the title Nasty Women, which was the perfect fit, and a great opportunity to showcase the work. It felt so fitting and so right, originally a sexist slur, it’s now become a rally cry. This selection of work is about women in their skin, unapologetically doing their thing and each piece of work represents a celebration of that. 

Lastly, all three plays appear to be diverse and strive to tackle different dynamics of womanhood. And what message do you hope the audience will take away?

I hope that audiences will be inspired, to speak up, speak out or challenge perceptions. Femme Fatale, Havisham, and The Cocoa Butter Club all offer up alternatives of womanhood. Havisham explores the notion of marriage, it’s a provocative solo show that asks if traditional perfection can really make us happy. Expect a night of outrageous, interactive feminist theatre. Femme Fatale is a reimagining of two iconic women – pop culture icons – at the epicentre of 60s cool, battling for control of their own destinies. With women’s ownership of their stories and bodies still firmly on the news agenda, this play draws parallels between 1960s feminism and today. The Cocoa Butter Club are a wonderful and fierce line up celebrating feminine attitude. They’re powerful performances created to showcase and celebrate queer performers of colour.  

Check the Omnibus Theatre website for future plays:


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