On a Balmy Thursday night, I make the long(ish) journey to Stratford East theatre, to see Yummy. Lured by the promise of babirye bukilwa’s writing, malakai sergeant’s direction and a sparse but intriguing show summary – I hurry.
The 30-minute play is a part of Stratford East’s Burn It Down series, where theatre makers respond to the critical issues of our day. Yummy centers around the horrors of fatphobia, Black body consciousness, capitalism and labour, and cultural understandings of ownership and identity. Yes, it does this and does it well, all within 30ish minutes, a testament to bukwila’s ability to write with both pace and depth.
The show opens in a Greek chorus fashion with four Black femmes reciting a chilling poem in four-part harmony about their bodies and who owns them. Each character is engaged in a weight reduction practice like purging, excessive exercising, and checking of the scales. The sonic and visually rhythmic effect of this opening scene is that it lulls the audience into a false sense of security. You are unprepared for what happens next. Yummy takes place in what some would argue is a near-dystopian world. A world that takes some of the worst things about our current society and displays them in a crude unadulterated form. In Yummy we see our cultural obsession with thinness, reality television, voyeurism and our addiction to emotional trauma-porn, game shows and money, misogynoir, fatphobia, platformed and normalised. It makes for an uncomfortable yet necessary watch.
The four femmes are nameless participants of a sick and twisted game show where players are expected to starve themselves (to death) for the chance of winning a grand prize. We are introduced to the rules of the game which include restrictions on the weight of the players, as well as the most important rule: if you start the game, you must finish it. To win the game, you must be picked by the anonymous but all-important “They.”
What then ensues is nothing short of a masterful combination of creative storytelling, compelling and emotive language, and characterisation from Bukilwa. As the main drama of the play occurs around the need for each player to confess/ retell a past trauma that has led them into this game. The setup for this feels like a parody of sorts of food addicts anonymous, or group therapy, where the goal is to unburden yourself of guilt or to find the root cause of your issue. Players D, B, A and C each recount painful childhood memories, naming them as the seed of self-neglect or self-rejection which flowers into the body dysmorphia and self-mutilation we see on stage.
Central to this play is its staging, the use of props is minimal yet effective. A table full of food (to tempt but ultimately be ignored), a small bin, a set of weights, a scale. This coupled with sergeant’s sensitive directorial approach leaves us as an audience both engaged and questioning. Bukilwa is a skilled writer, and the play is filled with meta references such as the moment when one the players declares “this is scripted ” a simultaneous nod to the in-universe gameshow producers and fate. But also, as an acknowledgment to us the theatre audience that they are on book. This instance and others let me know that bukilwa is self-assured and confident with the delicate balance between creating anticipation within their audience and critiquing their responses. Player C (Unique Spencer) often takes up the role of narrative interjector, adding insulting – yet hilarious remarks about there being poetry in the confessional speeches. This concept of poetry and performative language is echoed within the rules of the game. It is indeed scripted, contestants must end their confession with a poetic refrain pledging “this body isn’t mine,” and only then are they rewarded with water. A subtle note to the fact that Black femmes are often rewarded when they give up their claim to self-determination.
Under sergeant’s gentle direction both script and performers shine. Rose Bruford’s Omolabake Jolaso as the injured bulimic lover, a wonderful professional debut. I was impressed by her ability to project both pain and perseverance. I was delighted to see Rachel Nwokoro whose performance in Little Baby Jesus was a highlight of 2019. Here in Yummy she embodies retention itself as a self-effacing protective lover, with co-dependent and self-destructive tendencies. What to say about Shiloh Coke? Coke has such a delightful timbre quality voice. Coke’s presence cannot be denied, it offers a stoic, grounding essence juxtaposed with the cajoling energy of Unique Spencer. Spencer undoubtedly had the hardest role to play as antagoniser and instigator with a shameful secret. Incidentally, she has some of the best lines offering comedic relief with an acerbic lyrical wit. Her delivery was impeccable.
In conclusion, babirye bukilwa’s play expertly grapples with the capitalist lie of physical perfection, which often fuels issues like depression, body dysmorphia and fatphobia. Holding it under the microscopic lens of Black femininity. Presenting us with the reality that Black (queer and disabled) femmes are often the butt of society’s jokes, we are entertainment, something to be spectated. Our survival and our thriving are a luxury like winning a game show prize. Our bodies belong to everyone else but ourselves. We must fight for the right to exist. Perhaps that is the reason why the play opens and closes with Cheryl Cole’s Fight for this Love? Self-love is the most nourishing ingredient in a Black femme’s life.
Burn it Down runs until Thursday 5th May at Stratford East theatre.