Vancouver’s Winter Olympics are not all about sport. Along with the 17 days of competition, Vancouver will also host the 2010 Cultural Olympiad from January 22nd to March 21st, featuring artists from Canada and around the world in the areas of theatre, dance, music and the visual arts.
Among the almost 200 events that make up the Cultural Olympiad is BASH’d! A Gay Rap Opera. Told almost entirely through rap, spoken word and poetry, the show has been winning over audiences across North America. We caught up with co-creators of the show, Nathan Cuckow and Chris Craddock, during a break from their Canadian national tour to talk about the show.
Developed out of a gay rap performance at Edmonton’s Loud ‘n Queer Cabaret, Nathan and Chris had such a good time creating and performing a track called “Grab That Ass” that night that they knew that their two alter-egos, Feminem and T BAG, were destined for bigger things. The team immediately set out to use their two characters to narrate a full length show with BASH’d! the result.
A high energy musical told almost entirely in rhyme, Nathan and Chris describe the show as “a gay love story, part comedy, part tragedy, like Romeo & Juliet, only with two dudes and phat beats.” Always with a serious undertone, with sexual discrimination at the forefront, the duo are quick to point out that while it is definitely political it is also “playful and always entertaining”.
According to Nathan the genesis for BASH’d! was actually inspired by the Canadian equal marriage debate and was created shortly after Alberta Premier Ralph Klein threatened to invoke the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming a reality.
“Klein was using a lot of militaristic language, saying stuff like ‘we’ll use every weapon in our arsenal’ to fight this attack on the definition of marriage, whipping his conservative fan base up into a frenzy”, said Nathan. “There was a rise in hate crimes in the province. We have straight friends who were gay bashed. It didn’t matter if the people being attacked were gay or not, just as long as someone was getting beat up for being queer. We were interested in exploring this political climate, and the effects gay bashings have on the gay community, gay relationships, and gay families”.
“Also, as a performer, I really wanted to rap”, added Chris. And the irony of Hip Hop music is not lost on them either. With protests against Eminem and others for the homophobic content of their music in the 90s in the back of their minds, Chris and Nathan wanted to re-purpose what they call an “incredibly vital and energetic form of music” that is “supercharged anger poetry from the heart”.
“For our agenda, the offer of irony was too sweet to pass up. We could lampoon hyper-masculinity in both rap and gay culture simultaneously. We could turn hip hop on its head while bringing it back to its roots. It offered the piece a holism as well as a chance to try our hand at the most challenging text based live performance I knew of.”
Made possible through grants from The Canada Council for the Arts, Workshop West Theatre’s Springboards Festival, and by the management of the now defunct Roost Niteclub in Edmonton, BASH’d! first toured in 2007 and quickly won awards at both the Toronto and New York International Fringe Festivals.
The show continues to garner accolades and is now a far cry from the original production which took place upstairs of an Edmonton gay bar. And while Chris and Nathan definitely had a gay audience in mind when they wrote the show, they also recognize the educational nature of the show with certain tracks. “Straight people seeing the show often mention it as a kind of Gay 101. So we hope that all kinds of people get something out of the show,” said Chris.
Chris and Nathan claim their number one goal is to entertain but they also hope that by entertaining, their audiences will connect emotionally with the story. Of course, in the end, they know that what an audience takes away is really up to them.
“Audiences may watch the show and be connected to the theme of violence begetting violence, or they may leave inspired to be more political in the interest of human rights, or maybe they’ll just enjoy the music, the jokes, and Chris’s pink John Deere ball-cap,” explained Nathan.
“We wanted to explore the effects gay bashings have on the gay community, gay relationships, and gay families, and what happens when a political climate encourages this discrimination. BASH’d! can be seen as political theatre, a plea for equal rights, or it can just be seen as an entertaining celebration of love with a tragic twist. Our aim is for audiences to have both experiences.”
One audience that stands out for the duo was a show they performed in New York City to what they had thought was going to be a gay and lesbian group. As it turns out the students, predominantly black, were brought to the show by their teacher who thought it would be a good ‘cultural experience’.
“I don’t think they even knew what they were getting into. The students had mixed reactions: some were engaged and connected and loved the show, while others were visibly uncomfortable and shouted negative comments at certain points, while others put on their iPods and blocked the show out completely.”
Despite the mixed reactions, for Nathan at least, this was actually a thrilling and powerful experience. “We so often preach to the converted in the theatre and it was exciting to perform the show for an audience where we could truly breakdown stereotypes and challenge their preconceived notions of what gay is, of what love is, and hopefully encourage people to ask themselves why they feel the way they do towards homosexuality”.
But that isn’t to say the converted don’t need re-affirmation either. The duo recently received an email from a University of Victoria student who, after seeing their show, felt proud to be gay for the first time in his life.
“Would we like it if more conservative people with narrow-minded views towards sexuality saw our show? Yes,” said Nathan. “Would our show change them for the better? Well, again, that would be up to them.”
Ultimately the duo hopes people will feel entertained and satisfied but they do have that loftier goal in mind. “Yes, it’s fun and funny but also contains a point of view on important issues. It hits hard and fast, and is a good example of the new school of theatre: edgy one-acts, suited to modern attention spans,” says Chris.
But regardless of whether you go to be entertained or to inspired, one this is certain. BASH’d is definitely one-of-a-kind.
Bash’d! A Gay Rap Opera
The Cultch, 1895 Venables Street
16-20 February 2010
Jack and Dillon are living out their own Romeo and Romeo fairytale. But when their “happily ever after” is destroyed by a brutal gay-bashing, one of the lovers vows his revenge. Told entirely through rap, spoken word and poetry this satiric and high-energy musical will leave you wondering: what would it take to push you to the edge? Tickets are $20 – $35 available by calling The Cultch box office at 604-251-1363. Visit http://www.thecultch.com for more information.
Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad
22 January – 21 March 2010
From artistic collaborations that fuse contrasting perspectives to emerging talents re-inventing the voice of contemporary Canada, the Cultural Olympiad has something for everyone. Visit the Cultural Olympiad website for more information