As someone who grew up practicing a performing art, going to shows is not unfamiliar to me. I have been to a fair share of events in theaters - the audience is commonly made of up wealthier, white, theater-going folk. You know the type. Uppity, elitist, and kinda stuffy.
I have never had a theater-going-experience that was created by us and for us (QTBIPOC folx). But last week, as I stood in the lobby of the Brava Theater in San Francisco waiting for the Queer Circus to begin with a drink hand, I scanned the crowd and took in all of the beauty and magic that is our QTBIPOC community. In that moment I realized this was the first time I was literally standing in the vision I have for the future. A vision of our community - a fluid, melanin-rich, queer, sparkling, glowing, creative, and thriving peoples.
So much of my radical community is built online, which is completely valid, beautiful and real. But being together in person, dressed up, celebrating, and existing for ourselves and no one else? How spectacular.
I first learned of Topsy-Turvy Queer Circus when I met their managing director and co-founder, Indi McCasey, at an Equity in Dance discussion. I was immediately intrigued. A queer circus. Like, c’mon. While I was intrigued, I had no idea what a queer circus would even look like. I had always associated circuses with the Ringling Brothers, but Topsy-Turvy is nothing like that, and I mean that in the best possible way.
They are so. much. more.
PARADISE: Belly of the Beast is the third and final part of Topsy-Turvy’s PARADISE trilogy, an Afrosurrealist circus show centering Queer and Trans POC, written and produced by Topsy-Turvy's artistic director, India Sky Davis.
PARADISE is a trilogy that has had three productions over a 3 year-span. In the first show, the Angel (played by Davis) falls to Paradise, desperately seeking her way back to the Infinite. At the end of the first show, Falling Angel finds her first home on Paradise, in the Crystal Palace where she learns she is not the only one trying to re connect to heaven.
The second show is focused on Aja (played by Saturn Rising), the Original Angel of Paradise (mother of the Falling Angel) and the struggles of the gods of Paradise - where she (Falling Angel) learns she is needed to help.
PARADISE: Belly of the Beast continues this long arching storyline with Falling Angel in search of Aja, the one who has the power to restore the pathway to Paradise. Assisting Falling Angel on her journey are Jazz, an Earthling called to Paradise for reasons later revealed, played by the hilarious and enchanting Davia Spain, and Mercury, played by the talented and charismatic Brandon Kazen-Maddox.
In the program, Davis writes, “The Falling Angel character, who winds up in a foreign place and must make sense of it, resonates with my own experience of trying to understand my relationship to the world. She grapples with belonging on a planet that is both beautiful and hostile to her. She asks questions to herself that I often ask myself. ‘If this is my home, then what do I want my home to reflect? If this is my home, what does it look like for my world to be well, and balanced and safe?’ She is an affirmation that this precious world is ours to belong in.” These poignant questions are ones that I feel many people, including myself, ask ourselves on a daily basis as we navigate the streets built by the cis-het, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy - the places the we know as home. The questions Davis asks herself illustrate the ability and imperative QTBIPOC have to imagine what our lives, our home, and our world could look like when we are safe, grounded, and in our power.
As the Falling Angel, Jazz, and Mercury journey through the cosmos, uncovering memories to lead the Falling Angel back to Aja and save Paradise, they meet the OG Angel, the Gatekeeper, the Weaver, the Sirens, the Healing Waters, the Crystal Palace Angels, and the Club Key Dancers. All of whom help uncover a memory and reveal the truth and history of Paradise and the Falling Angel.
Along their journey, we discover that Paradise is in danger. The memories reveal how The Bone Eaters exploited the gems of Paradise, from the Angels and Aja, mining so deeply and taking so much, that they uncovered the Beast, who began wreaking havoc on Paradise. Falling Angel is the only one who can stop The Beast and save Paradise.
A creative collaboration of pole, burlesque, strip tease, aerial, gymnastics, video, storytelling, music, song, and comedy was used to create PARADISE - an incredibly ambitious, but well executed feat. The story of PARADISE was especially powerful for me because it is not far from home. As intergalactic, magical, and futuristic as the circus was, the story reflects a truth that me and many of my QTBIPOC siblings experience. The story of pain being remedied by community, of a healing journey leading back to one’s voice, and how everything we are is deeply connected.
These concepts are powerful on their own but were enhanced by the blending of performance mediums, handmade costumes, and an ENTIRELY QTPOC cast. The show was a true celebration and showcase of the talent, experience, and joy that lives in our community.
This show was unlike any I’ve seen before. A truly inclusive and accessible show using No One Turned Away for Lack of Funds (NOTAFLOF) for ticket sales and including ASL interpreters as part of the cast. I have never seen a show so seamlessly include ASL and have characters (even lead characters) use ASL as part of the show.
Topsy Turvy Queer circus has gone leaps and bounds past my wildest imagination. What they’re doing is so unique and brilliant, I didn’t know what I was missing, because I didn’t know a show like this could even exist.
It was a show none of us in the audience wanted to end. Through the performance we laughed, we cried, we cheered and hollered (all of which was encouraged), for this is what it means to take the space and decolonize theater.
To me, experiences like PARADISE: Belly of the Beast are what happen when we (QTBIPOC) are in charge of the art we make. Beautiful, magical, and restorative productions. Stories relevant to our existence and our survival - making real the art and mediums deemed less than by the colonizers, the ones trying to erase us.
To learn more about Topsy-Turvy Queer Circus, it’s artists, and what’s coming next, check out their website.