Photo © Thomas Aurin

Photo © Thomas Aurin

Mmakgosi Kgabi is undoubtedly a generous artist. Her piece Shades of a Queen, shown as part of the Queer New York International Arts Festival, springs out of personal experience and deep struggle, and her performance is infused with a palpable sense of honesty and electric energy.

As a South African performer living in Germany, Kgabi brings an air of universality into a specific world. On stage there is a couch, an armchair, a coffee table, and a mirror. Before the lights go down and the audience settles down, the performer starts singing to herself, laying on the couch, comfortably waiting around for everyone to be ready. Then we meet the character: high-pitched, enthusiastic, British accent, almost compulsively tagging the end of each sentence with innit. She is getting herself ready to go out to the theater, a joyous place where she tells us “you find your light, you find your presence”. But something seems to be keeping her in; underneath the joy some signs of anxiety become evident. An underlying disagreement with the status quo is never acknowledged by “Her majesty the queen”, as she calls herself, but inevitably makes her giggle.

Uncomfortable laughter is not the only type of audience response; humor is a driving force throughout the piece. The many layers that underpin every moment of the play turn the viewer into an accomplice; they welcome us “into the joke”, even when it is not entirely clear what the joke is. As the performer calls her partner on the phone and asks to marry her, then uses a puppet to represent her inner fears and goes on to call various friends who are in different time zones, we are irrevocably on her side — we understand her circumstance without explanation and we want her put an end to her.  Step out that door, put your best foot forward! Indeed, one of the most resonant qualities of the evening was the audience’s felt presence; the powerful atmosphere of shared ownership.

Kgabi inhabits a very particular universe: she asks the people she talks to on the phone how to go about communicationg with a couch or an armchair, she talks in Swahili in an effort to better introduce herself to the couch, she dresses in a manner that does not allow for any recognizable setting — and yet we still get it. We invest in her and what she is going through, because feeling uncomfortable in one’s own skin happens at all geographical points, in any language, in every culture. This work speaks to a phenomenon that many people experience: the assertion of oneself as gay. Its transcultural nature reminds us that no matter how dissimilar we might seem on the surface, when it comes to the essential we share the same worries, fears, hopes, and thus connection and understanding is possible; almost inevitable.

As the conversations progress, a recurring theme emerges: Kgabi’s name. In her mother’s native tongue, her name means the mother of the chief and she wonders if she can put her conflict to rest and hold on to her name in order to affirm that she is important ­– she is, after all, a queen. Release comes with the final call (to her mother) who tells her she knows her daughter was meant for great things. She is in for a good ride, something larger, beyond her specific characteristics.

With the help of disoriented friends who take her call at three in the morning, the artist grasps an inner turmoil that we all go through from time to time: how to be ourselves and still be loved and accepted by our community. This solo performance reminds us that we are not alone.

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