Nicôle Lecky’s powerful and unsettling one-woman play, Superhoe, looks at the sexualisation and fetishisation of women of colour in a social media-addicted patriarchal world.
What did I initially feel about a one woman play entitled ‘Superhoe’: trepidation – not least because I was one of the few young black women in the audience. I felt trapped between two guffawing white men in bench seats. I made myself as small as possible to avoid any kind of accidental contact. The irony was not lost on me. I felt as though I was stuck watching the play through their lens, as if this was a premise for a strange race-conscious episode of Black Mirror. During those eighty-five minutes I was hyper aware of who I was, who the other audience members were and who we were collectively watching.
Despite the surreal context outlined above, Nicôle Lecky’s Superhoe surprised me with its arch commentary on social currency in a world of likes and followers. We’re invited into an unexpected meta-fictional experience when following our protagonist, Sasha, as she bargains with her newly acquired social capital. The question Lecky presents us with is this: as a WOC, what power can be won back when you’re playing a game in an over saturated market, and one which sets you up for failure?
As a digitally savvy, twenty-four-year old East Londoner, Sasha’s Superhoe persona is a timely one. Riffing on debate about black-fishing and social media, she is a biracial yet racially ambiguous new Instagram model, trying to survive in a world that ignores yet objectifies her at any given opportunity.
Superhoe begins with Sasha entering the stage and singing into the mic. Her powerful voice fills the small darkened theatre, as if she’s performing in a Jazz bar. While your eyes wander around the dimly lit set, you contemplate the fact that Sasha is serenading us in a plush baby pink pre-pubescent girls’ bedroom with an ominous ATM lurking behind her; sponsored by ‘Insta Bank’. All that is missing is a giant neon pink ‘Exploitation’ sign flashing above. Out of nowhere, the set ends when the lights turn on and she shouts back in response to her mum calling her to join a family meeting downstairs. She puts on her juvenile pastel coloured, puffer jacket as she proceeds to turn from soulful live lounge singer, to angst ridden over-grown teenager (who is about to be kicked out and abandoned by her family).
Set in east London, where actress and playwright Nicôle Lecky is from, the entire play actually sounds like the authentic words of a Plaistow native. Despite being the only actor on stage, Lecky is effortless and fast-paced. Everything about her presence seems natural: her vernacular, her movements and, most impressively, her dark humour. We hang off each one of her un-pc words as she uses the economical set with a harried familiarity. Lecky makes light work of flipping from comedic to tragic in milliseconds within her continual streams of consciousness.
And each time the audience is engulfed in mass laughter, I can’t help but look around. There’s something a little sinister about the fact that most of the (seemingly) privileged middle class audience would probably ignore a real life incarnation of Sasha’s aimless, non-white, scared persona trawling the streets of central London in a two piece bodycon outfit and with a bubblegum pink suitcase.
Sometimes, though, at the end of an anecdotal punch line the laughter is followed by an awkward silence; these moments are where the realisation of what is being laughed at hits. Are we laughing with Sasha or at her misfortune? By the time you have a chance to decide, Sasha is on to her next tragi-comic thought, allowing little time for contemplation, as she herself is rushed from experience to experience (that is, in order: being kicked out of home to being pimped out by a man with a samurai sword, and then by a Northern Kim K and finally being flown out to Dubai to partake in demeaning sex acts with quick, ruthless succession).
The tragic trajectory of the play mirrors the realisation that Sasha’s experiences are not short-lived and unique, but harrowing, exploitative and tragically common. They’re experiences that many women identify with in an unforgiving patriarchal society. Before our eyes, we witness Sasha flirt with the idea of what choice and free will looks when subject to the white male gaze. Sasha tries to invert the power dynamic with newly acquired sexual capital, but she is a pawn in a system who mistakenly believes that she is going rogue. The exotic sexuality she sells (in London and Dubai) is symptomatic of the white patriarchy using and abusing women worldwide.
Is the overly-sexualised image WOC are portraying in social media an expression of self or merely a mould new patriarchal beauty standards have created? Even though Sasha is mixed, she is forced to play the dark, overly-sexualised, sexual deviant that is the black woman according to the white male gaze. In Sasha’s humorous portrayal of interactions with ‘clients’, Lecky presents us with the ridiculousness of pandering to that image. One especially stark example of the mirrored role of the audience, was uncomfortably witnessing the mostly older white male audience (sandwiching me) laughing hard at Sasha when she relayed how the men online asked to see her black genitalia and called her a number of degrading names, again, preceded with the word black. Pertinently, Sasha still addresses the fact that she is still a more palatable, marketable version of a black woman. That is, exotified but still light skinned enough for the target audience: white and Arab men looking fetishistically for ‘black’ women.
Sasha’s motives come in momentary glimpses, like when she is on a secret date with one of her clients or singing to an intimate audience at a seedy private party. Each of these glimmers of hope deliberately convey that Sasha is only really seen when she is being used for someone else’s own gratification. As the laughs dwindle, and Sasha’s story becomes even darker, we are left wondering with her: is this what power for intersectional, working class, wilfully forgotten identities looks like? Must their bodies be marketed and become currency for shady transactions? Use, then disuse and disposal within a haze of momentary praise?
Upon leaving the theatre and hearing snippets of first impressions (‘oh that was actually quite sad, wasn’t it, love?’) I wondered if the audience felt the same strange complicity that I did. From the outset her audience are her imaginary critics, her creepy followers all representing that same male gaze. We are the final part in the power dynamic between Sasha and the people who exploit her; exploiting her tragic situation for laughs. We are left to consider the part we play every day, under the inescapable and internalised white male gaze.
Nicôle Lecky’s Superhoe was directed by Jade Lewis and supported by a largely female production team. It was performed at the Royal Court Theatre from 31st January to February 2019. To find out more about the production, click here.