“Anyone who knows me, knows how close I kept my poetry to me,” Antonette Rea says, describing the scraps of paper covered in handwritten poems she carried with her for years while living and working on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“It’s got a history, my poetry. It comes from the grime that covers the concrete, the dirt between the bricks in the alleys,” she says. “I’m just trying to reflect my life in little snippets and put them together.”
The poems, which candidly chronicle Rea’s life as a sex worker, her struggles with addiction, and her journey toward understanding and embracing her gender, would eventually become her manuscript and the source material for her show Miss Understood, which is premiering at the PuSh Festival this January.
“I started writing just because I had to. The creativity was there — it wasn’t really a conscious thing,” she says. “It became a coping mechanism in a lot of ways, getting things out and thinking things through. Poetry helped fill that void that was left from sex and drugs.”
CE (Chris) Gatchalian, artistic director of Vancouver’s frank theatre, which is producing the show, was instantly taken by Rea’s work.
“What riveted me most was the ostensible disconnect between the content of her work, which is very hard hitting and in your face and disturbing and candid and bloody and all that, but the delivery always has a very marked, tongue-in-cheek, ironic quality,” he says.
After being a fan of Rea’s work for more than a decade, he approached her in 2013 to create a show with frank theatre.
“I was just fascinated by it, so impressed by the humour and the lightness she was able to squeeze out of lines that on the page would seem very morose.”
That unflinching quality of Rea’s poems is a manifestation of her real-life survival skills. In order to make it through the day, she developed a tough exterior and with that deflected derogatory comments.
On some days, survival meant having quick comebacks ready at all times, pretending to be confidant and acting as if she was having fun. On others, survival meant being ready to take a hit, or being able to remove her heels quickly enough to escape. No matter the degree of abuse, it was always a constant. She found solace in humour and being able to laugh at the situations she found herself in.
“I like to enjoy myself. If you’re going to be there, may as well make the best of it,” she says.
Despite her desire not to dwell too closely on her hardships, her banter is cut by the harsh realities of her life. She talks glibly about “not wanting to end up cut up in a shopping cart,” flashing a wry smile before solemnly adding, “that, of course, was Shelby.”
The title Miss Understood comes from Rea’s old pseudonym, her handle for nights out at clubs and bars when she wasn’t strictly working.
“Caught between the drag queens and what I did, where most people probably knew but they weren’t going to hold it against me — I got to know people in that environment, trying to fit in and be someone who was more than just a working girl, so I was Miss Understood, the street poet.”
Starlise Waschuk and Austin Eckert will join Rea on stage at the PuSh Festival; together the three of them will represent different facets of her life, the masculine through to the feminine.
“Antonette’s story is one that we don’t necessarily like to witness very often, because it is so painful. It’s uncomfortable. It basically draws up a mirror to our own, collective bigotry and a collective ignorance to the issues faced by gender-variant individuals. But that’s what art needs to do,” Gatchalian says.