The lights dim and strobe while smoke billows across the floor. Bodies on the stage bounce and gyrate to pulsing beats. Above the pounding of the music, voices can be heard rapping, “All you people in the club — just grab some ass! You wanna make some prison love? Just grab some ass!”
Don’t let this description deceive you, however. What sounds like a down-and-dirty gay night on the town — accented with hip hop and ’80s music — is actually a mix of opera and activism.
It’s called Bash’d and its coming to Ottawa.
Billed as “a gay rap opera,” this Edmonton-grown, Fringe-Fest-honed musical has intrigued and titillated audiences in Canada and the United States. It garnered the 2007 Outstanding Musical Award at the New York International Fringe Festival and the 2008 GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award in the category of Off-Off-Broadway Production.
The plot follows two star-crossed lovers who fall in love and get hitched. As the name implies, one of the men is eventually gaybashed. Enraged at the brutal attack, his spouse vows revenge. That’s the opera part. The gay part, of course, is that the lovers are a couple named Jack and Dillon, who first meet in a gay bar.
The rap element is a twist that might initially perplex the average theatregoer. While there is indeed music, spoken word, and a bit of good old-fashioned poetry thrown in, this approximately hour-long production is presented and narrated almost completely through the medium of rap — by two MCs named Feminem and T-Bag.
Gay rap or hip hop, aka “homo hop,” has existed as an underground movement since the late ’90s, thanks to the influence of such pioneers as Tori Fixx and the Deep Dickollective. However, Nathan Cuckow, co-writer and co-performer of Bash’d, admits that he was unaware of the movement when he created the character of Feminem ten years ago, for Edmonton’s Loud & Queer Cabaret.
At first, Cuckow thought it would be interesting to use rap satirically to reflect queer culture, but eventually he found himself tapping into the genre in a more heartfelt way, exploring its roots as a form of social action for urban African-Americans. Rap’s ability to give a voice to those marginalized by society struck a chord with Cuckow, who saw the obvious parallels between African-American and gay culture.
In 2004, Cuckow paired up with Chris Craddock — another queer who adores the hip-hop genre — and together they performed “Grab Your Ass” at the Cabaret as Feminem and T-Bag. The following year, while same-sex marriage debates swept the nation, Craddock and Cuckow began developing a story within which they could use their hip hop personas and rap styles as a medium for a larger message. When Bill C-38 was approved by the federal government, there was an increase in hate crimes and gaybashings in Alberta. This ultimately shaped the plot of Bash’d.
The Roost, an iconic (and now-defunct) gay nightclub in Edmonton, premiered Bash’d in 2006. When Cuckow and Craddock took their gay rap opera to the New York Fringe and won for Outstanding Musical, word quickly spread about the show and the duo landed an Off-Broadway run.
Now the Bash’d boys triumphantly return from the States for a Canadian tour: they hit Toronto in October and will sweep into Ottawa in January before heading off to Vancouver in February.
You’d think that with all this action and attention Craddock and Cuckow would be concerned only about adding bling to their pink jumpsuits and white fedoras. But the pair is still true to their original vision: they want Bash’d to speak to people about love, hate and the empowerment we need as queer people.
“The most endearing thing we’ve ever experienced after the show is when we’ve been approached by [a parent] whose teenager is gay,” says Cuckow, “[and they] say they now have a different understanding of their gay son or their gay daughter.”
“[Bash’d] is both a fun parody and a call-to-arms,” says Craddock. He feels that political action is key to achieving social change, and it comes across as one of the main messages of the show.
“Now is the time in our history to be active,” he says. “[We] need more activists on human rights issues like [the ones] faced in the queer community and [the] environmental issues faced by the international community. I think the time for positive thinking is over and the time for anger is here and we need to rise up on these issues and other issues because we face powerful opposition.”
What better way to set a fire under society’s ass than a good old-fashioned revenge-filled, social-commentary-laden love story told through Canadian homo hop?
Bash’d – A Gay Rap Opera will be shown at the Great Canadian Theatre Company from January 12-31.