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Motherland: Punching fascists in the face through the medium of drag

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Jo Tyabji's Motherland is a "visceral, full-bodied, dragged up howl of a show exploring nationalism, identity and our ability to speak out". We chatted to Jo to find out more about the show that's fighting fascism with drag.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to create and perform Motherland.

There's a long story and a longer one. I'll keep it short. I took my drag act, Borders, to Mumbai in 2017, using the excuse of visiting my family of origin and chosen family with my girlfriend to produce a cabaret show and support for queer Indian theatre artists. I'd been performing Borders in the UK since the 2016 referendum saw a sharp rise in xenophobic and racist hate crimes, and in a British willingness to let desperate people drown in the Med.

Taking it to India meant adapting it for the politics of my father's country, so I started asking friends what I should do differently. They told me it was really likely I'd piss a lot of people off. They were worried and defiant. They told me people didn't really like to talk about [Indian President] Modi in public. Which I knew. But I hadn't felt silence wrapped like a blanket around my tongue quite so strongly before.

I started doing drag because I didn't know how to speak about the tidal shift in open hatred in the UK. I needed lip sync and the tongue-lashing lyrics of M.I.A for that. The experience of performing Borders in Mumbai - it went down a storm - taught me that there was another show I needed to make, one about that silence, what was causing it and how to reply.

What makes theatre an effective medium through which to discuss complex issues like these fascism, nationalism and identity?

One of the ways the identity politics of racists work is that they make it invisible: through smooth catchphrases, reasonable sounding policy announcements and claims to "common sense". These highly reasonable phrases uttered from behind spectacles or under dishevelled blond hair have vast impacts, embodied impacts. It is ultimately always about people's lives, their actual bodies, their hearts, tender thoughts and loves.

Theatre allows us to expose that tangled web, placing cause and effect back where it belongs, with the true nature of 'social' and 'political' as facets of us, with all the emotion that entails.

On face value, drag and fascism seem like they might be unlikely bedfellows. How do people respond to your performances?

People go wild for it. Especially in club or cabaret settings. It's like a release valve on the pressures we all know are waiting for us just outside the door. But that doesn't surprise me. I actually think drag as an art form has always been a response to fascism, to the desire for a strictly ethnically restricted society, which is really only achievable through some pretty wild demands on people's gendered sexual and reproductive rights.

I'm thinking of the cabarets of the Weimar Republic, as the fascism of the last century rose, and I'm thinking of Judith Butler refusing the Berlin Pride Award in 2010 because of anti-Muslim racism and the failure of the organisers to address it. Maybe today we think [of] RuPaul when we think drag, but I also think of Madame Tabrouz, the Palestinian drag queen who hosted Haifa's answer to Eurovision in Israel this year, or even the incredibly rich politics of the Man Up drag king competition in London.

Raz Weiner, my director, is an Israeli drag artist also from Haifa. He talks about drag being a way of forcing apart the straightening devices of society, making space for heterogeneity, the place of plenty in the self. But queer culture is also co-optable. Assimilated queerness can become a mouthpiece for the powerful, as Judith Butler's refusal to be co-opted into Islamophobic narratives shows.

What do you hope people will take away from Motherland?

I hope it will kick-start some much needed self-reflection for white British people who haven't really thought about the consequences of the anti-Muslim - forget dog whistles, fog horns! - being blown by British pundits, from Katie Hopkins to the current Prime Minister.

For British Indians, I hope it will open space for dissent, defiance and ultimately hope. There is a hard conversation that must be had and the diaspora cannot shirk it.

Describe the show in three words.

Funny, unrelenting and tender.

Motherland is on at Theatre Deli on Wednesday 20 November. Tickets available here.

by Felicity Jackson (she/her)

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