It's a story of (de)colonisation, told through the flow of a bear called One.
One The Bear, from sister duo Candy and Kim 'Busty Beatz' Bowers, opens in Melbourne this week.
The show is, on the face of it, the story of a young bear called One who suddenly becomes famous, but it's also a story of (de)colonisation, told through rhyme, projections and music.
Candy Bowers writes and directs the "neon-saturated hyper-fairytale", while Kim is the composer and sound designer. The pair are longtime collaborators, having worked together for more than 15 years.
Candy admits that sibling rivalry does sometimes sneak into their creative process when they're devising new work. But she is quick to boast about her talented sister.
"One The Bear is an actual musical masterpiece. It’s a masterclass in hip hop theatre which calls on a range of theatrical and sonic knowledges. Busty’s music – sound design and composition – is world class. She’s also slightly shorter than me even though she’s older which has always really annoyed her #littlesistersrock."
Starring Candy and Nancy Denis, the show takes on issues around identity, body image, celebrity, oppression and friendship.
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Candy says the show came about from running poetry and drama workshops in Campbelltown – where she grew up – at the Arts Centre. She was invited by the centre's director, Michael Dagastino, to do a residency and come up with a show for young people.
"The seed of One The Bear was born back where l grew up – the spot of my most formative teen years," says Candy. "I wanted to gift a show to the young people l worked with but also to my teenage self. I never got to see black women centrestage, let alone a work built entirely on their lives. I wanted to unpack and explore what’s it’s like living as African diaspora today and the current experience of post-colonisation colonisation, assimilation and hip hop culture in order to create conversation. One The Bear is a fairytale – cautionary in nature but it’s also a love story... but instead of one day my prince will come, it’s one day my best friend will come."
Candy was inspired to write about bears by her students in those workshops, who were really interested in sci-fi and fantasy. That set her mind to thinking about fairytales, and in particular, Goldilocks And The Three Bears.
"I started to think about fairytales and the lack of black representation in the fantasy genre (this was pre-Black Panther). I thought, 'What if Goldilocks wasn’t at the centre of the story – what if we heard from the bears?'"
She was also led to the idea by her friend Ehren Thomas, aka Bear Witness of Canadian electro band Tribe Called Red, who was touring Australia at the time. Talking with Thomas encouraged her to explore themes of colonisation.
"We were talking about his namesake and he said, 'If you want to find bears in Canada, go to the garbage tip – they eat and sleep in junk food, [and] just like the Indigenous population, they are dying of diabetes.' This conversation was hugely influential in the political and allegorical aspect of the the show – regarding colonisation.
"A bear/hunter society became a killer fit for the themes I wanted to explore. For example, when One The Bear gains fame with her music, the hunter population start wearing stick-on bear tails and some even get cosmetic surgery – her best friend says, 'So they get the tail without the oppression?' It’s one of my favourite lines in the show!"
One The Bear is not the first time Candy has written a show wholly in rhyme – she actually started to write in that way back in primary school. "In Year 8 my hip hop nativity play got picked up for the Campbelltown Mall forecourt celebration," she notes.
"Hip hop/spoken word theatre has always centred black and brown voices because there’s a deep need to shake down old rhythms and knock the blinkers off."
"Lyrical theatre has a huge herstory," Candy explains. "Harking back to African storytelling but also central to many Indigenous cultures globally – poetry and music are at the heart of communication.
"Hip hop/spoken word theatre has always centred black and brown voices because there’s a deep need to shake down old rhythms and knock the blinkers off. Poetry and allegory can be greater and more effective than anything in the natural world – poetry cracks the surface and penetrates into the subconscious eliciting greater and greater understanding. It’s also really fun and joyous."
Candy says that she too butts up against the pressures of celebrity culture – "the bullshit, the misogyny, the racism, the white fragility, the unconscious bias, the straight out blocking of me personally" – like One The Bear. The way she manages that pressure is to listen to artists like Lizzo, Kaiit and Sampa The Great, and to engage with the activist work of actor Jameela Jamil.
"I talk to my community, l talk to the young people," Candy says. "I write shows. I represent and I remain visible even when I want to shut it all down. I keep Audre Lorde's words close: 'If l didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasy for me and eaten alive.' I see a therapist, l dance, l sing karaoke. I hang out with other non-binary and queer and black and brown artists who defy all the labels. I journal. I have long convos with my best friend Di, who l’ve been having long convos with since l was 12 years old. I watch content with non-conforming thematics and actors. I watch cartoons. I recommend Zootopia!"
Tickets to One The Bear in Melbourne are available HERE.
One The Bear plays from 8 Aug at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne; and on 7 Sep at Studio, Sydney Opera House.