‘The level of the audience’s participation in the show, whether it was screams, cheers, boos or bear growls, was something to behold’: youth critic Gully Thompson on Black Honey’s One the Bear
I love to see shows that reach beyond what are commonly considered the limitations of theatre. Theatre is an art that can either fail miserably or reign triumphant. Pushing boundaries can include adding a variety of spices and sauces to theatre’s Sunday roast – they can include meta-theatrical humour, projections, audience participation and so many more things.
The main issue with including these elements is that the show might begin to feel overcrowded or overdone. Not enough spices on your Roast Play™ might lead to a bland-tasting mush; too many could result in an overkill of messy, harsh flavour. (Much like the overkill that is this line.) However, every now and then a rare show comes along nails this balance of style and substance. Enter One the Bear.
One the Bear, written by Candy Bowers, is about two bears, Ursula (Ashleyrose Gilham) and One (Candy Bowers), who brave the city streets as they flee hunters who scheme to kill them and sell their bile and skin. While on the run, they find themselves in mischief, and dream of a safe home in the wild with fresh water, fish and honey. One writes hip hop, which the two bears perform for fun.
They make their music just for themselves, until, unbeknownst to her, One is recorded performing a track by a human, who puts her music on radio. One shoots to stardom, and is caught up in the world of glamour and fame, abandoning her beliefs and leaving the world of bear culture behind.
The show works through several political metaphors, and each one is exceptionally executed in the show. The story explores fame, sexism, colonialism and police brutality. The lives of the bears are filled with the effects of hate and injustice against their culture, and the reflection of our world in theirs is extremely powerful.
The production is just astounding, and one of my favourite things about this show. The set design shows the unruly grittiness of the city, and the terrible conditions the bears must face. It’s a landscape made out of garbage bins, hard rubbish and litter that somehow manages to be both horrifying and beautiful.
Kim Busty Beatz Bowers’ music is written to perfection, ranging from punchy hip hop to delicate solo vocals, and is performed to an equal level of mastery. The projections and videos have fantastic visual style and effects, and are used as tools to show the parallel between our two worlds. A good example of this is when the bears recite a list of slurs used against the bears such as “teddy” or “furry” and the screen displays the racial slurs they represent, showing the impact of hateful language.
Bowers and Gilham as the bears are fantastic. The list of their talents is immeasurable. Not only do they act: they have incredible speaking power, perform slam poetry, dance, rap and sing. Most of all, they have a great dynamic with each other that empowers their performances.
The only flaw I can find in this show is the plot, which for me fell a bit flat. The story is mildly generic, mostly following the three-act narrative structure in a pretty strict manner. This doesn’t have a huge impact on the play, but I found the ending anti-climactic, kind of unresolved. It finishes with a message about planting a seed to begin a new life, but it doesn’t have as much resolution as I had hoped. However, this is minor compared to the stunning visual and musical style, and its politics.
Probably the strongest element of this show is the bears’ pride in their culture: how they stand against prejudice and for their freedom. This pride is received amazingly well by the audience. The level of the audience’s participation in the show, whether it was screams, cheers, boos or bear growls, was something to behold. The target audience for the show is set to be teenagers, and it is obvious that they have not only hit the bullseye, they have shot the entire target out of the arena.
One the Bear is packed with layers of meaning, design, culture and music. It is the kind of show that masters including many intricate elements without feeling overcrowded. Its small weaknesses are masked by its strengths. This isn’t a show that is solely driven by plot and narrative – power, politics and pride that brings it together. One the Bear is a show that proves none of this is too much to bear.
One the Bear, written and conceived by Candy Bowers. Composition and sound design by Kim Busty Beatz Bowers, set design by Jason Wing, costume design by Sarah Seahorse, lighting design by Verity Hampson, video design by Optikal Bloc, directorial eye.dramaturgy by Clare Christian, dramatrugy by Sister Zai Zanda, directorial eye Susie Dee. Performed by Candy Bowers and Ashleyrose Gilham. Black Honey Company at Arts Centre Melbourne. Closed.