As the audience shuffles into the theatre for the opening night of ‘One the Bear’, a co-creation of sisters Candy Bowers and Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers of Black Honey Company, the anticipation is palpable – and for good reason. ‘One the Bear’ proves to be a brain-worm that disrupts and challenges the modern-day colonialism we see both on and off the stage.
For a production with a cast of only two, Candy Bowers and Nancy Denis do a remarkable job of constantly occupying the stage with presence, infectious energy and a confidence in the message of their story. One (Bowers) is a bear living in a neon-dystopic world of hunters and dreams with her best friend, Ursula (Denis). Their habitats are demolished and their bodies exploited for bear bile: a hot product amongst the humans. One is seduced into a world of fame by the humans who appropriate her bear ears and strip her of her true bear-identity.
One the Bear tackles a raft of political ideas and assumptions: traditional and modern-day colonialism, cultural appropriation and commodification, cultural tokenism, media and celebrity, and losing one’s roots in the face of racial erasure. The production strongly borrows from the conventions of political theatre and does not shy from making their position clear. One and Ursula munch on Captain Cookies, handed to them by the human outsider that sees them as more a spectacle than whole beings.
The story is told entirely in verse, which is rhythmically spot on and gives the production great pace. The combination of sharp, pulsing dialogue, fast rap and singing to the sound design by Busty Beatz is powerful, though at times falters due to timing issues.
The humour completely elevates the production with plenty of sarcasm and witty retorts, and the chemistry between Bowers and Denis enhances the show two-fold. However, once you get past the joke, you’re left with a dark feeling that is difficult to reconcile with the laughter.
Notable moments include One’s desperate and heartbreaking reflection on her mother’s death, and the harrowing moment after One is shot for refusing to continue conforming with the demands and expectations of the humans. This is followed by a rare quiet moment, with a haunting soundscape and projections of skeletons rising to the ceiling.
Bowers and Denis have undeniable talent that resonates strongly throughout the entire production: they’re singers, dancers, rappers, actors, poets, artists, and so much more. They are the women breaking every norm of theatre, pushing the boundaries and compelling audiences to question their assumptions.
The ending is perhaps slightly anti-climactic, as the cast break the fourth wall and reveal their self-awareness as performers in a production designed to influence and affect the next generation. While this is a common convention of political theatre and works with the teenage audience in mind, it has the effect of releasing some of the tension and undoes some of the hard work of the first half.
The set design by Jason Wing is perfectly balanced and psychedelic, with bare tree-branches curling towards the stage above a dumpster and throne made from the bones of One’s mother. The lighting design by Verity Hampson is complementary and makes effective use of the black-light to enhance the neon costuming. The sound design by Busty Beatz is impossibly good, with a diverse combination of styles fusing into contemporary composition that makes the production what it is. The video design by Optikal Bloc is a visual triumph that significantly elevates the production and really rounds out the experience.
One the Bear is a timely reminder that, despite our progress, the world still harbours deep social and cultural issues of appropriation and erasure, both racial and historical. It is a daring, confronting allegory that pushes the audience to question what they know, and to learn what they do not.
The season of One the Bear runs until 21 October at La Boite Theatre Company. Get your tickets here.