Luna Merbruja and Lexi Adsit, co-hosts of the upcoming Brouhaha.
Ever been to a comedy show with a lineup of all Trans Women of Color? I’m going to answer this one for you; no, you haven’t. But this can change. As part of the 18th Annual Nation Queer Arts Festival in the San Francisco Bay Area, Brouhaha: Trans Women of Color Comedy Storytelling is the first entirely TWOC comedy show in the United States (and probably the whole world). After tireless fundraising and intensive comedy storytelling training workshops with the performers, Brouhaha will take the stage in front of 600 audience members at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center on Tuesday, June 9th at 7pm and 9pm.
I sat down with the three amazing organizers of Brouhaha. Luna Merbruja is a performance artist, poet, author of the memoir Trauma Queen (published in 2013 by Biyuti Publishing, a small independent publisher created by and for trans women of color); Lexi Adsit is a Bay Area native and community organizer; and Manish Vaidya is a snarky stand-up comic, founder and artistic director of Peacock Rebellion, a Bay Area group of queer and trans artists of color. We talked about everything from how they created the event, to difficulties with queer organizations, visibility and violence, and what to expect from this jam-packed night of stories that might break your bladder.
DEVYN MANIBO: How and when did Brouhaha first come to fruition?
MANISH VAIDYA: I had always wanted to be a stand-up comic and a lot of stand-up comedy was like 10 different types of fuckery: fatphobia, transphobia, you know just “check, check, check.” So, of course, I ran into someone I really liked—a queer woman of color and political stand-up comic at a POC meditation night at my meditation center—and it was Micia Mosely. I was like “Hey Micia, will you do this thing?” And meanwhile, my friend Jezebel Delilah X wrote this article on Black Girl Dangerous kind of like, “Hey, you know all this stand-up comedy even with queer and trans people of color is just hella fucked up.” So we tried this training program last spring. We got triple the number of applications we expected and [performed to] two really packed houses at the National Queer Arts Festival. So that was the beginner level training and we did an intermediate level training in the fall in Oakland. I think QTPOC groups don’t do a great job of actually supporting trans women of color, there’s maybe one token trans woman of color in a show.
LEXI ADSIT: Yeah, it came together really quickly. We’re collaborating with CUAV, El/La Para Trans Latinas, The Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, and we have eight amazing trans women of color performers. They’re intergenerational, multicultural, some have done sex work, some have been incarcerated, some have been involved in community organizing, some haven’t. They’re all really really amazing, brilliant, and powerful.
How did y’all come to creating an entirely TWOC lineup? How did y’all realize, “yes, this is it, this is what we need to do?” And then how did you get it going?
LUNA MERBRUJA: Lexi and I have a list of things to do to have TWOC take over the world and a performance arts show was one of the items on that list. When Manish approached us about having an all-TWOC show, it was the perfect opportunity to actualize that dream. Manish—along with all the Core Members of Peacock Rebellion, Sabaa Zareena, Q Quintero, and volunteers—have been integral to making this show happen. Along with all the donors for our crowd fundraiser!
LEXI: The stars kind of aligned and Peacock was able to give us this really great opportunity to make some magic. But it wasn’t easy, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work that was being done, especially on the curriculum, but also on the fundraising and production side. As we did more outreach about the show, we were really fortunate that the organizations and our collaborators were able to support us by sending us a couple different performers. So three of our performers are from collaborating organizations and the rest we reached out to through our personal networks. It was really a whirlwind at first and really stressful. But we had some great support and an amazing team behind it, including an accessibility coordinator, production manager, all these folks who are really committed and dedicated to making the show happen. Over 1,100 people on Facebook have responded, but even though we only have 625 seats, just that much support online is really amazing and it’s been really awesome seeing the community so excited about it.
You talked about the process not being easy. What types of difficulties have you experienced in bringing this event to life?
LEXI: It’s definitely been hard. Peacock is not a huge nonprofit organization with millions of dollars in grants to pay everyone working on this full time. It’s telling of the type of work that gets funded, the communities who get funded. With Brouhaha, we reached our goal of $3000 [through an Indiegogo campaign] yesterday and all of these pieces which have fallen into place have been really helpful. But there was still a point where we need to have a separate plan in place. What would we do if this didn’t come through? What do we do if there’s another fire we have to put out? And it’s not easy producing and putting together this really amazing work which is so needed in this moment, that historically hasn’t been there, and historically hasn’t been given space to exist.
LUNA: It was hard to find TWOC who felt confident to take to stage with comedic storytelling in the Bay Area, so recruitment was difficult. The other part was having the workshops hosted online, which meant walking many of the participants through downloading Google Hangouts and how to use it from their computers or phones. However, these hurdles of recruitment and online workshops ultimately brought together a crew of women who may not have accessed this kind of event because of lack of resources and support.
MANISH : I think one of my fears is that some people are gonna see this as “what’s sexy right now,” or like this thing around [trans] celebrities. It’s like, how do we show up for each other in the day to day? Like what Lexi said, we don’t have an office, we don’t have staff, I’m not paying myself, but we are paying a ton of people, like forty people: the artists, who are TWOC, our Spanish language interpreters are TWOC, we’re paying TWOC to be active listeners to support TWOC during the show, any TWOC who might have something come up for them during the show. So there are all these different measures we’re taking. We’re hustling. We’re doing this on top of other jobs, and our lives, and if we’re talking about actually centering the voices and experiences of trans women of color, shit’s going on. I think it’s important talking about the strategic value of having cis people shut the fuck up and listen to TWOC for a change. It’s really not about the audience, it’s about TWOC getting on stage and their voices.
LEXI: Half of our performers are new to performing in general, so it’s been stressful for them. It’s a new experience trying to figure out how to write and tell their stories—especially in a funny way. So, a part of our shift to really meet that is to say to not really worry about the audience, we’re just gonna worry about empowering these girls and this cohort and do whatever the fuck they want to do on stage, with some guidelines. We’re working with them intensely to get them prepared for that moment. This is more so about the group and giving them the space to talk about their experiences and their lives and raise up their voices in ways that haven’t happened before.
As TWOC performers and storytellers, how or how have you not experienced being overlooked or unsupported by events or organizations who claim to be for and by queer/trans folks and queer/trans folks of color? How do you or do you not push through these hurdles?
LEXI: I think this is a moment of TWOC standing up and saying “guess what, this is what centering trans women of color really looks like” and a lot of organizations and communities in the Bay use terms like “QTPOC,” there are some organizations in the city claiming to serve trans women of color and are serving these communities, and for me, being part of some of those spaces and trying to navigate those spaces as a trans woman of color, there’s been a lot of violence enacted upon my body, and other trans women of color’s bodies. We really want to make space to talk about that, and showcase what it really does mean to center trans women of color, especially in this moment because we’re seeing a lot of trans women of color experience violence that can often lead to their death. And even then, community only celebrates them after they’re dead or if they’re a celebrity. It’s hard to hold because there’s so many of us who aren’t in that [demographic], and there’s still so many of us who are still living, still struggling, and still hustling. So we really want to celebrate those of us who are surviving and resilient.
LUNA: Many QTPOC organizations don’t have TWOC in leadership positions or may have one or two as tokens. It’s an issue I used to vehemently call out on social media a few years back, specifically Bay Area QTPOC orgs that excluded trans women from their shows and leadership. Over the years, I’ve seen some orgs really take that to heart and shift their structure to support TWOC development and leaders, which is amazing and I’m grateful to see TWOC I don’t personally know in shows. But to be honest, I still ask every QTPOC event or org if a TWOC is involved, and if they aren’t, I don’t show up for their event.
LEXI: I will say, a lot of organizations who do get funding to serve the community are for extreme cases, like, if you’re living with HIV. And there’s been no other push to really get funding for the community out side of that, and I think it’s really exciting in this moment for Peacock to have committed itself to this work and helping us to make this happen because it’s really a community in the Bay that’s been needing this work for a long time, and we’re hoping it can be a healing and empowering and funny show.
Could you talk a little bit about the training process and workshops and about the connections between stand up comedy, story telling, and identity, and the ways performers use comedy to talk about difficult subjects?
LUNA: The workshops have truly felt like a healing and support group space, rather than a work zone. I prompt discussions with a few questions and these women blow me away with their honest, vulnerable responses. I definitely think having an entire space that’s exclusively TWOC-run has created this sisterhood that I have not experienced in any identity-specific organizing or working group before. It’s beautiful and I am grateful every week to share space with these amazing performers.
LEXI: So I’ve attended all of the workshops, and Luna is an amazing trainer and she does such a good job at holding people’s experiences. She’s just so brilliant. Our workshops are set up with a lot of sharing between the girls and each week we have a different subject to talk about. So one week we would talk about embarrassment, another week we would talk about sex and love, not just like intimate partner love, but love for our friends and family, pets, and then we would also write and share that. It’s really interesting because some of the girls talk about pretty intense stuff and I appreciate Luna for being able to hold that and help them be able to flesh out that writing experience. Other writings have been really light and fluffy. There’s this one about boys, all different types of boys, and it’s a really hilarious and great piece. What’s amazing about it is it starts so light and fluffy, then talks about issues with dating men, being a trans woman of color, things that this artist has gone through and has had to adapt through. It’s been an amazing experience to bear witness to all of that, there’s a lot of brilliance in that space. It would definitely be different if we weren’t all trans women of color.
LUNA: When it comes to comedic story telling, it’s really natural for the performers to share hilarious stories of heartache, dating woes, awkward gender moments, and resistance to the violences we face. I think using comedy is an exercise in critiquing or discussing violence without resorting to speech-like rhetoric that’s divorced from our experiences. Comedy gives room for more emotional, personal stories that brings to life subjects that are difficult to talk about.
Do you see Brouhaha manifesting in other sites and locations in the future? If so, how? Where? Yes, please.
LEXI: I would definitely like to see other iterations of Brouhaha happen, especially for trans women of color in different regions. That’s something I would absolutely fully support and hope for.
MANISH: Secret’s revealed; I’m always hatching something. Peacock is expanding, and eventually our plan is to at least become a US network of QTPOC. For example, Micha Cardenas has just come on to our artistic core and is going to be running Peacock Games – preparing QTPOC for the apocalypse. She’s developing online games, and in person role-playing games. So there’s the all TWOC Brouhaha, this time it was storytelling, last year was stand-up comedy, and the plan is that this in a launch pad for both an independent section of Brouhaha completely run by TWOC, and also that TWOC are moving into leadership of Peacock across the board, and Micha’s part of that process. This can’t be just the token TWOC show, it’s about shifting the whole thing. This is honoring our lineage. Mangos with Chili is shutting down over this next year, and so much of Mangos is integrated into Peacock. It’s really, what do the folks in the room want? How hard can we push? How soft can we push? How deeply can we hug?
What kinds of stories and shenanigans can folks expect at Brouhaha?
LEXI: Oh my god, everything ever. It’s an endless show so we’re just gonna be talking on the microphone for the rest of time. Just kidding. It ranges from dating, to a love letter to the community, there’s early childhood stuff talking about gender nonconformity, there’s another piece about a cheating ex, so it’s really really broad, really diverse, they’re all really great, hilarious pieces.
LUNA: People can expect lots of hilarious dating stories, some treachery, inspirational statements of solidarity, a siren luring souls, and a What The Fuck Is Going On investigation. I would suggest sitting close to the bathroom because you’ll need to pee from laughing but won’t want to miss too much of the show.
All I’m saying is go. Laugh. Lift up and support the voices of trans women of color. And if you can, take a moment to donate to Brouhaha’s crowdfunding campaign. They have reached their initial goal of $3000, but still need almost double that to make sure every performer and every person involved in making this show possible is compensated.
Devyn Manibo is Jersey City raised (and based) award-winning interdisciplinary/multigalactic artist. She can usually be found race raging, shade bending, and averting your settler colonialist gaze with a resting glare of displeasure.