In Jennie Livingston’s seminal drag documentary Paris is Burning, performer Venus Xtravaganza exclaims, “I would like to be a spoiled, rich white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it.” You’d be forgiven for finding the quote vapid or narcissistic, but you’d also be missing the point. For the minority communities in Livingston’s film, a mixture of African-American, Latino, gay and transgender, drag was a form of escapism from the harshness of their real lives. The idea that you could pretend to be whoever you wanted to be was essential to survival. And it’s with this understanding of queer history and personal identity that Heteroperformative is best viewed, rather than as a traditional piece of theatre.
Starring and created by Vinay Hira, the show is a mixture of performance and installation art that takes place inside a white, v-shaped set. From the constantly shifting stream of video projection to Vinay’s highly GIF-able facial reactions, the experience might best be described as a live interpretation of a Tumblr feed dedicated to high-fashion. While Vinay doesn’t display what you would call Oscar-winning acting chops, he is the glue that holds the show together. His initially unassuming and shy demeanour soon gives way to a wide array of fabulous and fierce personae, channeling Bollywood characters to rich white girls, all with impressive enthusiasm. Best is blonde-wigged Celia, a portrait of femininity at its most glamorous, showcasing a mean lip-synch and supermodel strut. These various performances, like drag, are a celebration of excess, combining parody and homage in equal measure, reinforcing the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Entertaining as these performances are, they are also, by their very nature, shallow explorations of familiar tropes. The most honest moments, then, come from Vinay returning to his “normal” self, and his asides or anecdotes to the audience. When he retrospectively tell us that faking an Indian accent makes him uncomfortable or that his mum was worried about the content of the show, there’s a vulnerability that sits wonderfully at odds with the rest of the show. But these moments are also few and far between.
Despite being an essential component to the show, Vinay never feels the need to overstate his sexual or racial identity. The fact that he is queer and of Indian descent is a given, an implicit part of the show’s makeup. This is probably best exemplified during a sequence where he stands silently as video footage of a corner shop dairy washes over his body and onto the white backdrop. Without a single word, the audience draws stereotypical connections between the performer’s body and the space he inhabits, whether we like it or not.
Credit also goes to director and co-creator Jane Yonge who manages to bring all these design and performance elements together, stitching together what might otherwise feel like a series of disjointed sketches. It’s a particular feat creating a space that a non-traditional performer can feel so comfortable in, complementing Vinay rather than trying to overshadow him.
Heteroperformative is a difficult show to evaluate, refusing to be viewed through a traditional theatrical lens. While the explorations of identity and performance aren’t especially unique, the use of the medium is refreshing and full of exciting potential. Watching it, you get the sense that you’re seeing theatremakers attempting to find new ways to make the stage their own. As it is, the show is an entertaining vehicle for its star to showcase his talents as a performer and visual artist. The next step is delving beyond the superficial and deeper into the personal, to give us a better idea of Vinay Hira the person rather than just Vinay the brand. The beauty of films like Paris is Burning or shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race is that we get a glimpse of the people beneath the masks. More than merely being shown that all the world’s a stage and that we play many parts, we want to understand what drives us to do so.
Vinay can be found at VinayHira.com
Heteroperformative is presented by Vibracorp Productions and plays at The Basement until 20 Feb. Details see The Basement.