Staging Invisibility

The writer of Week Seven's Hustlers at the BT discusses the concept of the hustler and diversity in theatre.

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A black and white image of a group of four people casually sitting against a garage door
Source: Hoof and Horn Productions

What does it mean to be a hustler? The answer you get will, for the most part, depend on who you’re asking – the response, however, is generally negative. If you look it up on Urban Dictionary (reputable, I know) the answer is simply “someone who knows how to get money from others.”

Pop culture, on the other hand, offers us a treasure trove of answers. In his pièce de résistance ‘Hustlin’’, rapper Rick Ross offers us, in my humble opinion, the most comprehensive or academic introduction to the etymology and nuances of the word ‘hustler’.

Ross is not the only artist to have exploited the word for entertainment purposes, inverting and exploring a term which so often has, in the dictionary definition at least, negative connotations. One only has to recall the halcyon days of 2008 for Beyonce’s hot take on the matter in her hit ‘Diva’, where she posits that a ‘diva’ is actually a female version of a ‘hustler’ – thrilling stuff.

Even kids’ ‘TV is not devoid of the odd reference to the ‘hustler’ – looking even further back to 2004, in a now iconic episode of Drake & Josh, Drake is branded a ‘hustler’ after he takes advantage of Josh’s billiard skills and swindles people out of their money.

Despite the idea of the ‘hustler’ being so firmly ingrained in pop culture, then, there is surprisingly little about a specific type of hustler – that is, the ‘hustler prostitute’. Though perhaps this is not that surprising after all – these ‘hustlers’ were practically invisible. Their race, sexuality and disabilities, among other things, as well as their choice (or, rather, lack thereof) of profession leave them invisible to the masses. To find the ‘hustler prostitute’ culturally or historically is certainly hard work – though not quite impossible. However, to find representations of the ‘hustler prostitute’ through an intersectional lens or in a context where they are not fetishised and simultaneously degraded is impossible. (Or at least it was until I discovered FX’s Pose halfway through writing this – but, even then, that is still only one show in a great sea of media.)

My original play Hustlers constitutes my response to the lack of representation of this invisible group – a response which has been four years in the making. Inspired by Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hustlers, a photo book depicting the “hustlers” on the streets of LA, I was determined to offer an honest take on the industry and discover more about these often forgotten faces. My exploration of their lives emboldened me: I wanted these narratives (especially the LGBTQ+ and BAME narratives which are often suppressed or neglected by the media) to be acknowledged. Hustlers is based on the lives of actual survivors, and I am proud to say their voices will be heard: the play debuts at the BT Studio next week, before its run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Offering an intersectional view on sex work in the 1980s, Hustlers is set during the AIDS and drug crisis. The play focuses on the lives of four individuals, aged between sixteen and twenty-four, as their lives continuously intertwine and collide. Exploring challenging themes – from addiction to struggles with sexuality to sexual assault – each narrative offers a glimpse into another world, one not that far from our own: the streets. I wanted this play to offer an intense examination of the mental and physical consequences of sex work, the extreme pressures these individuals are put under, and the methods they adopt to gain a release from their own realities.

Writing the script and conveying its intended message to my audience was no easy task. How was I supposed to rectify almost forty years of looking the other way in a forty minute show? How could I encourage my audience to think with an awareness of intersectionality? How do I stage the invisibility these four characters felt?

Yet, when it came to this idea of ‘staging invisibility’ I realised I was asking myself the completely wrong question. Instead of focusing on the years of marginalisation, how could I celebrate diversity? How could I bring it to the very forefront of my production? How could I stage these narratives in the most visible way possible?

There have been some valiant and successful attempts to challenge the lack of diversity in the Oxford drama scene: for example, Medea at the Keble O’Reilly last Trinity, which had an all-BAME cast and crew; similarly, My Mother Runs in Zig-Zags at the North Wall earlier this term, also with an all-BAME cast. However, I still think it is currently still not diverse enough and more can be done.

But while all can safely agree that the Oxford drama scene can become more diverse, how one should go about doing so is admittedly difficult to ascertain. Nowadays merely an empty buzzword, the meaning of ‘diversity’ is so nebulous that any attempt to improve it seems like a impossible and daunting task. Diversity in terms of what? Race? Gender? Sexuality? Furthermore, how could I challenge diversity in a way that was not superficial? I ultimately decided to start small, beginning with my own cast and crew.

Indeed, in directing and acting in Hustlers, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how easy it has been to embrace diversity in the production, even if this has improved the overall issue of diversity in the Oxford drama scene only marginally.

Both the director and assistant director (Priya Radhakrishnan and myself respectively) are women of colour. We also have a very diverse cast in terms of race (over a third of our cast and crew are BAME) as well as in terms of sexuality and nationality. Yet, merely listing the various races or sexualities of the cast and crew of Hustlers is a superficial bandaid on the much deeper and darker issue of diversity in theatre – not only in Oxford, but nationally.

I believe the answer to diversity lies in our having the courage to address it – not tomorrow, not in a minute, not when it’s more convenient, but right now. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my experience, it’s that it’s possible to make room for a diverse cast and crew in your productions – no matter what the production and even when it’s easier not to.

This could mean making Lysander and Hermia a lesbian couple in your reproduction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as Brasenose did for their arts week a couple of years ago, to great effect), even if it means changing the script; this means deciding to have an all-BAME cast, even if only 1.9% of students Oxford admitted in 2017 were black.

I think this attitude is especially pertinent to new productions, which have a blank slate from which to work. I would encourage any new or aspiring writers or directors to carve out a space in their scripts for diversity – because, with enough momentum, it’s where the future of theatre is headed. Allow yourself to be inspired by the full range of talent and experience Oxford has to offer across the spectrum. As an audience member, open yourself up to new experiences and new narratives. The characters in Hustlers, characters I guarantee are so different from you, invite you to hear them, to explore their history and to delve into their complicated lives.

So come, allow them to be heard.

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