Nigerian performer Le Gateau Chocolat is not only an icon of the international cabaret scene, but also an in demand opera singer and actor. Here he tells Andrew Anderson how his show Black goes beyond traditional cabaret tropes and why LGBT+ voices are more important than ever in 2017
Although my background is in cabaret, I’ve never experienced problems performing in operas or traditional theatre – I’ve been fortunate to only ever be judged on the music and my performance. The commonality between classical, comedy or cabaret is that you’re mining for the truth. I approach all of the platforms with as much authenticity as possible.
In 2008 when I was rehearsing for one of my first full operas, I did encounter a bit of elitism and snobbery about my ability to sight-read music. I didn’t pick up the score as quickly as I might have – I was working on several projects at once – and the conductor kept reminding me, “You do know you’re playing at Wigmore Hall, don’t you?”
Right now I’m about to take my show Black on tour in the UK. I originally made the piece in 2013 as a commission for Homotopia festival in Liverpool, and have been performing it on and off ever since.
The feedback has been really rather interesting. When I first performed it in Liverpool it was for an audience who were familiar with my cabaret and drag work. There’s a preconception of what drag is and what drag should be, and Black really challenges that.
I vividly remember that some in the audience were unwilling to let me take them down this road. They wanted lip-syncing, Les Mis, sequins and clowning. However, Black deals with depression – it is an entirely different vehicle from a traditional drag show. I sing songs like Strange Fruit and My Man’s Gone Now from Porgy and Bess. I talk about the difficulties of growing up as a gay man in Nigeria, wanting to be a singer while my family thought I should become a lawyer.
The idea of drag dealing with these more serious topics was completely new for some people. As a result, some were disappointed because I had not met their expectations. But then there were some who had no prior expectations, and they were either pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised by the show.
I hope the work helps people with depression. One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year (MIND), and I think it is important to break down the stigma and talk about it. Added to this, mental health issues are much more common in the LGBT+ population.
I believe there is an inherent duty that comes with having this platform – if I am on stage, then I have a responsibility to talk about issues that are important to me.
I’m reminded of that accountability by my history. LGBT+ topics aren’t de rigueur in Nigeria. The simple act of embracing who you are can be a real political act in Nigeria – even something as small as painting your nails or holding your partner’s hand in public. These are freedoms that are not free in Nigeria.
In 2017, a world where Trump is the US President and Brexit is happening, where demagogues have taken centre stage, who is going to tell the next generation that it is okay to embrace who you are – that racism and homophobia are not mainstream?
By all means queer performers can entertain, cajole and encourage, but we must also reflect, show, provoke and educate. Sitting around in a state of helplessness is no good – what we have to do is get to work and remind people that we’re here.
In the last week we have heard from Chechnya that 100 gay men have been arrested and at least three killed. And then a spokesperson denied it by saying, “you cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic”. We’re not talking about medieval times, we’re talking about something that is happening right now, and we have to stand up to it.
I made Black a while ago, and since then I’ve done some more growing up. Meanwhile the world has lurched to the right, my sister has had two kids, and now I’m an uncle. So there’s already much more that I’m eager to talk about.
The way Black ends is not so much a full stop as an ellipsis. I’ve made two shows since then: Icons and Duckie. With Duckie I really hope I can take the show to Nigeria – it would be the first time I’ve performed there. Duckie is a retelling of the ugly duckling story. But the main difference is that in Duckie, it is not a case of mistaken identity – because not everyone can turn into a beautiful swan. There is an anti-bullying campaign in America called It Gets Better, and I think this is a dangerous idea because it doesn’t just get better automatically; you have to work extremely hard to overcome tribalism, racism and homophobia. These themes will continue to feature in my work because there is so much more to talk about. It is my responsibility as an artist to do this, and one that I take very seriously.