Gross Indecency will make you laugh till you weep

Rita Haywire (Robert Colman) and Lana Turna-me-over (Robert Whitehead) giving it stick in their spoofed up radio-drama, Gross Indecency. Photograph courtesy POP Arts.
Rita Haywire (Robert Colman) and Lana Turna-me-over (Robert Whitehead) giving it stick in their spoofed up radio-drama, Gross Indecency. Photograph courtesy POP Arts.

If you need a bit of a tonic to set you on your feet again, Gross Indecency might be just the thing. It’s loud, it’s crude and it wields a strong and hilarious attack on the stupidity of homophobic bigots.

Featuring Robert Whitehead – aka Barker Haines in Isidingo – opposite Robert Colman, as Lana Turna-me-over and Rita Haywire, respectively, it’s billed as the true story of a big party in Forest Town, a larny suburb of Johannesburg, in 1966.

Gross Indecency is not your typical drag act, though it’s littered with words and phrases in queer slang or Gayle – described by Ken Cage as the language of Kinks and Queens – as well as all kinds of complicated and delicious references to gay stereotypes and metaphors.

A gloriously complicated story of discrimination and lasciviousness, where the characters change roles as they change sunglasses, it’s spoofed on radio theatre, decorated with several glorious dollops of nostalgia and brought to pants-wettingly funny incongruities, which don’t stop throughout its just over an hour’s duration. Featuring characters as hateful and fantastic as legal counsel Morris Finger opposite psychiatrist Shirley Cochran, Balthazar John Vorster, one of South Africa’s former State Presidents, and some cops with shady Bloemfontein-based histories, it’s doesn’t stop for an instant in its unravelling of a rich and brocaded reflection of ageing South African gay identity, complete with metaphorical feathery boas and glittery stuff.

Armed with a puce wig, Whitehead in many respects steals the show. His beautiful face stretches and contorts into the most inglorious of expressions and he carries his effervescently over-the-top character with grotesque charm that makes you strain to take your eyes from him. Lana’s sidekick Rita (Colman), replete with his endearing gap between his two front teeth is no less fabulous and lewd, but is the lesser character in the whole ramshackle tale, which involves gross indecency in a whole range of permutations.

The text is really hilarious, particularly when it forays in the thorny area between English and Afrikaans, highlighting and savouring the extremely rude nuances, as it creates glissandos of queer sub-text that will make your head spin. But it also makes your heart roar: underneath all the outrageously funny stuff, which is brought to an astonishing sense of polish with Tony Bentel on keyboard, the work is a raw essay on the reality of homosexual discrimination under apartheid.

While the piece is maybe five or ten minutes too long, and gets a little lost in its own flash backs and repeated moments, it’s something that you leave from with a huge smile on your face, but a depth of focus in your heart around the desperate horror of being different in a militaristic society.

Gross Indecency is written, directed and performed by Robert Colman, Toni Morkel, and Robert Whitehead with Tony Bentel as the orchestra. It performs at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg until August 17.

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Robyn Sassen

A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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