A predatory male gaze pervades every corner of the stage in Expensive Shit. It lurks behind the doors through which women go back to dance, opening their legs for the eyes of their male audience. It hides behind the two-way mirrors of the bathroom where the action of the play is set, affording male patrons an open view into the women’s intimacy. If this sounds like something you’ve heard before, it’s because it is. You may remember when the Glasgow’s Shimmy Club had furnished the women’s bathroom with spy mirrors… Expensive Shit stages the scandal in this vivid production.
Adura Onashile’s play Expensive Shit was presented for the first time at the Traverse during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2016. It comes back to the stage with a brand new cast – with the exception of Jamie Marie Leary, who remains as ‘Lady 2’. She and her new acting partners – Kiza Deen, Veronica Lewis and Maria Yarjah – play two groups of women, both seen through the eyes of Tolu (Kiza Deen).
In 1994, four young women dream of emancipation through dance in The Shrine, a commune and nightclub created in Lagos by Nigerian activist and musician Fela Kuti. Their ambitions are thwarted by a society that reiterates the same sexist oppression in the guise of a utopia.
In present day Scotland, disillusioned Tolu works as a ‘night woman’ in the toilet of a nightclub. She accepts extra money from her employers to bring the women customers in front of the mirrors, and entice them to ‘doll themselves up’ under the eyes of spying men – and theatregoers. The set places the mirrors on the edge of the stage, making the voyeurs’ and the audience’s gaze coincide. ‘You wait and you watch’, Tolu accuses them/us. We move back and forth between two eras and countries, but the game of gazes and mirrors remains the same, and dominance always lies with those who are on the right side of both. Watching the play, I am reminded of a sign carried during the Women’s March: ‘Same Shit, Different Country.’ Expensive Shit embraces this parallel with fluidity and energy.
Tolu, ‘Queen of the toilet’, is a fascinatingly ambivalent character: all too aware of the sexualisation and subjection of women’s bodies, she still grooms them for her employers’ pleasure, offering make-up to keep them in the bathroom longer, or suggesting that they open the door of the toilet cubicle. Kiza Deen’s performance strikes the right chord between irony and resignation, capturing the character’s disillusionment with The Shrine and its promise of political emancipation, and her subsequent frustration and cynicism. What Tolu wants, above all, is power. Only eventually, as she discovers that she is still being played, does she turn into a truly tragic character, alone, and ignored by other women.