For clarification, when Mika is mentioned in this review, this refers to the character depicted in the dramatic text. When Johnson is mentioned, this refers to performer Mika Onyx Johnson.
This review will consider Pink Lemonade, written and performed by Mika Onyx Johnson, directed by Emily Aboud and produced by The Queer House. This performance was recently staged at the Bush Theatre.
I shall start with set design, given that this is what the audience will notice first. Seemingly plain at first, the repeated geometry of the back wall, platform and columns, smooth and repeated, symmetrical, along with the choice of fabric, allows for a sensual fluidity, a delicateness. This is pleasing and facilitative, particularly when the set pieces are caressed by Johnson, as though the undulations of another's body. However, whether this reflects the content of the dramatic text is something I find debatable. It is slightly too delicate, too smooth, and too feminine for a character who is mostly fixated upon masculine ostentation, despite the odd self-empowering "I can wear/do what I want" attitude. The shade of pink, pastel, is also understated for someone with such confidence and who describes themselves as distinct, as standing out. Furthermore, on a similar note, sensuality and sexuality have their nuances; this text leans emphatically towards the latter, and set design should do the same.
The set certainly proves itself to be very versatile, though; its functionality in combination with technical elements is sublime. The installation of the LEDs in the back wall and in the pedestal enlivens and dramatises what could otherwise be very static set pieces. The recess in the podium is very effective for concealing theatrical properties, and the set's ability to drop lemons at whim from trap-doored compartments in the fly tower is most attractive.
I should comment here on the lemons specifically, seeing as they apparently have a titular significance. They do not. The lemons are completely negligible. They seem to amount to nothing, a cheap embodiment of the punchline 'when life gives you lemons' delivered implicitly at the end of the performance. They are understated. When the first lemon falls, a clear link is made between this fruit and trauma, specifically sexual trauma, with the inclusion of dramatic music and sex noises, and then Johnson's poetry [more on this later].
So, their significance is clear from their first appearance, but they simply obscure performance style. Their sudden plummeting to the ground is absurd, melodramatic, comedic, quirky. This energy is not shared by the dramatic text. Rarely handled or referred to, abandoned and useless, the lemons are finally used by Johnson towards the middle-end of the performance in a short stylised sequence of interpretive movement. Again, completely stylistically incompatible with the dramatic text. Put simply, more lemons are needed; the stage should either be swamped with them or not touched by them at all. They are simply too comedic and bizarre to be included so nonchalantly in the text. Their significance needs to be overly explicit to deserve a place in this performance.
On to Johnson's performance. I shall start with Johnson's aforementioned poetry, whose delivery blends rap and spoken word. For the most part, these poetic segments make for clever intervals throughout the performance that help elucidate the subtext of and political messages behind the material we have seen thus far. They readjust the fictional material to speak of real matters and real issues that affect not just the character of Mika but many of us. For this reason, they are effective.
However, whilst the messages of these poetic segments are poignant and well expressed, clearcut, they are communicated fully very early on in the poems, meaning that content quickly becomes somewhat repetitive or bland. Sometimes, their content teeters too fragilely between the fictional and the real. For example, some segments are dedicated to fictional characters, like the one aimed at Simmi, meaning that the segments themselves become inherently fictionalised, part of the narrative, and this leads to a certain disparity where Johnson’s voice as Mika becomes sorely entwined with Johnson’s voice as a spoken word artist. I understand the incentive to re-present Simmi as a synecdochical reference in this poem, as a symbol of all of the likeminded people who would treat individuals like Mika this way, but the message would be clear[er] without this. These segments also have the constantly rising intonation and repetitive rhyming scheme that we see far too often with spoken word, and it is a style that renders all of these segments far too similar and hence monotonous. For example, Johnson's over-reliance upon internal rhymes – particularly, upon the repeated rhyming of suffixes. Having so many of these segments, variation is required for a diversified and hence engaging audience experience.
I shall now backtrack to the very beginning of the performance. Johnson enters, eyes the audience up cockily and then proceeds to dry hump the set, the walls, the platform, wining, slut-dropping, etc. Conceptually, this is a strong opening, allowing Johnson to hypersexualise their body before an audience who will then naturally be forced to sexually objectify it. This is effective, with the sexual objectification and fetishisation of Black and trans bodies being a principal area of focus here. However, more conviction is needed in this overture and in all other sequences like it. Johnson fails to energise their physicality with the required intensity and vigour to make this credible and commanding as opposed to awkward and half-baked. What is more, this overture is simply too long. Much like with the repetitive content of the poems, there’s a sense of “We get it already.”
A similar problem persists throughout this performance. Every time music plays, without fail, Johnson waits for the introductions of the songs to come to an end, and, for some reason, every song has a lengthy introduction, indeed. Either these need to be edited shorter, or Johnson needs to come up with something useful to do whilst these introductions play, instead of standing still, staring off into space ‘dramatically’, or sometimes expressionless, waiting for their cue.
Another note, on eye contact. Johnson confidently looks audience members in the eye, and the forced engagement that naturally results from this is certainly worthwhile in this performance, but I would just recommend offering the same amount of eye contact to the audience members beyond the first row. The interaction becomes rather exclusive quite quickly. I would recommend getting into the habit of scanning the entire audience very early on into the performance for this reason; Johnson only gradually works their way around the house, usually only directing their gaze at the members directly in front of them or in their immediate periphery. Similarly, Johnson often has their back to the audience. Depending on the type of performance, this is not necessarily an issue; for this performance, it certainly is and must be noted. There is an instance, for example, when Johnson performs to the corner of the audience Downstage Right, far from and turning their back to the audience Stage Left. And this is quite a lengthy interaction, too, a lot of time to allow other audience members to feel distanced, excluded. This needs to be examined. Personally, I would remove these more direct audience interactions completely; they add nothing but an awkward and unhelpful awareness of the self.
Johnson is, nonetheless, a highly adequate performer who certainly has stage presence. Their comedic timing and the driving force behind their physicality must be worked on, particularly in these aforementioned 'raunchier' scenes, but Johnson demonstrates great conviction and good credibility in their character portrayals. The sort of conviction Johnson demonstrates in their spoken word segments is what I would like to see throughout.
In terms of the politics of the dramatic text, there seems to be a slight disconnect from the material presented throughout – which focuses primarily on the fetishisation and abuse of trans bodies and the psychological trauma associable with a trans identity – and Johnson's concluding speech, which focuses heavily on the eroticisation and White oppression of black bodies and only slightly on trans oppression. A focus on Blackness and White perception of black people certainly features recurrently in this text but is made to feel less important in terms of where audience focus is redirected. For example, whilst Mika's race is what prompts their first hookup, it is only their trans identity that seems to enable them to maintain any kind of relationship or sexual interest from others, such as with Simmi. The latter is presented to hold a lot more weight than the former and remains the most significant factor insofar as how Mika's interactions with others are influenced, and how her physical body, identity and psychology are perceived and abused by others. Black and trans issues should not be separated so distinctly in this dramatic text.
However, I cannot say that they are always so separated. There are, indeed, moments when the two are used effectively in combination in this performance to provide an introduction into the specific oppression of Black trans people and their prejudices. For example, how Mika's black and trans identities combine together to place them in the quite unique predicament outside the pub is a most effective depiction of particularised circumstances to which only such minorities can directly relate. However, the interrelationship between these two is, for the most part, ignored in favour of descriptions of Black oppression and trans oppression being kept unique and separate. If I took out from this text all of the sections referring to Black oppression and all of those referring to trans oppression, for example, an interplay between the two would be difficult to identify, where they ought to be so well interwoven that they are inextricable from one another. This dramatic text is so poignant and important in its unique specificity, and this should not be overlooked as it is here.
Nevertheless, this text reflects clear trends in our culture to hypersexualise and fetishise black and trans identities and does so with sincerity and a poignant lived experience from Johnson. Comedy and playfulness are combined well with the serious political content to make the material presented inviting and non-confrontational where it need be. When confrontation does occur, however, it is done necessarily and productively.
This is a good, re-humanising reflection on the troubles our minorities face on a daily basis and on the complexities and specificities of the psychology of sex. Dealing with the paradoxical pursuits of trauma and the psychological consequences of what happens when this trauma is eventually discovered, and exploring the categorical eroticisation of the physical and the social body, this dramatic text certainly has a lot to offer. I am afraid, however, Johnson needs to work on exactly how their content is presented and communicated. They need to rethink how to fuse different, conflicting modes of performance (poetry, movement, realism, etc.) together, or perhaps consider when one mode should be removed in favour of another.