When a sustained moment of silence takes your breath away in a comedy show you know you’re not seeing typical stand-up. Comedian Hannah Gadsby has built a strategic and agonizing moment of stillness into her show, Nanette now playing at Soho Playhouse.
She says her job as a comedian is to build tension and then puncture it. So when she doesn’t follow her own rules and the tension lingers to the point of maximum discomfort, the audience must bear it. This won’t be the first time the audience has to cope with it. In fact, the tension will rise in an attempt to make the audience feel something they may never have felt before. It’s not necessarily a path an audience would take willingly so Gadsby finds a cunning way to spring it upon us. By the end of the show, I wanted to cry, scream, cheer, clap, howl, and vomit all at the same time. The tsunami of emotions that the show provoked were spilling out from me for days after.
Gadsby is a “masculine of center” lesbian from Tasmania where homosexuality was illegal until 1997 and once she realized she was “a little bit lesbian” she knew she needed to leave. She makes jokes about her coming out, her complaints with the rainbow flag (“a bit busy”) and her trouble with the Sydney Mardi Gras parade (“where do the quiet gays go”).
But she jokes about another side of her life experience. Walking into spaces, she often creates tension just by being herself. She receives confused looks when someone assumes she’s a man and then they have to “readjust” when they realize she’s a woman. She has also faced outright contempt at being a “non-conforming” presence in other people’s midst (including the hostile barista of the title, Nanette, who Gadsby describes as “a furious thumb in an apron”). In the face of these kinds of incidents, she turned to self-deprecation in life and in comedy. Tension-defuser, day or night.
As she shows us in the first half of the show, she’s very good at bringing those anxiety-relieving laughs but that plays in contrast to the harder road Gadsby chooses to take with this show. This show is meant to be her swansong. Gadsby says she is quitting comedy and must do so because she’s spent years using comedy as a way to hurt herself. That’s how comedy works, she says, marginalized people often bear the brunt of comedy’s jokes. Gadsby’s coping mechanism has been to make herself the butt of her own.
But she argues this is not just a comedy problem. Or a Gadsby problem. Marginalization is an overarching culture problem. And it’s been going on for centuries. Without meaning to invoke the juggernaut Broadway musical of a certain Treasury Secretary, it is a problem with who tells our stories and how few points of view are being reflected.
But rather than maintain any kind of detachment as she tries to get us to see her thesis, Gadsby pushes the show to the most personal of places. She asks, what if we’ve all so internalized this culture that we do not make space in our own stories for ourselves? Gadsby sees her practice of putting herself down in comedy as a way to give herself permission to speak in a world that made no space for her to do so otherwise. However, adopting her comedic “voice” was not an embrace of who she was but in fact a way to humiliate herself just to conform to this inhospitable culture. She had internalized the homophobia around her and turned it on herself.
When she admits this to us, all our easy laughs from earlier in the show (numerable at her expense) rest uncomfortably in our minds. If you do not automatically start to self-reflect on this, Gadsby will, with fury and emphasis, demand that you do. This is where the work of Nanette starts to dig in and it’s where Gadsby’s keen control of the audience comes into play. She lays our complicity (alongside her own) at our feet and wants us to think about what we’ve all done collectively and individually.
How have we tacitly approved this behavior here and in our lives? Why don’t we question dominant narratives? Why don’t we see the humanity in everyone? She finds our silence or acquiescence toxic. She should know, she participated in this kind of behavior against herself and it was killing her.
She is able to weave in recent events with notable #MeToo/#TimesUp references (she’s a comedian and her field has had some very high profile examples). And she openly addresses the refusal of some straight white men to shift their perspective even a little. And let’s just say, she does not have time for that shit.
That the room can move with Gadsby through this tonal shift is a tribute to her skill as a performer. You cannot stop watching her as she goes from lightness to dark, from quips to command. Choking on her own emotions as she finally makes space for her own real story it looks like she is fighting for her life with every statement. In a way, she is. She brings us on a journey that is full of rage, brutality, hard truths, and painful revelations but ultimately to a place of empathy.
We cannot unsee all that she has revealed once we have seen it and we cannot deny the chest-cracking feelings she has unleashed in us. And really there’s no better place to end up in a work of art than there–with our hearts and eyes open.
More about the show running through April 15th can be found at sohoplayhouse.com.