Nando Messias’ powerful theatre piece The Sissy’s Progress drew on the artist’s own experience of a homophobic attack and was one of the most profound things I have ever seen. Stunning, emotive, challenging; Nando is a compelling performer producing essential queer work. His new show Shoot The Sissy continues to confront homophobic violence and living visibly queer. Corinna Tomrley spoke to him about the piece.
Your work is confrontational, beautiful, moving and empowering but you don’t shy away from the real lived pain of being queer in a homophobic world. Why do you think it is important to address queer violence through your art?
Confrontation, beauty, emotion and empowerment are things I hope to evoke in an audience when creating work so I feel flattered to have you describe it like that. As a subject, queer violence is important but I don’t see addressing it as a choice. Dealing with it is, rather, a responsibility, a moral duty for me. That is not to say that speaking of violence is an easy endeavour. It isn’t. By no means. Looking at violence can be quite painful at times, especially when I am so deeply ensnared in its mechanisms. What moves me to develop new work is a sense that I have something to say about queer violence, perhaps some insider information that might give insight to others who, like me, are its captives or to those who are not necessarily targets of violence but who are, nevertheless, committed to fighting against it or ameliorating its destructive effects. Shying away from this lived pain is, again, not a choice. I feel lucky to have the creative and artistic tools that I have. They allow me to face the negative aspects of living as a queer person with enough critical distance to be able to transform them into something productive and, hopefully, even beautiful.
The Sissy’s Progress was one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. With Shoot The Sissy you are further exploring the idea of the vulnerable queer body. Will we see The Sissy in more works in the future?
I’m glad you enjoyed it! And, yes, Shoot the Sissy also explores the vulnerability of the queer body. Whereas in The Sissy’s Progress I was making a public statement about visibility and ownership of my own body by reclaiming my space on the streets, with Shoot the Sissy the mood is more introspective. It began with a series of questions: Am I a freak? What makes me a freak? What are the ideological similarities between ‘queer’ and ‘freak’? Can I use this alliance between queer and freak as a theatrical ruse to explore questions of vulnerability, visibility, ridicule, spectacle? Why do people stare at me? As a performer, do I like being stared at? Can I make it stop when it gets too much or too dangerous? I was aware that the freak show was a delicate subject so I approached it with caution. This I did by trying to remain true to my own story, hoping that what is deeply personal becomes, when placed in front of an audience, universal and therefore effective in ways that I cannot predict. Shoot the Sissy is the third in a series of performances with the word Sissy in the title. The first one was simply Sissy! (sic, with an exclamation mark, like a shouted insult). In it, I developed a duet in collaboration with Biño Sauitzvy where my effeminate body became even more so in contrast with his more masculine, muscular one. The second was The Sissy’s Progress, which you’ve seen and now we have Shoot the Sissy. My intention is to continue developing work based on the Sissy but of course my understanding of Sissy is also changing.
You’re not afraid to make the audience uncomfortable in presenting how it feels to live queer and visible in a hostile society. I kept expecting you to fight back in The Sissy’s Progress. It’s a very Brechtian approach not to allow the audience that catharsis, and therefore has its own active power, doesn’t it?
I feel I would be doing myself a disservice if I held back on the representation of some of those issues. The point of the piece was to expose the daily abuse suffered by queer subjects. My efforts to go out onto the streets in a ball gown and with marching band in tow paid off in the end. The work activated the kind of dynamic I wanted the audience to witness. Various things were hurled at me during the parade section: from insults to threats to tins of energy drink. In a way, the performance simply framed what is already out there on the streets but remains hidden to most or unseen. I also wanted to avoid the ‘me against them’ discourse. This is perhaps why I chose not to fight back. I wanted the audience to find a resolution to this story for themselves without me steering their opinion in one direction. The hope is that the work then becomes multi-layered in meaning. I was also careful not to romanticise this terrible attack that happened to me by creating a happy ending narrative because, sadly, the reality is that it doesn’t always end well.
Who are some of your favourite sissies?
NM: Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, Noël Coward, Cecil Beaton, James Baldwin, Oliver Button…
I love the idea of the freak show element to Shoot The Sissy. We are enfreakened as ‘other’ by straight society, but to own ‘freak’ is very powerful. Will you play with this in the performance?
Yes, I do. Shoot the Sissy was directly inspired by the sideshow attraction, Shoot the Freak, where a carnival barker invites passersby to shoot a human target by using paintball guns. I was also thrust into action by the Orlando shootings of June 2016, where 49 queer people lost their lives and another 53 were wounded in a mass terrorist attack/hate crime. I had just finished a tour of a piece that questioned the conditions under which queer people live when this happened. I felt that there was work yet to be done. In researching the subject of freak shows, I connected with this idea of a theatricalised, exaggerated version of difference that is presented to the audience. Freaks often invented a highly elaborate biography to heighten their otherness in the eyes of an audience. They used costumes, props, music and other theatrical elements to construct an artificial image. This created a context where real life and imagined life began to blur. All this artifice transformed their real bodies into a spectacle, an invitation for the audience to gaze. I wondered if the fascination to stare at the body of the other, which these shows promoted, was in certain ways a form of asserting one’s own ‘normality.’ Perhaps that is what is going on when I am stared at on the streets: men and women gawk, point at and ridicule me because that is their way of trying to prove to themselves that they are normal, cis-gendered and therefore not sissies like me.
Shoot The Sissy is at Chelsea Theatre 18th and 19th October
Main image by Holly Revell