The night I performed to rich racists
A while ago – and enough time has passed that I can mention this without the people involved knowing that I'm talking about them – I did a gig. I was the after-dinner cabaret for an averagely posh private event. Mid-level swank. Old money. Old white money. Remember that.
Anyway, it went the way these things usually go – I sit, tucked around a corner somewhere out of sight, playing on my phone, until it's time, then I go out and do my thing.
I like to think I'm pretty good at these kinds of shows. A foundation course in street performing has given me the chops to make a good impression on most kinds of audiences, and gigs like this are usually easy street. Slightly older people, a couple of drinks in, wanting a break from complimenting each others’ frocks and sales targets, and with enough beef inside them to stop them getting too lairy. Good times.
And this one was no different – I had a lovely set, teasing them gently, genuinely having fun, and giving them a few tricks to talk about in the office tomorrow. Standing O, genuine smile on my face, job done, everyone's happy.
And then, something that occasionally happens on gigs like this, and that I dislike very much indeed, happened. The person that booked me, happy that everyone liked me, came backstage, shook my hand excitedly, thanked me for my act, and then invited me out into the party to hang out and have a drink with everyone. They'd love to meet you! I'm sure you'll get a few drinks bought for you! Come on!
And you can't say no, because that'd make you a dick, and it's usually pretty awkward because it looks like you've gone out there specifically so people can compliment you, when in reality you're just trying to keep the boss happy, and you'd rather be up in your hotel room watching an episode of Elementary on your phone in bed while eating crisps you stole from the buffet.
So I went out and did, indeed get bought a drink. I started chatting to some of the partygoers. They were uniformly charming, complimentary and racist. Really quite racist. And that brings me to the subject of this column. How do I deal with it when I realise that I'm working for the enemy? Genuine question.
OK, so not quite all of them were racist. But, honest to Letterman, the majority of people I spoke to sure found a way to crowbar some intolerance into their small talk. Apropos of nothing, we had some simply delightful opinions on refugees, how awful it must be working in certain countries, how some nations just don't have a sense of humour, or are famously stupid – oh yeah, we had all the hits. It was almost as if they were prodding their opinions at me to see how I'd react.
I felt grubby. Powerless. Unable to fight back, like I usually would, because I'm on the clock. Gotta stay professional.
This isn't the first time that something like this has happened, and I bet most of the performers reading this will be nodding along and remembering that time something similar happened to them.
I've done corporate parties for rooms full of braying city boys, tanked up on the lager and cocaine that their yearly bonus buys them, who surrounded me after the show and spat homophobic and misogynistic unpleasantness about the burlesque performers I shared the bill with, expecting me to bark bantz along with them.
I've been on stage in a nightclub in a Middle-Eastern country, had a lovely set, apart from the man at the head of the biggest table who stood up, let the room go quiet around him, and told me that my suit ‘made me look gay’.
I replied with an extended piece of improv about how great it was that he felt confident enough in his sexuality that he could flirt with me in front of everyone, and that I was flattered, but he wasn't my type. Big laughs in the room, even, after a long pause, from him. Less funny afterwards, when I was told that he was an important local arms dealer who has had people beaten and left in the desert for less.
Look, I know that this is work. These people ain't my friends, they're my audience, and they're allowed to be who and whatever they want to be. My job is just to entertain them and then get the hell out of Dodge. I know that, and I'm damn good at it. A baker can't, and shouldn't, choose who eats her bread. Plumbers shouldn't care whose pipes they're fixing.
But when its a whole room full of people, and you slowly realise that they're all of similar mind and opinions and that they're all a little richer than you, a little more powerful, or sometimes a lot more powerful.. well, you start to feel like the worst kind of dancing monkey. You start to wonder if they think you're like them, or if they know damn well that their money has bought your complicity in bad people having a good time. Lose-lose.
And it's not about having a bad gig. As I mentioned at the top of this column, the racists were a delightful audience – giving me juicy laughs and big whooping cheers. I genuinely had a lovely time performing for them. When all I knew about them was that they liked me. And that's, perhaps, why it's harder.
I think that one of the reasons I'm good at what I do is that I have fun – you get on a roll and your audience can see that you're enjoying the show almost as much as they are. It stops being a one-sided performance and becomes a dialogue, a lovely to and fro, where everyone has a good time. I come off stage, emotionally, if not rationally, feeling that those people were, kinda, my friends.
And then, when I actually interact with them in a normal person-to-person way, and it becomes apparent that they're deeply unpleasant, I feel, in some odd, and slightly pathetic way, betrayed.
And the more of them I talked to, the less I liked them, and then you slowly realise that you're at a party, surrounded by rich racists who all like you. And you don't want them to like you. And you wonder if you're just being a thin-skinned liberal who should just suck it up and do your job, or maybe you're being too full of reactionary grumpiness and should stop seeing the world as us and them, friends and enemies.
I've pondered a bit on how to tackle this, because it happens to every performer, every so often, and Here's the best idea I've come up with (And I'd love to hear yours). For every good-sized corporate party paycheck I get, where the audience were noticeably intolerant of a particular group – some of my fee – some of their money – is going to a charity that works in that field.
If I can buy back a little bit of my soul while doing some good, safe in the knowledge that if they knew what I was doing with their money, they'd be furious. Well, that's a start.
Published: 4 Apr 2017