Image Description: Isabel Adomakoh Young wearing a pale green hat and baby blue shirt.
Isabel Adomakoh Young joins our ‘Womxn on the Move’ series this week. An inspiring writer, actress and activist, a lot of her interests blossomed at the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate studying English. From there she has had her own children’s book adapted into theatre, delved into voice work and performed as drag king Izzy Aman for Pecs, an all-women and non-binary theatre and cabaret company.
In this interview, Isabel raises an insightful discussion about the plight of artists before and during the pandemic, the misconceptions of drag and how intersectional feminism has evolved.
Before pursuing writing, acting and activism, you studied English at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. What was your experience of attending the University? What projects did you get involved in which shaped your current interests?
In many ways university was where the seeds of my pursuits really started to grow. I was encouraged into activism by things like the Women’s Campaign, decolonising the curriculum, the queer artists using university funding to explore and exhibit their work, and the African Caribbean Society and Fly, where black people in an extreme minority shared space, pride, resilience and culture. It’s also where I got more grounding in acting, as the theatre scene there is of a very high calibre. In terms of extracurricular activity, I look back on that time now as deeply fruitful, varied, and markedly better funded than most of my endeavours these days. The luxury of getting to just turn up and try stuff – or to have an idea and make it happen – shouldn’t be underestimated! Some friends and I founded a magazine, Ladybeard, there, which still exists to this day. I have more mixed feelings around the academic pressure. As your readers will likely know, these old universities leave a lot to be desired in terms of pastoral care. Adventures aside, I was proudest of just getting through it and coming out with a degree.
In December 2014 you toured the UK with your stage show, based on your children’s book trilogy ‘Lionboy’, which later went on to tour to New York, South Korea and South Africa, among other places. What is the story about and can you talk about the process of putting together the show?
‘Lionboy’ follows Charlie, a mixed-race asthmatic kid living in a near-future London, as he goes in search of his kidnapped parents. He has the ability to speak to cats, which comes in handy as he finds himself on a circus ship! I won’t spoil the end but suffice to say there’s a huge pharmaceutical corporation who don’t like the scientific breakthrough his parents have made… We were very lucky to work with acclaimed theatre company Complicité and writer Marcelo dos Santos in adapting the books for the stage. It wasn’t easy, as the shape of a show’s story is very different to that of a set of novels, but director Annabel Arden saw us right. I was studying at the time so wasn’t hugely involved in the process, but the final product was vibrant and charming and just amazing to see – our characters come to life!
In the current climate of the pandemic, the arts industry has suffered immensely. How have you been affected by Lockdown? What do you think the government should be doing to support performers?
Theatre and the arts have been problematic work environments for such a long time – as well as the ingrained bias that most industries share, they’re built on the back of a lot of free and unremunerated labour, and are deeply insecure for freelancers; unless you have an affiliation with an organisation or building, there’s very little stability. The pandemic has both exacerbated and shone a light on this. I’ve been encouraged, though, to see some organisations making concrete steps toward anti-racist practise in the wake of the most recent BLM surge even as they fight for their own existence, and freelancers have organised and campaigned beyond the immediate circumstances in ways that I hope will lead to long-term improvement. Personally, I’ve taken steps to move into voice work, recording audiobooks and voiceover remotely as in-person art feels a way off yet. I dread to think of how many brilliant independent companies and venues will not survive this year, though, and how many working-class and diverse voices will be lost from the arts for good. Any decent rescue package would take serious steps to address this pressing issue instead of just funnelling money into the top 20 organisations. I really hope young people graduating soon don’t discount the arts as an option – come! We need you!
You regularly perform as the drag king Izzy Aman for Pecs, an all-women and non-binary theatre and cabaret company. (Christmas show tickets out now!) What inspired you to get involved in drag and how was Izzy Aman born? Drag is a great art form for exploring gender, what have you learned about masculinity/gender through your performances?
Pecs is another thing that was born out of Cambridge – our founders were questioning gender, and drag, and wondering where the drag kings were since queens are pretty ubiquitous; Denim was a couple of years above us there. We started exploring together, with a variety of performance backgrounds but no prior drag knowledge, and I found my man, Izzy. He changes depending on what act I’m doing, playing anything from toxic hypermasc to a Prince tribute act. It was a real journey of discovery – not just in exploring how performative all gender is, but also of getting to know ourselves. I saw that a lot of my performed femininity didn’t actually sit right; exploring drag helped me find my places on the spectrum. I’d run little experiments in public, moving or taking space in more conventionally masculine ways, and note the results.
What are the common misconceptions that some people have about drag? Why do you think that more attention has been given to drag queens over drag kings; how do you think we can restore the balance between queens and kings?
People sometimes think drag’s just about passing or being believably the “opposite sex”. That’s outdated. Nor is it about creating the ultimate bitchy character or great look, fun as those things can be. Questioning the nature of masculinity, its dominance, its roots and influences, who owns it, what it causes or stops; that’s what I find most exciting to explore in kinging, all while being wildly entertaining. And an extension of that would be that seeing a body we don’t read as masculine successfully performing masculinity casts doubt on gender certainties and binaries. I know as many “drag things” as I do “drag kings” now – performers are moving away from a binary sense of ‘opposites’ and creating a space where all gender is up for grabs. And the work is richer for that.
When we started our group, we didn’t know of much kinging in the UK. With less visibility, the kings who are trying to work appear less viable – do audiences want to see this, will they get it, etc. Add to that the fact that masculinity is perceived as ‘neutral’, ‘normal’ less performative than femininity, so people have doubts about the actual value of king performance. Doubts which tend to disappear once they’ve seen some.
We learned there were scenes in London and Manchester, mostly in the lesbian events sector, and a couple of prominent kings, but I think anyone would agree that they weren’t given as much airtime, money, booking opportunity etc as queens. Given most kings are women and most queens are historically men, this maps onto common gender inequalities; a huge amount of money and influence in queer communities is in the hands of gay cis men. Organisations have been realising their bias, gaining new leaders, finding new young audiences with non-traditional appetites and all that has fed into a boost for kings, I think. Not to mention that the slow grind of hustling and campaigning that kings have been doing for years is slowly coming to fruition. We’ve been lucky to use our theatre background to work in more traditional/bigger spaces, too, so programmers’ openness to that has helped us a lot.
I’d like to see programmers remember that drag was never about giving people what they expected, or what it’s presumed they want. It’s about surprising audiences, opening hearts and minds, posing new ideas and pushing boundaries. What does that more than kinging? Our art form has been hustling and evolving in a way that queening hasn’t necessarily been forced to, and it’s more exciting for that. I hope fans and audiences are becoming more aware of what a wealth of talent there is in kings!
Alongside acting and writing, you are strongly engaged in activism, particularly intersectional feminism. How do you think feminism has evolved in light of intersectionality? What advice would you give to fellow activists fighting the good fight?
I’d hope that feminist movements are becoming aware that all the same hierarchies of oppression that exist in wide society will exist in campaigns too. Feminists are asking perpetrators of patriarchy to look at their own privilege, but that’s something every single person needs to do. As a queer black woman, it’s something I need to do – no-one is exempt, and real change will be far more legitimate when we can be sure it’s not made at some other intersection’s expense. It will be better change for not being. The work of recognising unseen change-makers that have gone before and relinquishing power to diverse changemakers now is not easy or comfortable for privileged feminists, but it is vital.
A lesson I’ve really valued from activism is to listen as hard as you shout. It’s easy when you’re impassioned about something, and especially as an Oxbridge student, to hold onto your views with great determination. But there will always, always, be perspectives you haven’t considered. That’s not a failing, but you need to be ready to take them in and save energy for that too.
Finally, with so many exciting art forms that you are involved in, what future projects of yours can we look forward to?
Well it’s a big uncertain world out there, but I’m really excited about a few things; right now, Pecs is about to release our podcast, The Drag King Cast! As for 2021, I’m a trustee for interactive and digital theatre company Produced Moon, who have some amazing projects coming up, I played the lead in a black British short film called VIOLET which will be released in spring, and our festival Brainchild should be back bigger and better next summer near Brighton – come join us!
What is something every student should know?
No-one can define what’s possible for you except you.
What is something every student should do?
Try an activity that you’d never think is very ‘you’. Even if you don’t like it, it’s worth breaking your mental limits! Now really is the time for experimenting.
What is something every student should read/watch/listen to?
‘The Artist’s Way’ – It’s this brilliant 12-week book which helps you get to know your own creativity, whether you’re a capital A ‘artist’ or not. It’s almost better for people who aren’t necessarily creatives already, as it opens you up and reminds you we all need to play/make. If you don’t have time now, make a note for in a few years’ time – probably about when you’ll want to read again after uni! I’ve just finished and it’s so wonderful; it goes way beyond creativity, to your whole conception of self, your priorities, and what you see as possible and why. Also ‘Disclosure’ the documentary, to look critically at the cultural portrayal of trans people.
To find out more about Isabel, visit:
Image courtesy of Isabel Adomakoh Young