When the bee stumbled upon ‘We didn’t come to hell for the croissants’, a wonderful one-woman play at Riverside Studios, it could guess from the title that this one was (or is going to be) a cult favourite.
Bizarre title? Check. Pointless nudity, just because? Check. Pompous rejection of cultural propriety? Check. Subversive format? Check.
This one-woman play is a sequence of seven stories, each narrated in turn by actress and artist Jemma Kahn using slides as visual aids. Not digital slides projected on a wall and changed with a clicker, no. The slides were cartoons and illustrations hand-drawn on paper, shown through a wooden TV-like box, and changed by hand.
Now, the bee does not usually like cult productions because whenever the term is slapped on a story or film, it immediately seems to absolve the artist of any obligation to entertain an audience, and instead shifts the entire burden of being entertained, amused, moved or otherwise stimulated, upon the audience itself. It’s almost as though the piece of art is telling its viewer, “If you don’t enjoy a cult production, it’s most likely your own prefrontal cortex that’s the problem; you’re too tightly wound, you don’t know how to appreciate non-mainstream perspectives. No, it cannot be that the art itself is imbecilic, it’s you.”
‘We didn’t come to hell for the croissants’ is right on the borderline between being eccentric for the sake of being eccentric, and being eccentric by chance.
The artists have succeeded in writing just the right amount of eccentric elements into the play; anything less than this Goldilocks point would have demanded too much from the audience — it would have demanded a complete suspension of reason, logic, or expectation of coherence. Anything less, on the other hand, would have reduced the play to a dull one-person monologue.
Despite its cultish elements, the bee quite liked ‘We didn’t come to hell for the croissants’. To be sure, a couple of the seven stories in the play did place a few hefty demands on the bee’s subcortical regions to find art appreciation in erstwhile uncharted territory. But for the most part, the stories were funny, and not just in a laugh-and-immediately-forget way.
The bee still laughs as it recalls the story titled ‘Lady Fiona’s Song’, which is a musical tale about a cat that inherits the rich fortunes of its owner when she dies, only to eventually swallow a gold fish (not a goldfish, but a fish made of actual gold) and die (because of the gold in its belly). It is the viewer’s choice if they want to dwell on the more abstract questions this story (lightly) touches. You may ponder from this goofy story about deeper questions on the ephemeral nature of material possessions or the purpose of life, or you may simply enjoy an inane and pointless story, a catchy song with rhyming lines, and the cutest cartoons and illustrations.
Because, ultimately what is and isn’t art, and what is aesthetically pleasurable to watch and what isn’t, is decided for each individual in the subcortical regions of their brain, and rationalising about the elements that one liked and didn’t is rather pointless. Whether to label this play as cult or mainstream is less important than whether or not it induced the right "pleasurable" activity in the brain, and for the bee it did.
The best that an audience member can demand from an unabashedly freethinking artist is to allow multiple access roads to the piece of art for the audience, and ‘We didn’t come to hell for the croissants’ delivers brilliantly on that front. Either you infer something deeper and more abstract from what’s on the surface a goofy story about a cat, or you don’t. Either way, there are elements to be enjoyed.
To the artists’ credit, actress Jemma Kahn and director Lindiwe Matshikiza do not hide behind the veneer of a ‘cult’ label that shields them from critique. No, they do take sincere responsibility as artists for the substance and entertainment value in their work, and this is evident in the way every painting, every cartoon and every illustration is meticulously drawn and / or painted by hand, and in the way Jemma Kahn delivers each story with a fiery passion that makes it easy to forget that one is listening to a one-woman monologue.
Watched January 2023 at Riverside Studios, London