From her home in Hackney, Sophie Duker recalls her days at Wadham College, where the stand-up studied English and modern languages, “even though it was just one modern language – French.” She’d gone to Oxford from our very diverse capital, and noticed how few people of colour there were. It didn’t make her Oxonian time unhappy, she says, but it did inspire her fourth-year documentary The Kids Are Al-White. Insofar as being queer goes, she was “exposed to a lot of queerness” at uni, though she wasn’t out back then; there were nights like ‘Queer Bop’ that made her grateful to be at Wadham, where she could experiment and discover things about herself.
What about now – have we taken a step backwards in terms of rights for queer people? It’s a bit dangerous to say so, she reckons, given the liberty queer people have “to be visibly queer and survive – certainly in this country. I know that doesn’t always stand true,” she says, highlighting the attack on Melania Geymonat and her girlfriend Chris on a London bus, and acts of violence upon trans people. “These kinds of incidents levelled towards the queer community,” the performer adds, “usually get attention proportionate to how – for want of a better word – sexy or attractive the story is.” Chris who was attacked on the bus, she points out, “wrote brilliantly about this, about how she didn’t think the story would necessarily have garnered so much attention if they hadn’t both been young, white, fem-presenting women.
“We’re definitely moving forwards,” she opines (just over a week before MPs vote in favour of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland). “The focus just has to be on not forgetting people. I know a lot of people aren’t down with mainstream Pride because they feel their particular voices aren’t being heard. In a community as beautiful, diverse and creative as the queer community, there’s kind of an obligation to always keep checking ourselves and making sure that people don’t slip through the net.”
Her new show is called Venus, inspired by the “bizarre, horrific and absurd” story of Sarah Baartman (nicknamed ‘Hottentot Venus’). Baartman was brought to Europe from South Africa’s Eastern Cape in the early 19th century, for display in ‘freak shows’ due to her large buttocks. “People just came to stare at her, and there are parallels with being a black queer woman, feeling something of an oddity, and then putting yourself on a platform for people to evaluate.”
While writing Venus, she was thinking about the treatment of Diane Abbott, for whom she made a GoFundMe page a couple of years ago, so as to get a care package to the MP. She wasn’t an avid fan of Abbott’s, but felt she’d become “shorthand for a sort of grotesque, inept, ridiculous figure. The way she was lambasted in the press tied in very keenly to racist and sexist narratives even if what was superficially being critiqued was the fact she’s not so hot at maths. I think the way black women and oppressed people are targeted is very rarely done in a rational or logical way.” She moves on to the Duchess of Sussex. “Even though she’s a woman of African American heritage, she’s been used to start all these weird discussions about what the future for black Britain is. It’s scary how someone’s mere proximity to blackness can make them a sort of martyr to all these conversations.”
“Do tell me if I’m being too serious,” she says. “I talk about silly 90s stuff, Pokémon, pornography.” And unresolved daddy issues, I say, having read a bit into Venus. “Oh, yeah. Obviously I can’t talk explicitly about them because they are unresolved. I don't really know how to talk about them,” she resumes with laughter. “There is a man called Daddy who features in the show, who is not my biological father. My actual dad has never seen me do comedy, not because he’s dead, just because he lives in Singapore – a long commute. So, I didn’t necessarily have a father figure in my life growing up.” From what she then says I gather her being in a profession “that has traditionally been very male-dominated” is something of an attempt to be her own father figure – “I can be Daddy in the end,” she says. I may well have misunderstood, but I’ll sit through 90s silliness and porn to find out.
Sophie Duker: Venus | Aug 1-13, 15-25 7pm | Pleasance Courtyard
Tickets available here: tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/sophie-duker-venus