top of page

The Triumph of Deobia

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Amid Sydney's colourful queer swirl, one figure stands out. And tall. A dancer, drag queen, writer and performer, his name is Deobia and this is his story.


text rhoyce nova photography jez smith grooming dotti


People think they know Deobia, yet most don't even know his last name. We know him as Deobia the dancer, Deobia the drag queen, Deobia the gorgeous hunk of man-flesh with the booty from hell. But behind the colourful character there lie many masks: Deobia the young boy, Deobia the Shakespearean actor, Deobia the writer ...


While a Shakespearean analogy may seem a strange choice to bring to light the life and times of a black, gay man living in Sydney, Australia, it is entirely apt. The tragedies of King Lear and Othello both present the decline of powerful 'somebodies' into a state of 'nothingness'. But while it shares many parallels, ultimately The Triumph Of Deobia is the story of a journey from nothingness to a state of being somebody.




act I

The cold cityscape of Camden Town, London, home of The National Youth Theatre. Deobia is 16 and playing King Lear. He has been on stage since the age of five and has just quit school to study acting full-time. Within a year he turns professional and goes on to join the world-renowned Theatre de Complicite and Royal Shakespeare Company. He is well on his way to fulfilling his ambition to be the first black Olivier. It proves a time of utter transformation.


Enter Deobia. He is tall, skinny and very shy. He wears heavy, thick glasses. A long overcoat hides his body and flat shoes disguise his height. When he walks he slumps over, trying, it seems, to be as invisible as possible.


For Deobia acting provided a way out of a hellish childhood in an England that not so long before had shop signs saying, "No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish". Each role he played was one step further away from his schizophrenic and violent, alcoholic father and the children's homes in which he spent most of his younger years.


"For me, 'nothing' is a very strong word with fearful implications. I have always wanted to be something," says Deobia. "My father was an intelligent black man in a country that always put him down. But he ruled with fear and violence and his fury and frustration drove my mother away. Life with my father was a nightmare: he wouldn't wash us, he'd hardly feed us and my brothers and I ran wild on the streets. After a while my two elder brothers and two younger sisters and myself were taken into care. I haven't seen my sisters for 23 years and I still don't know where they are. Although I now understand my father's madness. Every time I saw him I saw this nothingness and I knew that I never wanted to be like him."

It was this fear of being nothing that drove Deobia to the heights of success in the very white world of acting in England. As his confidence grew, he changed everything about himself. He started wearing contact lenses and, after months of strenuous Complicite workshops, he shed his overcoats to reveal a magnificently muscled body. His cockney accent was transformed into the clipped vowels of the Queens' English and he developed an impressive and bellowing stage voice. The new, recreated Deobia became a recognisable face in England from his appearances on BBC and Channel Four shows such as Minder and Medics. Then he suffered a nervous breakdown.


"I realised after my breakdown that life was real, not a play, and that I had been using acting to hide from the world. My roles had become masks and the rehearsal room had become my life. Like King Lear, who used his wealth and power to insulate himself from the reality of his life, I used acting to try and deny the nothingness of my childhood and my problems with my family. I needed to rediscover myself. This realisation was central to my decision to tour Australia with Complicite. It was my ticket to a new life."

act II

Oxford Street, Sydney. Enter Deobia. He is 24 and struts down the street. And he is black, very black: the only black face in a sea of white. He stands a mammoth 198cm and bears the most astounding physique: his Clydesdalean thighs are topped by the finest butt in the southern hemisphere. Short shorts disappear up his

arse and a tiny midriff top reveals powerful, quivering abdominals. All eyes

turn and stare. He is being objectified, exoticised.


Away from the ghosts of England, Deobia soon gave up acting altogether. Australia gave him the chance to re-invent himself once more but his eagerness for a new life brought with it a certain naivety.


"When I first arrived I was treated like a god," says Deobia. "People looked at me with amazement, but once I started to find myself and do my thing, with my little shorts and my mini skirts, the looks changed. The stares seemed to say, 'How dare you come here and celebrate yourself, your sexuality, your life'. I used to get so angry. Imagine being stared at constantly, every part of the day. Some of the stares are giving, 'Girrrl, you look fiiine!', but others are not. When you're a black man there is a lot that goes into these stares, you know: black, big dick; black, sex machine; black, will he jump on me and fuck me like a wild gorilla. But," growls Deobia, "I'm more Tarzan's Jane than King Kong."

Like Othello, Deobia knows what it's like to exist in a foreign land.


In England the history of blackness is one of oppression and subjugation," he says. While Australia has a history like this in terms of Aboriginality, my particular brand of blackness, the Afro-Euro blend, is exoticised, so here I can turn it around and make it into a positive. It shows me that my blackness is not something that I should be ashamed of. Being in Australia constantly forces me to come to terms with the reality of being a black man in a mainly white culture, but it also gives me the freedom to find out who I really am.

act III

The Magic party hosted each month by Deobia and his friend Basil at

Kinselas in the heart of Sydney's gay mile. Enter Deobia. He is dressed as a witch doctor. Half his face is painted white. Wearing a leopard-skin loin cloth he mounts the stage and starts into a long, vibrating dance. His every muscle shakes.


The freedom of Australia allowed Deobia to connect with the fact that he

loves to dance.


An actor is a master Machiavellian, a master chameleon, a manipulator of words," says Deobia. "But when you dance your body doesn't lie. It lets me express my roots, my sexuality and my spirituality in a very real way. When I dance I am reminded of where I come from, my family, my brothers and sisters and the way we relate. For me dance is a language without words.


actIV

The stage of cLU B bENT, the queer performance cabaret that is part of the

Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. The audience awaits the

commencement of Queen Bitch Rap, written by Deobia and performed by The

Soul Bitches: Mean Queen, Bitter Queen and Bitch Queen (Darren Spowart,

Matthew Bergin and Deobia respectively). They each have their own malady

caused by the "disharmony that exists in The Queendom". Together they

decide to take a pilgrimage to The Almighty Goddess Sylvester, the high priestess

of soul, to be cured of their dis-ease - to be saved from themselves.


Enter Deobia. He is bewigged and wears a tiny pvc micro mini and a huge pink codpiece. Nine-inch heels send him over the seven-foot-three mark (around 2.2 metres) and his imposing features are accentuated by opulently curled gold lashes and glittered lips.


Deobia wrote Queen Bitch Rap as an analogy of the black, gay scene and as a eulogy to the togetherness of the disco era.


It was all based on a need to escape, to recreate something new and fabulous for ourselves," says Deobia. "These bitter queens are so caught up in the trappings of social status and sexual cachet that they are unable to give affection in a free and real way. The Almighty Goddess Sylvester, of She Makes Me Feel (Mighty Real) fame, seemed to hold the key to our salvation. Sylvester taught us to accept ourselves and showed us the way to express who we really are. 'Alleluiah Bitch! Just like the funky, low-down, get-down, sweaty, free expression of the disco era, the dancing and drag in Queen Bitch Rap offers a way out of the social straight jacket of the scene of today. It points to the ways that dance and drag can connect you with your body, with being whoever you want to be, and with others. When I wear a skirt it's not necessarily drag or transvestism, it expresses my maleness, my femaleness, my sexiness. It says, 'Hm, hm, girl. You are really doin' your thing. You are lookin' fine. You're living large, baby!"

Just as King Lear learns that we should, "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say", the bitter queens of Queen Bitch Rap learn to cut the bullshit and let go of the masks they hide behind.


actV

An ordinary lounge room in inner-urban Sydney. Enter Deobia. He wears a funky red-and-white knitted cap, orange flares and a pink jumper. His lips break into a very real smile and a wave of shyness and doubt is washed away from his warm brown eyes.


Says Deobia: "When Lear says 'Our means secure us, and our mere defects prove our commodities', he realises that our good fortunes insulate us from reality and foster a complacency that can be our undoing. What this says to me is that I can embrace my experiences of being brought up poor, of being black and queer - cue 'Old Man River' - to provide me with the strength to be who I truly am. It says to me that sometimes the image and accoutrements that are part of trying to keep up this image do not serve me in my self-expression. The image ceases to be about me and becomes something that I feel trapped in. I am no longer afraid of breaking free of it, or of what people will think if they see the real me; without the masks, the glitter or the frou' ha of camp."

Just as tragedy proved a fountain of revelation for Lear and Othello, the dark shade of Deobia's early life and his journeys through many characters have proved a wellspring that has transported him across continents of the mind, heart and soul. The ghosts of Deobia Oparei's past have been transformed by his muses; the Bard, the witch doctor and The Almighty Goddess Sylvester:


"Our Sista

Who art in the ghetto

Hallowed be thy name,

Thy Queendom come

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in the ghetto.

Give us this day

Some funkin' beat, some

Disco heat, to get us groovin' again

in the Queendom

For thine is the Queendom

The Power and the Glory

(and the Glitter)

For ever and ever Sista

Shemen!"





Kommentare


site navigation button
bottom of page