10 Reasons Why Paradise: Return to Aja Is the Epitome of God
by Vanessa Rochelle Lewis
One of the most magical, healing, and empowering experiences of my life was reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Its the story of a Celie, a dark-skinned Black woman living in the rural south at the turn of the 20th century, who falls in love with Shug, the fat, dark-skinned, free-spirited, completely wanton, jazz-singing lover of Celie’s abusive husband, Mister. In the process of loving and eventually being loved by Shug, Celie learns to love herself, to forgive herself, and to recognize God in herself and the world around her.
In this book, God is not the omnipotent, distant, judgmental deity that so many monotheistic religious groups perceive God to be, but rather, God is pleasure, beauty, emotionality, decadence, life, freedom.
On Saturday, June 3rd, 2017, when I had the pleasure to witness Topsy Turvy Queer Circus presents Paradise: Return to Aja — the 2nd part of a trilogy about fallen angel and her sensuous crew of pole-dancing angels and demigods searching for the forsaken God Aja in order to save earth from a terrifying beast produced by the very deity they are looking for to destroy it before returning to Heaven; I realized that I was witnessing God.
Every single thing about this production is God, the God that this world so desperately needs, the God that I see and love in my queer and POC-dominant community, and the God that I am constantly trying to find myself. Please allow me to explain why Paradise: Return to Aja is God 10 simple points.
1. Aja, The God Whom The Angels Believe Can Save Paradise, Is Colorful, Fierce, and Nuanced as Fuck
We begin this journey in the midst of chaos. A magical being called the Weaver (Kiebpoli Calnek) frolics in a beautiful, joyous acrobatic dance, only to be met by the threat of a terrifying beast. The Weaver is then saved by a beautiful winged creature named Mercury (Brandon Kazen-Maddox), and brought to the strip club Paradise. She warns every one of the Beast’s approach and imminent danger, and tells them that the only one who can save them is the god Aja (Saturn Rising), and the Fallen Angel (India Davis) is the only one who can help them find Aja.
But Aja is no ordinary super-hero deity. They (yes and yaasss, they use the pronoun they) are statuesque, regal, drenched in color and texture, a plethora of gender freeness and fluidity, and outspoken in the most critical and honest of ways.
So often, our leaders, heroes, and creators are expected to be in servitude to community, often at the expense of their boundaries, their well-being, and even their dignity. When they disappoint us, we entirely too frequently, throw them away and discard their legacy and their nuance — as the Gods and Angels did to Aja’s character so many years ago when they were in crisis.
When the Fallen Angel, the Weaver, and Mercury approach Aja to ask for help, Aja, with this great booming voice that sounds like shea butter and seduction, quickly says no, explains why, and demands accountability and acknowledgement. You know how you would never want to fuck with Silvia Rivera? How you’d never want to fuck with Octavia Butler? How you’d never want to fuck with Audre Lorde? Might I dare say that the performer portraying Aja radiated that same fierce and unapologetic eloquence and I would never, ever, in any way, even consider crossing them, unless they invited me to, and then I’d be saying, “yes please” and laying all the tithings and offerings at their feet.
This story reminds us not to push each other away, but to hold each other close and to love each other through our crises, through our pain, through our demons. Its also the story of resilience. While Aja was, indeed, discarded, they didn’t dissipate, instead they created wonderland of writhing, twerking Jungle Fauna and Datura Flowers and it looked like every thing I want from the God that orchestrates my queer, Black future.
2. The Cast is Lush, Thick and So Deliciously Body, Age, and Gender Diverse
I wont lie, this production is unapologetically is ostentatiously sexy. There is so much decadent, steamy, feral carnality in every move, every walk, every sound, every switch of the hip or wrist this cast made. I was sitting on the edge of my seat, back arched, and panting by the time we got to our second pole dance, and I didn’t need to feel shy because the rest of the audience was absolutely caught in the rapture right along with me.
But let me tell you this: as a fat, gender-queer, Black woman-ish person, watching a cast with so many different gender expressions, body types, and ages take up so much sexy, barely dressed, and bodacious space felt like the revolution with which I have been begging the universe to bless my bedroom and self-esteem.
I am accustomed to, even in queer spaces, seeing a limited aesthetic take up space in our understanding of what sexy is. It felt so good to see queer beauty be expansive and orgasmic in such a radical and liberating way. Yes, God!
3. The Narrative is Rich with Black Joy, Spirituality, Resilience and Sensuality
Yo! A stage full of Black people, loving each other, supporting each other, being wild and sexy with each other, saving the world and shit, getting caught up in a maze of sexy Jungle Fauna (Anisah Abdullah, Antoinette Chen See, Amber Julian, Jason Sawyer, Jason Williams), the Datura Flowers (Anisa Abdullah, Antoinette Chen See, Suguey Hernandez, Christina Pingol) twerking and gyrating all through the audience, seducing gods, and even being a little bit petty (in the most erotic and simultaneously hilarious of ways) is the type of magic that can and will save the world.
But it doesn't stop there. African Spirituality was ripe in this production — the Gatekeeper (Marshall Jarreau) was all sorts of Elegua. The writers (Indira Allegra and India Davis) sang testimony to the imagination that colonialism attempted to steal from so many of us, and that capitalism has clearly failed at suppressing.
Paradise: Return to Aja held the Sankofa that makes Afro-futurism so righteous and dynamic, dipped it into the gossamer radiance of sapphic-queerness and sophisti-ratchetness that makes our generation so damn special and sparkly.
4. Femme Solidarity Is Real and Plays an Active Role in Advancing the Plot
Look. I could not live my life without the superpower of femme-solidarity, and neither can our protagonist, the Fallen Angel. When the Gatekeeper attempts to manipulate her into servitude and prevent her from saving earth, The OG Angel (The Lady Ms Vagina Jenkins) shows up hard to protect her, calls the Gatekeeper out on his manipulation, and quickly gives up her bejeweled necklace in order to not only stand in solidarity with her systa-femme-angel, but for the safety of the earth. And the Weaver brings all sorts of fierce, maternal, elder-femme energy, offering gifts, sharing legacy and herstory, nurturing and empowering the Fallen Angel as she bears the weight of saving paradise.
This narrative takes myths of femme competition and other misogynous stereotypes, illustrates just how fallacious they are, and replaces them with the hard, cold truth: Femmes saves lives; Femmes are God.
5. The Set and Costumes Looks Like Liberation Drenched Floral Fertility
Look, this set was the prettiest thing I have ever seen in my life. Each and every costume is intricate and magical and could easily save the universe. I solidly believe that the visuals of this production got us all collectively pregnant — with dreams. My eyes are still crying from the glory.
6. They Invited Us Into Accessibility Heaven
One of the most magical parts of Paradise: Return to Aja is that ASL is an active language used in script and is magically and dynamically integrated into the narrative, surely making the this one of the most inclusive, universally designed productions ever.
You know what I think of a show that makes sure almost every facet, especially the more marginalized facets of community gets included and represented with such intricate beauty, I think that this is the marvel of God, and the only kind of God I’m invested in. I think this is what love looks like. This is what healing looks like.
7. The Narrative is Intricate, Dynamic, Sexy, Hood, and Filled with All Sorts of Drama Decadence
Who even cares about The Real House Wives of Anything when you can see the OG Angel hold down her home against the conniving and mysterious Gatekeeper as he attempted to capture The Fallen Angel, or the Gatekeeper’s extremely erotic tension with the Key Of Heaven (Toni Cannon) (that he supposedly couldn’t find), and the god Aja standing up and refusing to save a world that scorned and disposed of them.
Or what about when you learn that Aja, the only one who can protect Paradise from the Beast, actually created the Beast. We’re so accustomed to entertainment that exploits oppression and pain to create drama and tension. Finally, an extraordinary story that uses healing and liberation to create the kind of drama and tension that heals oppression and pain. This is extraordinary and historical and God in every way.
8. The Pole Dancing Was Actually Transcendent and Probably Saved Lives
Everything about Paradise: Return to Aja is an opulent experience of aestheticism. This show is high art dropping the feral and revolutionary freedom of the Black Queer Femme culture that influenced it, as majestic as the mythology it borrows from and innovatively creates.
Seeing plump thighs and soft bellies attached to the Crystal Palace Angels (Anisah Abdullah, Tiana Curry, Rahul Coburn, Chrystia Cabral) climbing those poles helped me nurture the part of me that still feels scared stepping into a dance party. Watching the lavish of The Gatekeepers dance while he holds a cigar and the OG Angel’s necklace made me want to lean into and celebrate the power of my own hedonistic desires. And salivating over the Key of Heaven doing the most erotically masculine pole dance I’ve ever seen just reminded me of why gender is sometimes so much fun.
And when those Jungle Fauna and Datura flowers began to writhe and freak into a botanical-sapphic-hood orgy of freedom, I saw God, yet again, and began to utter prayers of gratitude and hope.
9. Never In My Life Have I Seen Characters More Believable
Look, if my ex partners had been as committed and good to me as these performers were to their characters, well…I guess I wouldn’t have only begun dating the utter sweetheart I’m dating today. Yet again, look at God.
10. Everything About This Production was Meticulous and Perfect and Queer and Black, As Paradise Should Be
I literally began by comparing this production to The Color Purple, a masterpiece in the cannon of Queer Black Feminist Literature. But let me not stop there.
I’d also like to say that it is as mystical and visionary as Octavia Butler. It captures the fierceness of a generation as dynamic as Paris Is Burning. It is as unapologetic as Grace Jones every single time she steps onto a stage. It is as memorable as Prince, breaking every single rule of gender and Black respectability. It was as resilient as Maya Angelou, reminding us of the regality and influence that exist in the heart and talent of healers who live amidst the the most marginalized intersections. And it was as inspirational as Marsha P Johnson, being one of the first people to fight back against the police mob.
Basically, moving forward, when ever any one tells me that they will pray to God for me, I will imagine them summoning the fierceness of The OG Angel, The Gatekeeper, Mercury, and The Key of Code (Kevin Abrams); the dynamicness of Nebula (Honey Mahogany), Aja, and the Weaver; the courageousness of the Fallen Angel, and the decadence of the Key of Heaven, the Jungle Fauna, the Datura Flowers, and the Crystal Palace Angels.
From this point forward, when I sit down to create art, I will pray for the god-like creativity of every one who contributed to this production of queer perfection, Paradise: Return to Aja.