In One the Bear, “Teddy” is an insult traded between two bears, One (Candy Bowers) and Ursula (Nancy Denis), to imply the other is an ineffectual ally and sell-out to the cause. Stripped of its fierce, carnivorous connotations, the “Teddy Bear” also derives its affectionate moniker from the first US president, Theodore Roosevelt, who invited prominent African-American activist Booker T Washington to dine with him in the White House, an act that attracted a strident backlash from the segregated South, but nevertheless planted a seed for further momentum in the African-American civil rights movement.

Commitment to portraying the lived experience of those fighting for social inclusion defines the work of the genre-busting Black Honey Company, whose members hail from African, Asian and Polynesian diasporas. Known for its award-winning feminist circus burlesque, the company now aims to play to a younger crowd, without holding back its political punches. Written entirely in verse, One the Bear follows the Icarus-like rise and fall of One who shares her aspiration to reveal the plight of bears with her close pal, Ursula.

Nancy Denis, One the Bear, Black Honey Company, Campbelltown Arts Centre, photo Heidrun Löhr

Both are dumpster-diving bears who spend their days avoiding being captured and harvested for their bile, a reference to a brutal traditional East-Asian medical practice. In this case, bear bile is proxy for the cultural essence the bears desperately try to protect from appropriation. One and Ursula also chase escapist highs in the shape of neon glow-sticks — Kryptonite-like hallucinogenics that simultaneously numb their willpower and fan faraway visions of transcending their situation. Meanwhile, they keep the munchies at bay, snacking from cereal boxes labelled “Captain Cookies” and “Columbus Crunch,” some of many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them postcolonial jabs.

Amid the gloom, One and Ursula find themselves in many a mirthful state, including a vivid demonstration of the consequences of over-indulgence by way of purging bright Silly String from every bear orifice imaginable.

The pair become skilled at fending off various sinister forces of domination — the bear protection authorities and the wily ethnographer-journalists threatening to extract their essence graphically. One, harbouring ambitions to transcend her situation, displays her aptitude for delivering her message in song and dance. Her wish is granted in a chance encounter with a hunter/talent scout — One spits out her empowerment anthem, “Growl with Me,” putting her on the fast track to mainstream exposure, which turns out to be nothing more than a tokenistic lure to cast wider attention on the plight of the bear community.

One the Bear, Black Honey Company, Campbelltown Arts Centre, photo Document Photography

Nancy Denis’ zany versatility is well used beyond her role as One’s more grounded sidekick. She juggles a cavalcade of characters that simultaneously question, provoke, echo and bamboozle One to great comic effect, including nosy journalists, bear hunters and other exploitative characters. As talent scout and eventual manager, Denis plays the enabler to One’s own transformation from raw street talent into celebrity community spokesbear, and eventually into a disturbing slick and passionless pop puppet. Sporting a Groucho Marx nose and other cosmetic enhancements in the final act, One goes through the motions.

Throughout, hip hop artist, sibling and collaborator DJ Kim Busty Beatz Bowers provides infectious tunes and chest-thumping verses, with “All That Fame” and “Furry pride” notable offerings alongside “Growl for me” in One the bear’s cautionary tale.

The penultimate scene which reveals One’s status as expendable celebrity jolts us into accepting the logical yet unthinkable result of the Faustian deal that has been negotiated. A bear staring down the barrel of a loaded gun cuts close to the bone.

Candy Bowers, Nancy Denis, One the Bear, Black Honey Company and Campbelltown Arts Centre, photo Heidrun Löhr

Installation artist Jason Wing has created a dynamic space, populating the stage with urban paraphernalia, garbage skips and rocks, all bearing sacred markings that blend with optikal bloc’s digitally generated constellations of stardust to complement our heroine’s journey to pink-and-green glory. The characters are dressed by Melbourne’s Sarah Seahorse whose neon-augmented urban activewear hammers home the hyper-consumerist explosion.

Pitched as a “fairytale for the hiphop generation,” One the Bear is aimed at but does not talk down to younger audiences. In 2016, Bowers connected with high school students through workshops held at schools around southwest Sydney to build local interest for this quirky partnership between Brisbane’s La Boite and Campbelltown Arts Centre.

If this ambitious hour-long production occasionally feels crowded, it will doubtless refine with time. One the Bear is a stunning gathering of artistic talents and a timely allegorical warning about cultural commodification and its oppressive narratives. And Bowers and Denis’ skilful, iconic buffoonery excites hope for life beyond this production for the artists’ bear alter-egos.

One the Bear will play at Brisbane’s La Boite, 10-21 October.

La Boite Theatre Company & Campbelltown Arts Centre, Black Honey Company, One The Bear, writer, concept Candy Bowers, performers Candy Bowers, Nancy Denis, design, composition Kim Busty Beats Bowers, dramaturgs, Claire Christian, Sista Zai Zanda, directorial eye Susie Dee, video design optical bloc, production design Jason Wing, costume design Sarah Seahorse, lighting design Daniel Anderson; Campbelltown Arts Centre, 26 May-3 June 2017

Top image credit: Candy Bowers, One the Bear, Black Honey Company, Campbelltown Arts Centre, photo Document Photography