by Rose Miyonga
It’s hard to come up with a pithy sentence that sums up what Isabel Adomakoh Young does. Writer, activist, actor, musician, model, organiser, drag king… the strings to her bow are so many and varied that I struggle to see how she finds time to sleep. Not only does she do all these things, but she does them with vitality and success, like a Renaissance woman for the fourth wave intersectional feminist generation.
In 2004, aged just 8, she published the first of the Lionboy trilogy as ‘Zizou Corder’, the pseudonym she shares with her mother, Louisa Young. Since then, she has co-founded Brainchild festival, released an EP with her band, Corinthians, joined the National Youth Theatre, worked on the 50:50 Parliament campaign and graduated from Cambridge with a BA in English to name but a few of her achievements.
When we wrote the children’s books, my mad imagination aged 7 definitely helped us come up with interesting characters and settings for the stories. Then later, youth certainly gave me the energy (and maybe naiveté ) to just plough into any project I thought sounded interesting. There was a period where I was studying for my degree, being a student journalist, rehearsing shows at uni, writing an essay for a Virago anthology and taking the train back to London several times a week to perform or to consult on the Complicite show of my books! I definitely thrive under pressure, but maybe the underpinning to that is having this youthful curiosity and stamina – hopefully getting older will help with focus though!
For a while I thought my creative pursuits were largely separate to my activism, but really – from Brainchild Festival, which we created to give promising artists the leg-up they needed in their industries, to Pecs Drag Kings, a company that’s underpinned by radical gender politics, down to our books, which feature a mixed-race protagonist battling big pharma and (spoilers) rescuing animals from captivity – it’s becoming clearer that anything I make will naturally have socio-political weight. The best stories are the ones that most need to be told, and we need to look to the grassroots, the glossed-over, the misunderstood and the silenced to find them. Activism is inspiring too because campaigners (at least the ones I come across) are often hugely passionate and well-informed, and through them I’m incentivised to learn about what’s going on at a national level. Good intersectional activism also helps you see what you might not otherwise, for example my cis-privilege. As a writer and theatre-maker, seeing the world from a new perspective is precious.
The collective was founded by Temi Wilkey and Celine Lowenthal, who were both making theatre at university, thinking about gender as you do, and then over gin & tonics one night got to asking where all the drag kings are at. So they enlisted us and we sort of made it up as we went along, using theory, YouTube and a lot of floor space.
For our first show – on Battersea Barge – it was mostly friends in the crowd, but from then on our audience has quite organically found us; and it’s surprisingly broad, which is gratifying. It’s possible to just enjoy it as entertainment, as we’re this all-singing all-dancing cabaret, but for those paying attention there’s loads of politics in there. And because we’re messing with gender, rather unlikely folks find they fancy us – gay men, older straight women etc. We have a few super-fans (“Abs”) these days too – and we’ve just been nominated for an Offie award!
I’ve had a lot of feedback that The 80s Show really made people think about/ see gender in new ways, and I like to think that lots of fruitful conversations have sprouted up in the bar afterward. Our audiences before we got to the Soho tended to be quite “woke” queer crowds who were able to get on board quickly, but having a slightly older theatre-going contingent in at the Soho has definitely sparked some new dialogue.
It’s a delicate balance, and that’s why we’re so lucky to have the eagle eyes of Temi and Celine crafting that journey, and Kit Griffiths (playing Caesar Jentley) hosting. Some acts like the Bowie and Prince tributes are pure joy, but Kit wonderfully contextualises those artists as gender rebels, queer icons and symbols of hope for people suffering under unjust government at the time. My solo act develops from a fun Action Hero montage to a dark portrayal of the price of hyper-masculinity. If you get people laughing, then they’re really listening
It looks that way to me. I think it’s partly because people who don’t want to lock into a single full-time job are forced to use their skills in whatever way they can, and that can take you down some unexpected paths in the arts – which might be a pleasant surprise! As we move away from outdated social structures people are also more able to see themselves as varied, complex professionals. And skills are being democratised via the internet – if you have the drive and the time, there’s so much you can learn just from YouTube tutorials. I’ve started coding with Codecademy for instance – and who knows where in my portfolio that skill might crop up? I’ve heard this term ‘slasher’ ie Marketing pro/blogger/DJ/Magazine editor – it’s meant to be derogatory but I kind of like it. As long as you can get and give what you need to professionally, why shouldn’t it come from a variety of places?
It was really important to us that Brainchild not just be another festival where rich kids book their mates’ first DJ gig. We wanted to support people in trying to enter often difficult industries, and to give them a platform on which to build, and from which to gain an audience – and the reason for that was the amount of frustrated talent we saw around us! Artistically, the festival is simply as varied as that talent was; the organising team brought bands and DJs to the table, but also installation artists, animators, theatre-makers, groundbreaking thinkers, carpenters… a real mix! Our dream was also to have lots of cross-disciplinary stuff, so in recent years we’ve encouraged collabs like a musical group live-scoring a film we screened, and performances inside installations.
Things are changing fast for Brainchild – in recent years we’ve won 2 awards, been given residency at Platform Southwark – so now have a year-round space in London – increased the festival’s capacity year-on-year, created a huge network, and gained funding for various projects. It’s exciting but there is an awareness we need to stay true to our ethos. Luckily (maybe partly because it’s volunteer-led) everyone involved is in it for the love, so that’s not been too hard. We’ve agreed that there is a cap on how big the festival could get before we start to compromise on what makes it special – but there’s so much other room for growth! Collaborations with other organisations, events across the UK etc. It’s a very special team, a magical community, and I have faith we can keep the original spirit alive in whatever new shapes it takes.
Corinthians is a project headed up by my boyfriend Alex Mackenzie – he put together a live band to play his music and it’s my great joy & pleasure to sing with them. We released an EP ‘Crossed Horizons’ in 2017, and recorded new material in LA in October. I’m so excited to see where we can take it, because it’s fantastic stuff. We have a show in Norwich on January 19th and will be booking more in summer.
There are a few things that haven’t been announced yet so you’ll have to keep an eye out online for those… but most of all I’m excited to get on with my main job, which is acting! Last year I made a show with Talawa Theatre Co, and then signed with Conway van Gelder Grant agency, who represent all sorts of exciting folks like Benedict Cumberbatch and Helena Bonham-Carter. When we went to LA I had some exciting meetings with screen people, so this year I’ll be out auditioning, training, making work with Pecs, a collective called Shotgun Carousel, film-makers and theatre companies… and just honing that craft. We shall see where the year takes me!