Ese Atawo and Courtenay Mayes explore vulnerability through humour

One of a series of weekly talks hosted by the Vancouver Art Gallery

Art and Humour performers Ese Atawo (above) and Courtenay Mayes (below). Image courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery

Despite isolation having been a thing for over a month now, the Art and Humour talk of Vancouver Art Gallery’s (VAG) weekly Art Connects series is the first virtual event I attended. If I could choose just one word to describe it, it would be raunchy. The event turned out to be less of a talk and more of a performance piece. I think the most often repeated phrase was “big vag, lil clitty” which should tell you all you need to know about the show.

The speakers were Ese Atawo and Courtenay Mayes performing as their respective alter egos, Lil Clitty and Thot Sauce. Atawo is a Nigerian-Canadian comedian and actor who is part of Vancouver’s Blind Tiger Comedy and improv troupes Your Moms and Nasty Women. Mayes is an artist who chairs the Board for Arts Assembly (Vancouver/Toronto) and is the founder of a clothing and textiles studio

The event took place on Zoom and was 50 minutes long, including the Q&A period. When I entered the room, the organizers had the chat function enabled but video and audio turned off for attendees so watching was similar to watching an Instagram live. The difference came from knowing I was watching a more intimate show and not knowing how many other people were watching.

The show itself was thrilling. Atawo’s persona, Lil Clitty, was a 47-year-old aspiring rapper and former accountant who was being interviewed by Mayes’ Thot Sauce. Lil Clitty was performing from her therapist’s office and serving bumblebee eleganza with a yellow, white, and black fur coat and knee-high boots. In the background were two shirtless men (Atawo’s roommates) whose faces we didn’t see but who complemented her performance. Thot Sauce had on white claw nails, pink cateye sunglasses, and was surrounded by “friends” in the form of mannequins.

Lil Clitty performed songs such as “My Ass” and “CUM” while Thot Sauce joined in on the twerking. The shirtless dudes lifted weights or flipped through books (depending on the lyrics). Additionally, Lil Clitty gave Mayes’ second persona, Lucky Guy, a lapdance that’s apparently so legendary “people die of dehydration.” During the interview, Lil Clitty, who was trying to project a confident, sexy image, ends up breaking down about her unhappiness and mental health to Thot Sauce’s visible grimacing. Thot Sauce, though uncomfortable, offered up her own vulnerability and support with responses such as “being a 33-year-old sugar baby pretending to be a 22-year-old virgin all the time is exhausting,” and “the Junos are probably going to come back and I will probably vote for you . . . maybe!”

While it was comedic and I was definitely laughing out loud, Atawo and Mayes’ performance touched on how vulnerability and real emotion are often frowned upon and tend to make other people uncomfortable. Their performance also addressed age and desirability politics. During the Q&A, Atawo explained that the inspiration for Lil Clitty came through her love of hip-hop music and female artists. She does, however, have frustrations with portrayals that are “one note” when in reality female artists are more than that and can be “honest, real, and broken.” Despite the show’s raunch, its messaging was quite raw and vulnerable.

Atawo also spoke about creating this piece and performing it on Zoom. With such a high energy piece, she would usually get hyped up by the audience, but while she knew we were there, she couldn’t see us, making for a very surreal experience. Being able to perform with Mayes and bounce off her energy was ultimately what helped ground Atawo. I was thinking this was a strange experience for me as an audience member, but it opened my eyes up to how much stranger it must be for the actual performers. 

This experience was one I was happy to have and I highly recommend watching the recording on VAG’s Vimeo page. Additionally, VAG will be putting on more free events as part of the Art Connects series though maybe none quite so funny. All the events can be found on their website.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with another of my favourite Thot Sauce lines from the show: “If I don’t go to Sephora everyday, do I even exist?”