Tonya Joy Bolton is a poet, writer, former pastor, actress and teacher. Most of all she is an inspiration. Having faced homelessness and horrific abuse in her own life, Bolton has used her experiences to empower other people. The founder of ICU Transformational Arts created her show Holy and Horny (see listing) in order to begin discussions around inequalities and hidden abuse. As Bolton puts it, “To break the silence and break the shame.”
In her farewell tour of the show, Bolton will be playing a total of 20 characters. From wise tramps to avaricious preachers, Bolton presents a range of different perspectives. The entrepreneur admits that taking on so many roles can be challenging. “At one point four characters are having a conversation at once. I do make mistakes in rehearsals, so me and my director (Jon Trevor) will burst out laughing. But never on stage, touch wood. I’m a perfectionist and I’m there to give, so by the time I’m on stage that’s all been ironed out.”
Bolton combines poetry, monologue, mime and music in her energetic one woman show. Describing the piece as “Incredibly funny, but also very moving and powerful.” Holy and Horny is focused around the main character, Sheila. This naïve young woman is on a journey of self-discovery and she meets a multitude of characters along the way. Set against the backdrop of a puritanical church, Bolton uses satire and comedy to challenge taboos. Whilst the show does explore spirituality and problems within the faith community, a whole range of social issues are addressed in this solo show. Bolton elaborates
I remember going to church as a child and being told that ‘If you do this, or do that, you’re going to burn in hell.’ I wrote this show partly to create a dialogue around this issue of shame.
“One of the issues in the play is church and Christianity but there are many issues that the play brings to the fore. It does inform the show, as having grown up with a spiritual background I remember going to church as a child and being told that ‘If you do this, or do that, you’re going to burn in hell.’ I wrote this show partly to create a dialogue around this issue of shame. To explore whether it’s possible to embrace one’s sexual desires as well as embracing yourself as a spiritual being.”
Confronting problems within any prominent institution is a brave undertaking. I wrongly assumed Bolton would have faced serious backlash from the Christian community. In fact, Bolton reveals that the church has been hugely supportive of the show. A New Testament church in south London has even commissioned the play solely for their congregation. Born and bred in Birmingham, Bolton is softly spoken and articulate. She affirms that the show is partly autobiographical and that it took her many years to reconcile her faith with her sexuality. With refreshing openness the writer describes how she found liberation through her faith. Having wholly embraced her own body, Bolton is motivated to spread the message of self-acceptance.
“Sex can be seen as shameful because of what religious institutions have made it. But actually if you read the scriptures, that’s ridiculous. Songs of Solomon is more explicit than Fifty Shades of Grey. Having gone on my own journey and discovered who God is to me, it’s easy for me to see that God has created us to be sexual and emotional beings. When God made everything he said ‘It is good’ and that means our bodies are beautiful. Our breasts, our vaginas are all Godly parts of us. You don’t have to be size zero to be made in God’s image. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advising going out and having mass orgies, but I want people to understand that sexuality is good. Pleasure is fantastic and I think it’s humanity that creates an environment of shame and condemnation.”
Tonya Bolton © Pamela Raith Photography
The PhD graduate promotes complete honesty around sex and physicality. There are few women confident enough to mention genitals in the Grosvenor hotel tea-room. Bolton explains that frankness is imperative in forming healthy attitudes in terms of body image and relationships.
“Children have poor body image, but it’s not just in the media. It’s how adults deal with our own selves. A lot of young people are learning about sex and sexual health from soap operas, from the Internet or from the playground and they are misinformed. As adults, if we’re not comfortable speaking about sexuality, you can’t expect our children to grow up feeling secure with it. I work with children as young as nine who are sexually active, self-harming or have eating disorders. The age at which young people are being exposed to certain things is getting younger and younger. They will continue to be misinformed until society as whole broaches these issues in a transparent way.”
Through Holy and Horny, Bolton touches upon a myriad of issues afflicting modern society. These include domestic violence, sexual abuse and child exploitation. Through her two organisations, Women Arise and ICU Transformational Arts, Bolton has worked with thousands of vulnerable women and young people. Through this work, Bolton has uncovered the shocking extent of abuse within the UK, which she chose to address through art.
“One of the reasons I wrote the play was because statistics show alarmingly that black and Asian women in this country are the least likely to come forward and report incidents of sexual violence. When I met with the CEO of Women’s Aid, they confirmed this and said a lot of them aren’t having sexual health provisions either. Often ethnicity can become a double burden. They feel like their community is already being repressed by white patriarchy so to report further issues is selling out their community. Interestingly, statistics show women of faith also don’t come forward much, which I think a lot of times is to do with shame or guilt. So in this show, I wanted to break the silence on a number of levels.”
A lot of young people are learning about sex and sexual health from soap operas, from the Internet or from the playground and they are misinformed. As adults, if we’re not comfortable speaking about sexuality, you can’t expect our children to grow up feeling secure with it
Shattering the secrecy around abuse and mental health issues is a primary concern for Bolton. Through ICU, Bolton runs a number of programmes which encourage young people to talk openly about their own experiences. The positive effects of this work are staggering. One programme called Breaking the Silence toured nationally with over 4000 girls taking part. It is both encouraging and shocking that 35% of the participants went on to report incidents of child abuse. Bolton identifies strongly with these issues. The poet was set on her path of empowering others after overcoming harrowing challenges in her own life. Following a family break-down, Bolton found herself homeless at 15. She spent ten years in a domestic violence relationship and was the victim of rape at 18. Bolton is incredibly candid about these atrocities and displays incredible strength as she describes her moment of revelation.
“I remember being sat in my room in St. Basil’s homeless accommodation and thinking ‘I feel so alone. I never want another young person to feel what I’m feeling.’ Out of that the idea was born. I worked three jobs and I paid for my first degree and I’ve gone on to do lots of things that I’m proud of and have made me happy. I think that in this day and age there’s a lack of role models out there. Not someone from the movies, just a real, transparent person saying ‘Yep, these things have happened to me. That doesn’t mean you can’t pursue your dreams.’ I want people to see there is life after sexual violence, you don’t have to be a victim. You can be not only a survivor, but a thriver.”
Tonya Bolton © Pamela Raith Photography
Bolton’s commitment to empowering others is astonishing. It is rare to meet a person who so wholly embodies the resilience of the human spirit. It is her skill for speaking the unspeakable along with her keen sense of humour which has made Bolton’s show such a success. Having received fantastic reviews for her show’s previous three tours, this is the play’s final outing. As Bolton explains, this is one of many reasons why people should come and see Holy and Horny.
“If people want to see this show, this is their last opportunity. They’ll never see anything like this again. Yes, it’s wonderful entertainment, but it also educates and empowers. I honestly think it could be life changing.”