Sunday, February 28, 2016

Diversity on the Boston Burlesque Stage

Over the summer, the Sirs and I held auditions for Sirlesque, and the process was pretty fun. We got to see some new faces (and bodies) performing some new acts we had never seen, and ended up selecting a new dancer (Sammy Temper) and an official MC (Allix Mortis).   It wasn't until a couple weeks after we had wrapped the process that I noticed something I hadn't really paid attention to before.

When looking at photos for all of us, it occurred to me that Sirlesque was kind of....homogeneous. We're a group that lacks a specific kind of diversity.

I guess I never realized how...white...we were.

And me especially. Jeez.

Some of you out there might want to react with "wait, isn't part-time sir Willie Dumey black?" And yes, that is true. But one of the things that I started realizing over time is that the entire burlesque scene in many areas isn't super welcoming to a wide variety of performers of color. It's one thing to be open to the idea of having a broad spectrum of performers who reflect the population where you live, but it's another thing to consider why people of color don't feel drawn to the burlesque stage the way white people do.   So I thought I'd ask a few non-white performers what they thought about that.

I spoke with a few performers I admire who also happen to be non-white; Jolie Lavie, Sake Toomey, and Willie Dumey.

Jolie Lavie

Dale Stones; "So, as someone who is/presents as a non-white performer in a majority white performance scene, how did you come to define your role in Boston burlesque?"

Jolie Lavie; "I see my brand going in the direction of Vaudeville brown beauty loves 1979 in 2016. I want to be seen sexy and strong like Pam Grier with the business savvy of Ms. Josephine Baker."

Sake Toomey; "It's an ever-evolving process, especially considering my persona has changed greatly since I started 4.5 years ago. I had originally planned on Sake Toomey being a sexy ninja warrior and I've basically turned into the opposite. I'm always careful to not turn into an all-encompassing Asian stereotype/caricature, although my chosen stage name is definitely a tongue-in-cheek nod to my racial background."

Willie Dumey; "I am a little on the crazy side, a little unpredictable. I want to go higher, if someone goes gross, I get grosser. Someone wants crazy, I go crazier."

DS; "In a more general sense, how do you see the Boston burlesque scene's relationship with the concept of diversity?"

WD; "I put that stuff out of my mind because this is my escape. I could be negative and have a chip on my shoulder, but life is too short. I could talk about discrimination, I've definitely had that happen, but I gotta keep it away from my performance."

ST; "If we're speaking about racial diversity only, I think the Boston burlesque community as a whole is aware of how white it is. Everyone is in tune with the racial tension happening in our country right now and any commentary on the subject is (generally) well thought out. I'm so glad to see that there are several newcomers to the scene who are POC. I know this isn't part of the question, but I think it will be good for audience members to see more POC representation in the community as well. This past Slutcracker season, both cast A and B Fritz and Clara were POC, and it really made an impression on the audience in a good way."

Sake Toomey

JL; "We need more Asian, Indian, Hispanic burlesque dancers in Boston too. Part of this process is to make sure I stay sensitive to our differences and similarities, while keeping things sexy, fun, entertaining and most of all not insulting to anyone. I am in talks with Meff Leone about doing a Black Exploitation burlesque, right now part of this process is my asking Black people how they would feel about this type of show."

DS; "How do you feel that that kind of show would be received?"

JL; "I am getting 'Yes' from Black friends but the reality our audience is mostly white. Hence why a story like Coffy may work well because she kills everybody. Dolemite pimps the ladies out, no matter the color and I don't think any audience would be okay with a Black man pimping a woman out on any platform...My stories featuring Black men will put them in leadership sans crime roles, we have enough profiling in this country."

DS; "This one's for Willie: Is race something you think about, especially as the only male person of color in Sirlesque (and in a larger sense) one of a select few in Boston?"

Willie Dumey; "It has been a major factor in my recent step away from this last show (Stupid Cupid). Since I am one of Boston's few black burlesque entertainers, shoddy, unprepared acts will not cut it. I felt I really needed to represent up on that stage,"

Willie Dumey
WD (continued); "I'm actually hyper conscious of being an angry person--I don't want anyone to be in fear of me. I'm an older guy surrounded by 20-something year-olds, which means I feel added pressure to maintain my body. I'm an older black guy. Sometimes I'm so into a character, I often can't see what it looks like to a white audience. Remember that Zulu warrior act I did where I did that elaborate dance for the white king and queen?"

DS; "Yeah, I remember hearing different reactions of the folks around me. Everything from 'such a powerful act' to 'I can't watch this, it's crazy offensive.'"

WD; "When I talked to Dexter (Dix) after and asked him about that reaction, I remember him telling me 'Dude, you're black, you should know this.' I put that stuff out of my mind because this is my escape."

A white audience might assume we talked Willie into doing this.

DS; "One of the nagging feelings I experienced when holding auditions was that I wanted to have a more diverse cast in Sirlesque, but can't really add in more POC if they aren't coming out to perform with our group. Why do you think that might be?"

ST; "I don't think that POC are a minority in the Boston burlesque community intentionally. That's why I love Alterna-Tease. It just brings newness to the scene and such a range of talents, bodies and backgrounds. I think, also, it's going to be a slow burn, and as more POC find out about the scene it will become more diverse. Because I do think it can be intimidating for some people to try and join a community when the majority of that community is not like you (racially or otherwise)."

DS; "Is there anything else you might feel like sharing about POC in the Boston burlesque scene?"

ST; "I just hope to see more and more POC making their way into the scene, because representation matters. And I think it's really important for our audience to be able to see someone who looks like them on stage. And, selfishly, I'd love to walk into a venue for a show and not be the only nonwhite person in the cast."

JL; "I must say in my light research I have found that there are many black performers who are wanting to be part of the Boston Burlesque world. Who knew? My upcoming show will be called 'Black Love.' I am still in research phase."

Jolie Lavie

Near the end, Willie mentioned something I hadn't even thought about before. The added pressure of being the only one to represent an entire demographic on the burlesque stage in a given area raises the stakes considerably for putting out a good, memorable performance. We all try to distinguish ourselves in a variety of ways, but for non-white performers, race and outward appearance is already a noticeably distinct branding attribute that audiences are more apt to remember (e.g. "remember Willie? He was the only non-white guy in the cast.") If people are more likely to remember the performer, they are certainly more likely to remember that person's act, whether good, bad, polished, mediocre, or phenomenal.

We humans have a subtle magnetism that draws those of us who are like-minded and similar-looking together. By that same token, if you're one of only a handful of racially diverse performers in a largely white scene, there is a hyper-awareness that can occur. In performance, those differences are highlighted even further, and through many generations of social conditioning, we experience entertainment differently based on the shapes and colors of the people on stage.

I read a piece recently about the complexities of mourning celebrities who have committed sexual abuse. After reading this, I'm more certain now than I've ever been that majority white audiences look at black performers differently, and we absolutely don't treat them the same as white performers. In the media, we hear about white celebrities who are innovators, geniuses and extraordinary performers in their fields who are passively excused for sexual abuse (David Bowie, Peyton Manning, Roman Polanski, Elvis Presley) but are protected in career and legacy while black performers and innovators are not (Bill CosbyR. Kelly). While sex abuse is not okay no matter what race the perpetrator is, we are far more likely to hold black entertainers and innovators in contempt and disparage their contributions to their fields of performance and their legacies.

Willie Dumey closed our conversation with something that gave me pause;

"I have to be friendlier and more up front because of what I am on the outside."

It's so easy to be in a room full of other burlesquers who all enjoy the stage, but I know that as a white performer, I am not wondering whether or not my temperament is under a magnifying glass. I wonder if that's not a possible explanation for my original question about people of color in the Boston burlesque scene.

Creating a welcoming and accepting performance scene is a job for everybody. While it isn't as simple as posting an "all are welcome" sign out front, it is important that we keep an open dialogue with our performers of every color, in an effort understand how to make Boston burlesque a truly representative space.