By Andrea Plaid
When I saw my very first Brown Girls Burlesque show two years ago, my mouth was agape at BGB dancer Essence Revealed’s piece celebrating the life of Josephine Baker. To the sounds of the consummate performer’s live performance, Essence saunters onto the stage–really, her Josephine is strolling into her dressing room after a performance–in black tux, ‘tails, and top hat, with a newspaper in hand. Essence opens the paper to the audience, which shows factoids about Baker’s incredible life and takes off a part of her garb, as if undressing to go to sleep for the night. But this is burlesque, and Essence’s every move is all about the tease and that all-knowing smile as she also conveys the power Baker herself held over her adopted home of France and the world-outside-the-US through the power of her self-loving work expressed through her brown body. When Essence-Josephine lays her head down on the floor to exit this world, I, too, understood that Baker’s transition was of a woman of color who lived a gloriously full life. I slow-clapped–then shouted–my deep appreciation for what Essence brought to the audience through her sinewy, sublime performance, thankful for bringing Baker back to life just one more time to receive her just due.
Essence herself is all about living a gloriously full life. I asked her, via email, to discuss her life in burlesque and stripping, the larger discussions about race in both professions, and getting paid in both professions. Between her running-to-the-next-gig days she graciously answered them.
Of course, the basics: where did you go to school? What was your major? Have you always been so fabulous?
I studied burlesque at the Brown Girls Burlesque’s Broad Squad Institute. I have a master’s degree in educational theater from NYU. Fabulous, no–and I have the elementary through high school pics to prove it! And even now anyone can look fabulous with good makeup and lighting. Being fabulous is an ongoing self-improvement job with new projects that show themselves daily. But thanks!
I know you from working with Brown Girls Burlesque. How did you get involved with the troupe? Were you interested in burlesque before joining the group? How did you get interested in burlesque?
After working on a HyperGender burlesque show at WOW Cafe Theater, I thought it looked really fun. I started to go see shows around town. When I saw my first BGB show I became a groupie. I was really into what the were doing with the art form and how. It was also amazingly great to see so many brown women doing it. I didn’t see much representation in the shows i’d been seeing around town. When I found out they were doing a class, I made it my business to sign up. I’d been performing around town already but was afraid to call it burlesque until after I’d taken the class. I didn’t know if I was doing it right. LOL…
I loved your post on the similarities between burlesque and stripping. For those not familiar with the nuances between them, what are the similarities and differences?
Stripping is a sales job intended for income and flexible schedule. Burlesque dancers strip, but they are creating short, polished pieces. Strippers need to be great at sales, not be taken out mentally by hearing “no” numerous times in a single night and know how not to take anything personally. Strippers interact with customers. A burlesque dancer can choose to go from dressing room to stage back to dressing room then exit without having to engage audience once off the stage.
Honestly, I think it’s pretty silly how engrossed the burlesque community is in this difference. Strippers couldn’t care less. When I say to a stripper that I do burlesque all they want to know is does it pay well. Ever hear the joke?
Q: What’s the difference between a stripper and a burlesque dancer?
A: Strippers get paid.
For you, what are the similarities and difference between doing those professions as a woman of color?
It’s similar because with both I get to relish in my sensuality on stage for an audience. I find that so much fun and satisfying. As a stripper I always made it my goal to work in one of the top three corporate clubs in whatever city I was in. In burlesque, I also make it my goal to work in whatever spaces/shows I like.
There are strip clubs that hire very few women of color, just as there are some burlesque shows that hire very few women of color. In fact, the first night I auditioned for upscale clubs, I got told no by all eight. I was ignored for a year by a certain burlesque venue. No doesn’t hold much weight with me. I just keep going until I reach my goal or just shift and adjust my focus.
There are strip clubs for a fact–and perhaps burlesque shows–that won’t hire women of color. (I don’t know this for sure [about burlesque shows] because there are some shows I just will never pursue because they do not ever look inclusive when I’ve gone to see them). So what? There are plenty that will. I don’t think I’d enjoy working at places where I wasn’t welcomed, anyway. And with burlesque there is the added benefit of being able to create your own show or spaces.
Let me loop back to a discussion we had a couple of months ago about Dita Von Teese’s “Opium Den” piece. What are your thoughts about creativity and accountability as far as creating pieces that deal with race, especially those that utilize a stereotype or a painful episode in marginalized people’s history?
Honestly, I don’t really have thoughts about it. I have plenty of work to do on myself enough to keep me busy this entire lifetime. I tend to keep my focus on my growth and development as a way in which to improve the world. At the end of the day, I have control over me. I choose to speak for and advocate for what I believe in. I feel like fighting against adds more energy toward that which I do not want. I prefer be what it is I want to see more of and keep it moving. Even that gets me flack from some people. At the end of the day I’m for self definition, doing what feels authentic for you as an individual and keeping it moving. I don’t have to agree with everyone and they don’t have to agree with me. Everyone will never be pleased. There is so much racist, sexist, ageist, -ists, and -isms in the world that if II, as a first-generation, LGBTQ, *ahem* mature woman of color, chose to ball my fists up for everyone I became aware of, I’d be too exhausted and frustrated to do much else. It’s also why I refuse to watch the news or read the newspaper. It’s such fear and defeatist programming.
I do have to say, though, that I think that it is extremely odd to want to pick what one thinks are the “pretty” bits of a culture and put it on like jewelry. In college I had a white male dorm-mate that spoke slang, listened to and dressed what he interpreted to be hip-hop. He was a rich white kid from Long Island with a dorm room full of studio equipment bought by Mommy and Daddy to prove it. I had to tell him not to talk slang to me. I’d often remind him that he just wants the aesthetic of being “hip-hop” because, if he had to deal with the total reality of being a black man in this world, he’d go running back to Long Island so fast. He surely didn’t stop his behavior. Sure, he knew better than to talk to me in slang, but he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do no matter how stupid I think it is.
Check out the rest of the interview on the R’s Tumblr!