On black Friday the Chocolate City Burlesque & Cabaret troupe put on a lively performance at the Gala Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights. A big part of the troupe’s mission is to preserve the art and history of black burlesque. One of the pioneers of black burlesque is Josephine Baker an African-American who sashayed her way to fame in Paris in the 1920s. Merriam Webster defines burlesque as: “a kind of entertainment that was popular in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and that included funny performances, singing, dancing, etc., and sometimes performances in which women took off their clothes.”
The show was structured in a series of short, one or small group performer sets. Each set was a unique blend of theater, dance and caricature that ended with flying nipple tassels and G-strings. My favorite performers were Fox. E Martin and Jeez Loueez. Fox E. Martin glided across the stage with the elegance of a ballerina and then would drop effortlessly into a split. Jeez Loueez, a gifted tease artist would ask the crowd if she should take something off, then defiantly turn around and fling the requested item over her shoulder. During Loueez’s performance a male audience member yelled, “I’m straight now.” It was pretty hilarious. The crowd was a mix of chocolate and vanilla faces mainly women and some couples. In a society where black women’s sexuality is either stigmatized as shameful or exploited for someone else’s benefit, I found it very refreshing to see these women express theirs unapologetically and artistically.
Last weekend renowned Ethiopian-British broadcaster and poet Lemn Sissay recited poetry and put on an informal, intimate performance at Bus Boys and Poets in Takoma Park. I’m usually not a crier but I struggled not to shed a tear as he read a poem about his adopted mom giving him up to a children’s home, which he says was like a prison. One of the humorous stories Sissay told was about a date. His date asked him to tell her about himself. He responded by reciting his poem “Dysfunctional.” She then exited the premises which Sissay mimicked with theatrical flare. Here’s a sample from one of his poems that he read “Invisible Kisses”
If there was ever one
To whom when you run
Will push back the clouds
So you are bathed in sun;
Who would open arms
If you would fall;
Who would show you everything
If you lost it all.
The night ended with a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony where popcorn and coffee was served. I have always admired people who live in their truth. Lemn Sissay tells his story so candidly, I have been moved to start writing poetry again myself!