Since 2010, Chicago-based, award-winning burlesque powerhouse Po’Chop has headlined shows across the US, starred in music videos and dance films, and performed at the Brooklyn Museum with Brown Girls Burlesque. She is also a board and cast member of Jeezy’s Juke Joint, an annual production created by Jeez Loueez in 2011 which showcases black burlesque talent.
In 2015, Po’Chop created The Black Burlesque Directory. The painstakingly created resource has recirculated recently on social media, and performers across the world are encouraged to submit their details.
“Born out of rage and love, I created The Black Burlesque Directory after performing in countless burlesque shows as the only Black performer, [which] is lonely and infuriating to say the least,” Po’Chop explains.
“Having participated in Jeezy’s Juke Joint for several years and having long talks with so many other Black performers, I knew that not only did we exist, we were some of the unsung innovators of the craft.
“Jeez Loueez, RedBone, Essence Revealed, Perle Noire, The Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins, Ms. Toni Elling and so so so many more named and unnamed Black burlesque performers reinforced the need for a tool to make it inexcusable to produce a show that was a monolithic revue of burlesque.”
When challenged on the lack of diversity in their shows, some burlesque producers throw up their hands and claim that they are simply catering to their audiences’ tastes and expectations, and presenting popular themes in order to keep their businesses afloat.
It could – and should – be argued that exclusively white, classic lineups and well-worn themes tend to reflect the taste and preference of the producer and/or a distinct lack of creativity and vision, and it’s entirely in the producer’s hands what their audience is exposed to and how their tastes and expectations develop. Not to mention that glamorised, nostalgic tropes from the early to mid 20th Century almost exclusively reflect and cater to a white, affluent experience and perception of those eras.
“[Producers], too, are artists and hold the power to shape an audience’s experience,” Po’Chop concurs. “As a seasoned performer, I choose to exclusively engage with producers and curators who understand that power and use it to highlight a purposeful range of voices.
“If I am going to hold such a standard I believe in providing a tool that ensures the potential for my community to succeed. The Black Burlesque Directory is a tool to help shape who we as a community see and celebrate.”
“I think we, as a community, have to begin looking at where we place value and why,” she continues. “Why are we enthralled with the 1920s as an aesthetic and era, and how do we reckon with the impact of this historical reference point on Black and Brown lives? How can we ensure that Black, Brown, Queer, and folks with disabilities have the resources they need to be their full selves on and offstage?”
Po’Chop, who appeared in Netflix Series Easy in 2017, believes we have to be willing to explore “other notions of beauty, sexuality, grandeur, striptease and gender,” and acknowledge the “deep intrinsic manner in which racism has played a part in our perspective of entertainment.”
But it’s clear this requires deconstruction, examination and participation from everyone in the burlesque scene, and from the top down. Some producers may insist they prioritise talent and reliability, and yet exceptionally talented, professional and award-winning black performers are still fighting for equal visibility and status, while white performers can be booked repeatedly, solely on the basis of convenience and friendship.
“We have to be willing to do the slow, tedious work of detangling our community, and unknotting our bias and oppressive practices,” Po’Chop confirms. “This is the real work. An infinite labor that requires white people to learn how to relinquish power. To look at their actions and follow them back to the root and sit with what is found.”
“Before acting, listen, reflect, and then reflect some more,” she urges. “Nothing being said now in this moment of uprising is new, including The Black Burlesque Directory. What does it look like for our community to listen, trust, and follow Black, Brown, Queer and disabled women and femmes, full stop?
“As an artist, it is my job to amplify the radical voices that go unheard. I apply that same standard to producers and curators.”
To be added to The Black Burlesque Directory you can submit your information via the submission form on the bottom of all of the directory pages. The list is updated manually, so information may take up to 48 hours to update.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.