The Toulouse Burlesque Festival, produced by Florence Boué, and Stephane Lafage of Le Kalinka, has a cast crisis on its hands after a dispute over a blackface burlesque act. Eight performers have walked out in protest at the inclusion of the act.
According to information given to 21st Century Burlesque Magazine, local performer Fafa Bulleuse performed a tribute act to Nina Simone which involved ‘blacking up’ on stage and putting on an afro wig. Some of the festival performers found the act offensive and asked the producers to remove the act. The producers refused to do so, and eight performers ultimately decided to walk out.
The striking performers have released the following statement:
An Open Letter:
Due to an egregious incident at the Toulouse Burlesque Festival, we are writing an open letter to explain our actions and the issue at hand. The three day festival, set at La Kalinka in Toulouse, France began on March 9th, 2017. We arrived, we were treated to a lovely cast dinner, enjoyed accommodations provided by the festival and were otherwise having a grand time for most of the evening, and most of the show.
Towards the end of the evening, a great many of us were shocked and dismayed to witness an act that featured full body blackface. While the white performer had intended the act to be a tribute to Nina Simone, regardless, the presence and act of blackface on stage was and is wholly unacceptable.
As a group, we felt that we were unable to participate in a show and a festival featuring such an act. After much discussion that evening and throughout the morning, one us spoke with management expressing our concerns and desire for the act to be removed or altered. Our request was met with resistance, and ultimately aggression. We had hoped that through positive discussion we could reach an agreement and find resolution that would not only satisfy all parties involved, but also provide education and a opportunity for those involved with and supporting the act to understand why blackface is deeply offensive.
The management was adamant that they wanted to uphold free speech, and therefore the act would remain in the show, unchanged. Part of the ethos of the venue was asserted to be one that embraces “shock value” and the management declared that if the act was shocking, then so be it. While the performer of said act was upset, she ultimately refused to acknowledge that there was a problem. And there was much incredulity that we were upset in the first place, and told that we were too “politically correct.” In fact, upon catching wind of our reaction of this backstage, after the incident, the manager posted a comment on the public event page this morning (March 10) that “intolerance” was displayed backstage, meaning those that were offended (us) were intolerant.
The quote; “Une jolie soiree! De beaux artistes !! sur la scene, rien a dire !! parfait!! En coulisses par contre on est loin de la tolerance et de l’ouverture d’esprit.. Mais bon c’est visiblement dans l’air du temps.”
Our desire was for the white dancer to cease to perform in full body blackface (she began the act to the song I’m Feeling Good, with a head wrap and large earrings, grabbed a bucket of what appeared to be mud, and proceeded to smear brown makeup on her body. She started with her legs, and moved upward, ultimately covering her full face. Afterward, the music changed to an upbeat tune, she donned an afro wig and finished doing dance moves, dumping confetti on herself for the finale). The shock of this was compounded by the presence of a POC dancer who later performed her Blaxploitation act which is a comment on police brutality and racial injustice.
As a group of professionals, we all uphold the mentality of “The Show Must Go On.” We strove to find a solution that would enable us to continue to perform and fulfill our obligations to the three day festival. We elected to take a stand about this persistent problem of cultural appropriation and racism within burlesque. We decided to uphold our values as performers and citizens of the world, by walking away and refusing to perform.
We traveled from all over the world to attend and were saddened that this happened, not only in the first place, but that we were not truly heard and left without a positive change. We packed our bags in a hurry and felt in many ways nervous and a tinge of worry about our safety as the situation escalated quickly. Those of us who were staying at the venue’s flat next door were kicked out, with no place to go. On top of that, all of our pay was withheld, not only for the entire three day run but, for the night we all performed.
This is not a France versus America problem, as the festival producers were insisting. Our group of dissenters hail from several different countries. This is not just an issue of “politically correct” Americans. This is a global issue and these kind of acts are not okay, under any circumstances, regardless of where you live and where you perform. It is not about “shock value.” This is not about “free speech.” This is about right and wrong.
Lotta Love (Slovakia)
This is not the first time European performers have been called out for racially offensive acts. Last year, Mele Kapunkt and Stormy Heather were criticised for their astonishingly racist burlesque act involving blackface, highlighted on 21st Century Burlesque Magazine by Sadie Sinner and Coco Deville.
Toulouse Burlesque Festival producer Florence Boué also appears to have culturally appropriative acts in her repertoire, and Fafa Bulleuse also performs a questionable Dia de los Muertos burlesque act.
The Toulouse Burlesque Festival has been contacted for comment.
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.