Posted April 28, 2018 6:03 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — "Welcome to our show,” Una Osato, 35, shouted into a microphone from the stage to a standing-room-only crowd in Starr bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Osato was wearing a purple dress adorned with a long, metallic scarf made entirely from recycled materials that stretched onto the floor and into the first row of the audience. It was a Sunday afternoon, and everyone was there to see one thing: brASS: Brown RadicalAss Burlesque, a New York City burlesque troupe created by queer women and women of color to redefine a scene that they say has often failed to provide them, queer and transgender performers opportunities.
When the crowd’s unrelenting roar finally came to a halt, Osato paused and was visibly taken aback. The outpouring of support continued without any signs of letting up as the main stage light glared brightly on her. Perhaps her temporary delay was spurred by a sudden burst of elation; after all, a sold-out venue is grounds for celebration in a city where, one of the performers said, artistic labor is “often taken for granted.”
The idea of creating a community where women of color could be their unapologetic selves had — almost a year ago — existed solely as a figment of their imagination. On the eve of the show’s anniversary, this group of burlesque performers had finally found a space.
On this day, in true brASS fashion, there was an assortment of performers whose individual acts included a combination of dazzling burlesque sequences, like Munroe Lilly’s performance, in which gravity-defying body contortions heightened the suspense of the evening. Another well-received performance was that of the comedian Lorelei Ramirez, an artist based in New York City who also writes for VICE’s “The Creator’s Project.” Her sketch included jokes that dealt with her multiracial identity and a moment when she walked into the crowd, joined hands with several people and satirically joked that it would be one of the only moments in their lives when they would all feel a collective attachment to one another.
For the founders of brASS — Osato, her sister, Michi Osato, 31, and longtime friend, Dawn Crandell, 43 — growing up in and around New York City taught them how to interact with people from diverse backgrounds. What they began to notice, however, was that performing in the city highlighted a disparity: the burlesque dancing community, they said, was still predominantly white, cisgender and thin.
“The kind of burlesque that we do has never been celebrated in mainstream shows,” Una Osato said while applying eyeliner before an impromptu performance in Union Square Park in Manhattan a week before her Brooklyn show. “People have limited views about who can perform burlesque and it’s really important that we have created a space for women of color, transgender and queer folks.”
In a city often heralded for its diverse art and performance world, spaces for “nontraditional” art — a term several members used to describe the way that performers of color are often spoken of — are limited. In addition to brASS, troupes like “Brown Girls Burlesque” in New York City and “Chocolate City Burlesque” in Washington have been established as a response to the lack of opportunities.
Sweet Lorraine, a native of Jacksonville, Florida, moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater. She was introduced to burlesque when an internet search for black pinup models like Miss Topsy and Joyce Bryant in publications like Ebony and Jet magazines led her to vintage burlesque footage. Days after watching the footage, she enrolled in The New York School of Burlesque and began to perform in shows.
“I noticed that there were lots of black and brown people who were doing burlesque, but we never seemed to get in the same show,” Lorraine said while recalling her early days of burlesque performance from a booth in a restaurant in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “We were often told that a particular show already had a black or brown person. And that there couldn’t be two of us at the same time.”
“And that happened a few times,” she added.
In addition to providing a platform for racial representation, brASS has, since its inception, emphasized the need to create an environment where queer and transgender performers feel safe to perform.
In a year that has seen a significant increase in violence toward LGBTQ and intersex or asexual people throughout the United States, according to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, the work of brASS has taken on another dimension. For many of its performers, the stakes have never been higher, particularly in a state like New York, which is one of the two states with the highest rates of homicides in the country.
“Even in a New York art scene, which is very queer and pushes gender, there is still a lot of rigidity,” said Michi Osato, a performer trained in West African dance, and a native of the East Village in Manhattan. Alok Menon, a performance artist of South Asian descent who frequently performs with brASS, echoed Osato’s sentiments.
“The work of brASS has always been empowering for me because I’m a trans person of color,” they explained. “I grew up thinking that you have to be an old, white and straight man to be considered an artist. So when you go to a brASS show, which is curated by women of color, you see lots of different kinds of bodies, different kinds of genders, and different kinds of abilities than you would see anywhere else.”
The troupe’s monthly show, named “Compost Bin,” emerged from the idea of composting, according to Dawn Crandell, a native of Saratoga, New York. The ethos is taking some of the things that have impacted the group’s members in negative ways: loss, trauma and hardship, and converting them into something nourishing and cathartic.
Crandell, a mother who works as a dance and fitness instructor, took up burlesque after a career as an exotic dancer and, like many of her fellow performers, her routines are inspired from a deep commitment to social justice. She met Osato in the back of a police van as they were being arrested at a protest years ago.
“I was taught to ‘leave the politics out’ of dance in college, but as a woman of color, our bodies become politicized once we step on stage because when people think of burlesque, they still don’t think about us,” she said. This history, according to Xandra Ibarra, a performance artist based in Oakland, California, who has published in the MIT Press and Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, about burlesque and performance studies, originated sometime in the 17th century and was an offshoot of a Victorian form of burlesque that transformed when it arrived in the United States from Europe.
Ibarra said that burlesque was brought to the United States in the 19th century, and went through a slight transformation after the Civil War when entertainment emerged as lucrative business. During this era, burlesque and other forms of entertainment like vaudeville, a genre that included varied theatrical acts, and minstrel shows, designed to mock people of African descent using comedy, dancing and music, became viable markets and sources of income for performers.
These emerging forms of entertainment, however, were often considered “dirty” or “seedy,” Ibarra said, because they were attended and performed by working-class people in the racially segregated South.
“Women of color, and black women in particular,” she said, “were part of that performance history but were almost always excluded from white circuits so they created their own shows for black performers and black audiences at the turn of the 20th century.”
Like Josephine Baker, an internationally acclaimed early 20th century African-American burlesque performer and civil rights activist who refused to perform in racially segregated venues in the United States, MF Akynos, a performer who grew up in Brooklyn and works as a sex worker and sex rights advocate, believes that being able to perform in a space where black performers are free to express themselves is important. When she first began performing, as a single mother in her early 20s with two children, finding places to perform was challenging given her work schedule. That was until a former employer recommended she attend a burlesque show.
“In the past five years things have gotten better and there are more people of color in the burlesque circuit. We have a lot more black and people of color performances,” she said immediately after her performance that included a number of dazzling dance sequences in a two-piece gold outfit that received a number of cheers from the audience.
Today, Akynos concedes that she has seen some changes within the burlesque scene, but says women of color are still far removed from equity.
“When you eliminate us from the stage, you are saying that what we are saying isn’t important,” she said. “But we need this because we have to have a creative outlet to tell our stories the way that we want to. People of color have so much history in performance itself so when only white stories are told, it reinforces racist ideas about culture, which is why it’s important to see different types of people tell their stories.” When the show came to an end, Michi Osato and the rest of the performers gathered on stage, still beaming from the adrenaline of their performance. The audience once again responded with astounding applause, as they had done just an hour and a half earlier, at the beginning of the show.
“We’ve got to keep each other alive because no one is going to do it,” said Osato. “That’s what this show is helping us do. We have to do it for ourselves and for each other because we can’t trust that people in the world will do it for us.”