Black bodies. This is a phrase we have come to know too well in association with words like “killed,” “beaten,” and “hurt.” It is a phrase that causes our hearts to stop and our minds to rail against the all too frequent uttering- “Black bodies…” This phrase took on a very different meaning in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood this month, as Black bodies bumped, grinded, shimmied, and shook at Jeezy’s Juke Joint: A Black Burly-Q Review, produced by Jeez Loueez. This annual all-Black Burlesque review is more than just a burlesque show. It is an explicit commentary and reclaiming of the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the Black community.
With a lineup of performers that include such award-winning and world-class talent as Perle Noire, Chicava Honeychild, Essence Revealed, The Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins, and Ray Gunn, the audience went on a journey of laughter, tears, sexiness, and disruption. As one particularly poignant performance ended, Jeez Loueez led the audience in a moment of silence for the 23 Cisgender (women who identified with the gender assigned at birth) and Trans* women who have been killed at the hands of police as she listed off the names one by one to only the sound of sniffling in the audience.
This might be the most complex and meaningful burlesque show you’ve ever seen.
Burlesque has historically been another area where Black history and contribution has been erased. Though performers of color had a formative role in the creation of the art form in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, finding documentation of these performers is notably difficult. In today’s burlesque landscape, rarely will you see more than one performer of color in a lineup, if there are any. This lack of representation was the catalyst for Jeez Loueez to start a blog highlighting Black burlesque performers. The blog was turned into a local burlesque review and now, four years later, some of the most well-known and talented burlesque performers in the country frequent The Juke Joint’s stage. The show grew in such popularity that it had to be expanded to two nights for this year’s iteration.
Jeezy’s Juke Joint was developed to create space for performers of color to confront the everyday intersections of sexuality, race, gender, and class in a memorable way for a diverse audience. Many people in the Black community have very little exposure to the art form of burlesque and there is a preconception that there is no place in this art form for Black performers. Jeezy wants to confront this erasure head-on and bring the beauty and power of burlesque to her community. Part of the intention of the show is also to expose other producers to the immense talent in the Black community and increase visibility in the larger burlesque circuit.
A common critique of the show is that it is exclusionary to other racial identities. Jeezy disagrees, “Creating a space for Black performers to shine and share our truths isn’t rooted in the exclusion of other races. It’s rooted in the celebration of our culture and the celebration of self-love.” This brings up a larger cultural critique. “Historically, Black culture has been shamed and Black women are fetishized for our sexuality. White culture not only shames our sexuality and our features, but then turns around and appropriates it, repackages it, and then sells it as ‘new,’ ‘classy,’ and acceptable. It’s important to be able to reclaim what others have projected onto you as less than or undesirable.”
One aspect of the Juke Joint that cannot be denied is its queerness. As an openly queer women herself, Jeezy is intentional in her choice of performers that identify across the entire spectrum of gender and sexual orientation. Full of emotional gender-bending performances and humorous asides from Jeezy, the Juke Joint hopes to challenge remaining ideas of heterosexism and prejudice in the audience and celebrate the expansive diversity of all gender and sexual identities. She also aims to be able to give hope to younger audience members who may be questioning their sexual or gender identity by normalizing diversity of expression.
Rena McDaniel, Med, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Chicago and Sex Therapist-in-training at the University of Michigan, specializing in the LGBTQ population, trauma, queer identity, and helping queer folks live in their bodies and have better sex. Rena works as a Director at IntraSpectrum Counseling, a group private practice specializing in the LGBTQ community. She is a contributor at Quilt Magazine. Visit renamcdaniel.com and follow her on Twitter: @renamcdaniel