entertain, titillate, educate and liberate: Brown Girls Burlesque

Brown Girls Burlesque by Nisha Sondha

Brown Girls Burlesque by Nisha Sondha

Brown Girls Burlesque has been around since 2007, and with the launch of their Kickstarter campaign, I wanted to find out more about the project, the ensemble, and the art form of burlesque. I reached out to Aurora BoobRealis, who I’ve known since our days together at Sarah Lawrence College. She’s been a fearless artist for her entire career, and her work is always exciting, thought provoking, and dangerous. There’s 44 hours to go on their first ever Kickstarter campaign, so throw in, if you’re so inclined.

li88y
Women are fetishized in Western culture, and among women, brown girls are fetishized even more. What is Brown Girls Burlesque’s relationship to that fetishization? How does BGB own the objectification?

DawN
BGB is not easily fetishized because we speak our minds and share our sensuality in all of its glorious complexities. We are creating work that is unapologetic, telling the stories we want to tell and as BGB we are shaping a context in which we perform. We are not one dimensional caricatures of “sexy women” but fully formed thinking women who use our creativity and intelligence to, as our tag line states “entertain, titillate, educate and liberate.”

I just got a message from a Facebook friend asking how we are “educating and liberating'” wondering if the idea was “to re-claim the stripper thing to more ordinary women whose bodies are not the homogenized idea so often presented as ‘sexy.'” He confessed that he doesn’t get work like this.

I had another friend message me with a question I was much more inspired to answer, she asked “Could you tell me a little bit more about the stories you tell through burlesque? As in, what lies beyond the bling and brazenness? As a society (she’s from India) we generally condemn any show of sexuality, it doesn’t go beyond the ‘sex sells’ cliche… I know BGB is different… How?”

Here are three versions of the essentially the same question, a question that we get asked a lot. I believe our body of work answers this question. Below are some titles and short descriptions of some of my favorite pieces various members of BGB have created over the past six years.

Puff the Magic Dragon Lady by exHOTic other – takes a deep look at the various stereotypes of the Asian woman and then rips them to shreds. And audiences are forewarned, in exHOTic other’s bio it mentions: “she eats orientalism for brunch.”

Jezebel by Chicava HoneyChild is a piece about negotiating survival in New Orleans as a Creole woman in 1812. She explores the practice of placage, “to place with,” for gens de couleur libres, “free people of color.” She questions what does “freedom” look like?

For our Michael Jackson show, “It Don’t Matter If You’re Black or White,” jazebel jade took the song “Bad” to a whole new level when she enacted a wild revenge fantasy response to street harassment that many a woman has dreamed about.

Death of the Myth of the Tragic Mulatto by me, Miss AuroraBoobRealis, is a piece dealing with the complexities of the constructions of race and the imagined “tragedy” of being born mixed.

Remember the Time by sister selva is an incredible gender-bending recreation of Michael Jackson’s epic video, complete with a female guest artists in the parts of The Pharaoh (Edie Murphy’s role) and Michael’s hooded wizard character.

li88y
I think it’s because, as a culture, we have such confused, often schizoid perspectives and feelings on sexuality, beauty, and in particular, beautiful women, that it’s hard to instinctively understand an art form that is intellectual and sexual in nature. Looking at, and listening to, powerful women who are not wearing suits, who are not trying to hide their sexuality, while they are simultaneously disdaining the pervasive “sexualized women” type, can be confusing. And I think that’s why you’re getting the same question over and over. BGB is asking its audience to be turned on sexually and intellectually, and that presents a conflict. As a culture, we don’t know what to do with beautiful women who are sexy but not objects to be adored, women who are active participants in their beauty, their sexuality, and the exploration of those things in a thinking context.

DawN
Yes, yes exactly Libby! Can I quote you?

li88y
Ha! Definitely. Burlesque has alot of storytelling elements, and to that end, BGB performers have invented fascinating, imaginary profiles of themselves, and create costumes as well. It’s like the art project is the identity as much as the performance itself. What does the creation of the overall character play in the storytelling and performance?

DawN
Every burlesque performer is different with different influences and understandings of their craft. So I can only speak from my experience which seems to be not so much the dominant path. For me, Aurora is DawN. I purposely chose a burlesque name that had an element of the same meaning as my birth name. On and off stage I am the same person, the biggest difference is Aurora wears more glitter. As I am myself onstage and not a character, the storytelling comes from either my personal life or things that I DawN find interesting, things that I as an artist want to explore.

li88y
I write for myself sometimes, mostly for Blue Box’s short play series, Sticky. The character is basically me, but more of a clown, more of a doofus, who has my same thoughts and experiences. We’re the same person, but the on stage me is more awkward.   Are there things you can say or do as Aurora that DawN wouldn’t say or do?

DawN
Are there things I can say or do as Aurora that DawN wouldn’t? – Honestly… no. During this kickstarter campaign I reached out to my entire Facebook community, some folks who I hadn’t talked to or seen in person in forever…old high school and college classmates, people that have known me way before BGB, and I haven’t gotten one message of shock about the fact that I’m a burlesque performer. I think everyone that knows me, or even knew me briefly twenty years ago see how burlesque is perfect for DawN, so yeah, it seems like I was doing burlesque years before I learned the name.

li88y
How do you balance being an artist and a mother? Could you talk about a time when you had to choose which was more important at a given time, and the choice you made?

DawN
I am every day striving for a balance, some days I find it, some days I don’t. I am a perfectionist, what artist isn’t really, but one thing I’ve learned since becoming a mom is that I have to stop beating myself up if I don’t do the thing I’m supposed to do perfect right away. I think being a mom has taught me patience and I am kinder to myself now. I need to trust that things will get done. One of the hardest things for me is that moment when it’s the kid or the work. And the kid comes first but the challenge is BGB also feels like something I birthed, something that like a child may have come from me but is now much larger and more than just me. So although if my daughter is sick I need to cancel a gig or I can’t rehearse, there is that pull.

li88y
Being a mom is definitely one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever done, but even as I’m sitting here reading your answers, and responding to them, C is riding his bike around the apartment waiting for me to finish so we can go to the park. I often take C to rehearsal, and whoever’s not in the scene we’re working hangs with the kid. I feel like as he gets older, there will be work of mine that I don’t think is appropriate for him, and I’m not sure how to deal with that. On the one hand I think I would shield him from it, like I would an R rated film, and on the other hand, I think ‘fuck it, that’s my work, let him deal.’ Do you take your daughter to rehearsal? Do you think there’s a point at which you would not want her to see your art work?

DawN
Do I take my daughter to rehearsal…? In the past year my daughter has been to some of my rehearsals, the main reason I don’t like bringing her at this stage is because I don’t get as much work done, because she wants me to carry her while I’m trying to learn group choreography or something similar. She’s two years and three months and knows I’m a dancer/performer and that I have fancy sparkly costumes and come home from gigs wearing make up. As she gets older I don’t think I’ll be bringing her to my burlesque rehearsals, but at the same time I am striving as a parent to raise her as a confident girl and unashamed of her body and talk with her in age appropriate ways about sexuality.

li88y
Why crowd source funding? Why now?

DawN
We have been self-producing shows since 2007 and although we have an amazing fan base and critical acclaim, as independent artists in NYC we have been struggling. And it had come to a point of we need support to continue, we need to reach out to our community and beyond and if they are really invested in keeping BGB alive, they will contribute. And it’s working! Scratch that, it worked! Literally as I was reading back through my answers and tightening some bits we hit our goal of $18,000! I am blown away and humbled by the amount of support from people all over the world who get our mission and value the art we create. And people are still pledging! The campaign is live until Monday at 3pm EST, so we are still welcoming pledges because more money can allow us to bring our fans more BGB!

li88y
Congrats! I’m so excited to see what you and BGB do next.

Links:

check BGB, and the Kickstarter. Throw in some cash.

BGB: Miss AuroraBoobRealis by Nisha Sondhe

BGB: Miss AuroraBoobRealis by Nisha Sondhe

BGB Culture Classics by Nisha Sondhe

BGB Culture Classics by Nisha Sondhe

BGB: Chicava HoneyChild by Nisha Sondhe

BGB: Chicava HoneyChild by Nisha Sondhe

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