All-Black burlesque show takes Juneteenth’s spirit of liberation to the stage

Burlesque performers Jason Powell, his husband, Randy Phillips, and Steven Taylor put together their first Juneteenth show in 2020, after the killing of George Floyd.

Within weeks, the trio convened an all-star cast to create something beautiful.

“It’s wild because we shouldn’t need a specific day to celebrate Black art,” Taylor said.

In celebration of the holiday this year, the Juneteenth Jumpoff, an annual cabaret-burlesque show, will take the stage on two nights — Tuesday and Wednesday — at the Baton Show Lounge and the Den Theatre. The show allows Black performers to express themselves for “Jubilee Day.”

Led by the three burlesque dancers under their production company Bawdy Suit, the shows will include individual acts from dozens of performers.

Burlesque is an often provocative, sensual performance that includes storytelling through advanced dancing, comedy, singing and costuming. It isn’t often associated with Black culture.

Being Black onstage in a whitewashed industry is already a “form of activism,” said Powell, who is also one of the show’s producers.

Powell knows what makes a good show. This one brings top burlesque talent from around the world to Chicago and has electrifying energy, he said.

It was important to the producers that everyone performing be Black. Phillips, who is white, says he refrains from even speaking onstage in his capacity as a producer to allow the show to keep its focus on Black performers.

The concept and history of Juneteenth, which celebrates when slaves in Texas were freed years after the Emancipation Proclamation, was unfamiliar to Phillips prior to the show, he said.

The holiday, which has been celebrated widely in the Black community since the 1970s, became a federal holiday in 2021.

“There’s a lot of horrible history that’s left out and it feels like there’s this big churn happening now where everybody wants to actually learn the truth about our history,” Phillips said.

African Americans have been a crucial part of burlesque history, despite the field being largely whitewashed, with producers claiming they cannot find Black performers, Powell said.

“We have a wide network of performers that happen to be Black and are great performers,” Powell said.

Josephine Baker, the singer and actress who was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, was a notable Black burlesque dancer.

The provocative nature of burlesque performances can make people wary of attending, but they should know that consent and safety are top priorities, Powell said.

This sexualized reputation can be used as a way for Black performers to reclaim power from a harmful narrative.

“My sexuality is often weaponized, demonized,” said Taylor. “Black women and men too have been fetishized. It’s a way for us to reclaim it. That’s not to say the burlesque show will be hypersexual, but it can be because that’s part of our liberation to come as you are.”

The annual show has a “bonkers” energy that’s unique from other burlesque shows Phillips has attended in his decades-long career, he said.

“(Burlesque) just encompasses everything,” Phillips said. “So it can be comedic. It can be sensual, it can be clever. And it’s kind of up to every single artist to figure out what it is to them and how they want to express themselves.

“So it being on Juneteenth and having a Juneteenth celebration and being able to celebrate Black bodies and watch their art form… the energy is wildly different than a normal burlesque show.”

Audience members who aren’t familiar with burlesque leave the show amazed, Powell said.

“There are people who have never seen burlesque shows that were like, ‘Is this how every burlesque show is?” he said. “We’re like, ‘Sadly no. Sorry, but your next experience is not going to be like this one.”

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