A woman dressed in white with a fake fur stole and big brown wig comes tripping out of the darkened wings of the upstairs venue at the Theatre Off Jackson, to the music of Amy Winehouse.
The performer just barely makes it to the lit stage, using audience members as crutches. She drinks, sinks back into her chair and begins to remove her clothing. She makes her way into the rows of couches and armchairs and flirts with the crowd. By the end of the song, she’s on stage and audience members are screaming, laughing and throwing dollar bills onto the stage. She exits in her lacy white underwear, while stage kittens collect her clothing and her tips.
It’s the Valentine’s Day edition of the Sunday Night Shuga Shaq, which bills itself as the only all people of color burlesque revue in the Pacific Northwest. The dancer is Sadiqua Iman, who performs under the name Namii. Namii is visiting from Washington, D.C. and has a performance planned nearly every night while she is here, including the first weekend run of 2155: An Exploration of Afrofuturism in Performance Art at Gay City Arts.
Shuga Shaq was started a couple of years ago by its host, Ms. Briq House, who prefers to not connect her burlesque work with her real identity. The show is produced by House, performer Sin de la Rosa and Theatre Off Jackson. On stage, House reaffirms that the revue is for showcasing “the brown and the round.”
Raised in a Black Baptist community in Seattle, House says she felt her natural exuberance and sexuality were restricted. Burlesque was an outlet for her to express herself fully without having to conform to external pressure.
“Burlesque helped me come home to myself,” she said.
Although Seattle is one of the country’s largest burlesque cities and houses BurlyCon, an annual burlesque social and educational convention, like the city itself, much of the scene is white. After getting her chops working with other troupes, Briq House started the Sunday Night Shuga Shaq as a home for performers of color of all sizes and genders.
She also emphasizes the importance of productions that are economically viable for working class artists. Shuga Shaq isn’t as costume-heavy as other burlesque shows — though the performances are not hurt by that at all. House also sometimes spends her own money to make sure the artists get paid.
“It is a very expensive art. My goal is to put money in the pockets of artists of color,” she said.
Burlesque is widely understood to be synonymous with striptease, but its origins lie in social commentary and satire. The Shuga Shaq has featured acts that focus on Black Lives Matter, domestic violence and other issues.
Before launching her own revue, House interned at Sinner Saint Burlesque, another Seattle troupe. That group’s mission is to “celebrate the human experience through smart, sexy entertainment.”
Its upcoming show “Forces of Nature” addresses climate change, billing itself as “an opulent striptease tribute to the natural world.”
“Forces of Nature” also brings racial, gender and body size diversity to the burlesque stage. Namii will be featured in “Forces of Nature.” So will Lowa DeBoomBoom, a performer of color from Olympia billed as a “performer, producer and plus-size fancy lady.” The show also includes Fosse Jack, a male artist.
“We love making polished and aesthetically pleasing work that has content. If it’s not challenging or starting a conversation, there’s no reason to do it,” says Doña dei Cuori, one of Sinner Saint’s co-owners. “One of my acts in the show is about gravity. What if a female stripper discovered gravity instead of Newton? At a deeper level, it’s about the contributions of women to the sciences.”
In Forces of Nature, Sinner Saint draws attention to the joys of connecting with Mother Nature. The show is described on its Facebook page: “watch volcanos, the rainforest, and the seasons come alive. Be seduced by gravity’s pull, the ocean’s currents, and the dazzling stars. Get carried away by rivers and streams, be shaken by tectonic plates, and find yourself drunk off the beautiful moonlight.”
Flowing silks form running rivers, rich costumes turn performers into trees and birds and the music and recorded narration take the show from the desert to the rainforest to the cosmos. Forces of Nature includes an optional VIP pre-show ritual that promises to titillate all of the senses by offering locally made Dark Days chocolate along with other sensual experiences.
Briq House says she considers Sinner Saint to be family.
“They showed me that burlesque doesn’t have to be pretty. Just like being a woman doesn’t have to be pretty. There are no rules,” she said.
By the second act of the Shuga Shaq on Valentine’s Day, Namii re-emerges, this time as a male character dancing to Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” — giving the audience an equally compelling yet completely different burlesque experience.
You can check out Namii, Dona dei Cuori and other artists at Forces of Nature at Theatre Off Jackson, February 18-21. The next Sunday Night Shuga Shaq will be held on March 6 at Theatre Off Jackson.