Theatre’s “Dear White People” probes meaning of resistance through artists of color

The ensemble of “Dear White People: Resistance” includes burlesque performer Bella Sin. (Photo courtesy Boom Boom L’Roux.)

Performance artist Boom Boom L’Roux’s “Dear White People” is back for a fourth run at Theatre Off Jackson — this time, with a theme of Resistance.

Not to be confused with the movie or the Netflix series of the same name, this “Dear White People” is an ensemble revue that includes poetry, stand up comedy, burlesque, dance and music performed by a star-studded collective of artists of color. Though the Seattle show does not share content with the movie, it did evolve from the same moment in time in Twitter, where black folks began writing pithy open letters about whiteness.

“I was really active on Twitter and watching this happen, “ said L’Roux. “What if I were to turn that into a performance response?”

L’Roux is a burlesque performer, originally from New York. She often feels as though she is often the token Borriqua performer in Seattle’s burlesque scene, but she would try to subvert that.

“I had my secret way of creating all-performers-of-color shows,” she said. L’Roux had a monthly show called “Dripping” at the Can Can that included live music, erotic poetry and burlesque.

“It was my way of having a mostly people of color revue without branding it as such,” L’Roux said.

When she became the booking agent at the Can Can, she granted space to Briq House who launched the Sugar Shaq, which remains the only POC burlesque revue in the Pacific Northwest.

For “Dear White People,” L’Roux first wrestled with what she would write in her own open letter, then she reached out to other artists of color who could contribute their own performances to an open-ended conversation, only theoretically about whiteness.

Though the concept began as an imagined open letter to white people, the show has evolved into a nuanced and sometimes visceral performance. The show is less about grievances with whiteness and more about the lives of people of color — our stories, our voices, our bodies, our truths, our survival and our resistance.

“I know all these amazing people of color all across Seattle that are doing amazing work that not everybody knows about,” L’Roux said. “What if I gave them a platform to say that? How would they respond?”

Thus Dear White People was born.

“The first two [shows] were really exploring who we are and were inviting the audience on this journey in our personal exploration,” L’Roux said. “And it started a little softer. The music started a little softer. There was sort of a lead-in, sort of a more carrying you through this experience.”

The third run of the show took place right after the 2016 election. L’Roux called it “Dear White People: Unapologetic.”

“I wanted to just push it a little further,” L’Roux said. “Okay we’ve explored these things about ourselves, but you’ve come to an impasse. Do you choose to silence it or do you choose to move forward unapologetically and if you’re going to move unapologetically what does that look like to you or how do you push back to that?”

The format of “Resistance” is the same, with new performers and new content. L’Roux has gathered a talented collection of performers in a variety of genres from burlesque to poetry, to music, stand up comedy, house and modern dance.

As I waited for the show to begin, a blond woman in silver glitter Ugg boots popped out on stage and unfurled a pink yoga mat. Without much preamble she shifted into a downward dog, held a few poses then produced a selfie stick and began taking pictures. And I thought, “Becky, we meet again.”

With a few minutes left before curtains, she wandered through the audience taking selfies. I deliberately sat in the back row of the Theatre Off Jackson for the purpose of being a spectator and not a participant, so her actions put me on edge. Mercifully the house lights dimmed, Becky wandered off and The Black Tones took the stage.

Waves of loud rock washed over the theater. The all black trio consisted of Eva Walker on guitar, her twin brother Cedric Walker on drums and Robby Little on the bass. Eva was dressed in 1960s white go-go boots and a short black dress as she sang, her strong gravelly voice reminding the audience that rock n’ roll was indeed invented by black people.

They played three songs before the show’s emcee, drag king Samuel L. JackYouSon, returned to introduce the next performers. The show consisted of short vignettes covering different topics and genres, but connected by the thread of resilience and storytelling.

The performances were all standouts and some brought me to tears. Bella Sin, a Mexican burlesque performer, celebrated her heritage by stripping to folkloric music. Nic Masangkay performed poetry about the intersections of gender and family and Filipino culture.

The Luminous Pariah’s act was the most intense. When he came out on stage dressed in the full hood and gown of the Ku Klux Klan, it was hard not to get up and leave. But I stayed because I wanted to see what would happen next.

That act, like many components of the show, was created and performed in other venues before becoming part of “Dear White People: Resistance.”

L’Roux first saw The Luminous Pariah’s act at a show called “That’s Fucked Up,” which used to be held once a year.

“When I had gone to those shows, I’d seen a few of them be about race and that bothered me,” L’Roux said. “It was like, why does race have to be this shock and awe. Why does it have to be for this entertainment shock and awe? Let’s excite weirdness. But then it’s so easily dismissed and brushed under the rug like, ‘well that was just for that one show.’”

L’Roux sought to give the piece a different context.

“The biggest resistance, I feel, comes from that whiteness and especially right now when we’re seeing such pride in hateful whiteness where people are walking around in Nazi emblems, where people feel OK saying that they’re in alignment with Klan organizations with white power, white nationalism, whatever you want to call that right.”

The Luminous Pariah’s piece brings this conversation to the forefront in a way that is unavoidable. But in the context of “Dear White People” — which is greater than the sum of it’s parts — the performance in a Klan outfit is not a bigger part of the conversation than dancer Taqueet$’s performance or artist Po’Chop’s exploration of body and personas.

The show strikes an emotional balance, which is rare in performance art. I laughed, I cried, I hurt, I got pissed and so much more. I wasn’t just stuck in my grief of what this country has become — or perhaps always been.  And it posed important questions.

“What is whole point of your allyship if you’re scared,” asked poet Naa Akua through her spoken word piece.

At one point Becky — or “Snowflake” as her character is aptly named — wandered back on the stage carrying an entire cake and wailing about the election and how incredibly terrible racism is and how she has to now eat her feelings. The audience tittered with laughter, but underneath there is a weariness. Perhaps this has happened one too many times in recent history to be completely funny.

Samuel L. JackYouSon gently takes her in hand and tells her. “It’s not about you.” And with help of a stagehand she is physically decentered. Dear White Women. It’s not that your thoughts and feelings are unimportant. It’s that your self importance has inflated to the size of Godzilla parade float and sometimes it takes up so much time and space that there is not enough air for the rest of us.

I didn’t even know how much I needed this show. I needed to be in a room where people of color were centered and not for entertainment, but rather as part grief ritual, part storytelling, part reclamation of our own right to be heard. This show from beginning to end was a vibrant expression not only of talent and artistry, but a way to share to stories of our heritage, our gender, our bodies, our thoughts and feelings, our voices, our dance, our music, our collective resistance.

If you need to have the experience too, check out the next two shows this weekend at Theatre Off Jackson. The next “Dear White People” will be themed Revolution and is scheduled for February.