When burlesque performers shimmy onto the stage at the Triple Door on August 19 for What the Funk?! An All BIPOC Burlesque Fest, it’ll be a sort of culmination for the show's founder, Mx. Pucks A'Plenty. “The fact that I’m producing a show at the very first place I ever saw a burlesque show… I don’t know. I’m very emotional about it,” they say.
A decade ago, after having a child, A’Plenty slipped into a postpartum depression. Then they watched the 2008 documentary A Wink and a Smile. It covers both the history of burlesque and follows performers through a striptease school. That school, Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque, was in Seattle. “I’m like, Oh, these folks look so glamorous and fun,” A’Plenty says. Curiosity piqued, they went to the Triple Door to see its Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker. The glittering, balletic show became a yearly tradition, until, four years ago, they decided to enroll at Miss Indigo Blue’s.
In burlesque they found a culture that was “surprisingly queer… And I say surprisingly because a lot of folks think that burlesque is kind of produced for the male gaze.” Instead, they found the opposite: a culture built around empowerment and challenging the status quo. What the Funk?!, now in its third iteration, was built on similar sentiments.
In 2018, A’Plenty, about a year out of Miss Indigo Blue’s, wanted to create a classic burlesque act—all retro glitter and shimmer—set to funk music. They shopped the idea around Seattle’s venues, but was told that funk music falls outside the specific time range of classic burlesque. (The cutoff is 1968, for some reason.) That’s “kind of the story of my life,” they say. “Someone tells me I can’t do something and I’m like, Oh, I bet I can.” So that year they held two shows at the Rendezvous with all funk music and an all BIPOC cast. People dug it, so the next year it grew to three days at Queer Bar and Columbia City Theater.
This year, over three days, the festival will expand further. What the Funk?! has partnered with Ballard’s Give-Inn—the first burlesque space that's “operated and run by burlesque and cabaret performers for burlesque and cabaret performers”—to put on workshops. National and local performers will headline: Gigi Holliday, Moscato Extatique, Ms. Briq House, Samson Night. And there's that ascension to the Triple Door, with its polished production values. “That’s probably the most prestigious stage in town for burlesque.”
That prestige will now be behind the only all-BIPOC burlesque festival in the Pacific Northwest. “The lack of representation of BIPOC bodies in burlesque is staggering,” A’Plenty says, “especially here in Seattle.” They note that when they started four years ago they’d fairly commonly be the only BIPOC performer, so with this they're pushing for greater representation. “The goal is not to have an all-BIPOC burlesque festival… I would love to be put out of work for that.”
But A’Plenty’s aims—in uniting a Black music genre with an all-BIPOC cast—go beyond improving present representation. There’s posterity at stake. The history of Black and Brown performers runs back to burlesque’s early days in the late nineteenth century. The trouble is, much of that history went undocumented (though A’Plenty points to the Black burlesque historian Bebe Bardeaux, who’s been surfacing it). “So part of the reason for having the festival is to create documentation,” to make sure that these same inequities don’t repeat again and keep more great performers from the stage.
“When I got started, I didn't think in a billion years that anyone would want to come and see what I was doing.... Because I'm Black and fat, and I’m a single mom.” Yet burlesque has been so empowering that they’ve felt impelled to help pay that power forward. “If you see a need, fill it.”