If you’re lover of burlesque, and Seattle’s rich burlesque community, then you’re likely also a lover of Boom Boom L’Roux. The performer and producer has been an active part of Seattle’s arts scene for the better part of a decade, after all.
Jess Rosa, the muggle alter-ego of Boom Boom, has long been a lover of the arts. The New York native grew up in museums and art galleries, and parlayed an economically driven move to Seattle in 2008 into a well-respected arts career.
Earlier this year, she produced a highly successful, and somewhat controversial show centered around the experiences of people of color called Dear White People. If you missed it this past February, though you’re in luck, because the show is coming back for a second run this Friday and Saturday 11/18-19.
I was recently fortunate enough to have Boom Boom sit down with me to talk about the show, along with the trials of working as a performer and producer of color in this city. While dealing with the arts community from that perspective is nothing new for her, she’s made it part of her mission over the past few years to address the lack of diversity in Seattle’s arts community, and especially in Seattle’s burlesque community.
“About 3 or 4 years ago I started having conversations within the burlesque community,” she told me. “The burlesque community was really trying to be more diverse, but they didn’t have the pool of performers to pull from. A lot of producers didn’t seem very well-connected.”
“The burlesque community is very inclusive,” she added, “and there’s a lot of different body types. I think that there is more diversity as far as gender representation then there is of race, though.”
When it comes to the success of a community’s arts scene, I’m sure most people would agree that a diversity of artists, styles, and ideas is key. When it comes the idea of diversity, then, especially the lack of it, it begs the question: who’s taking that on?
“That’s a big question here in Seattle,” she said. “I think that the Seattle art scene is very rich, and there are a lot of people of varying backgrounds, and colors, and skill levels. Seattle is amazing when it comes to artists, but it also takes a level of interest and bravery to step outside of your small microcosm.
“I think that’s where the magic’s at, honestly. And if you’re trying to diversify your pool of performers you have to get out of what you’re used to.”
If anyone knows a thing or two about making magic, it’s Boom Boom. She’s performed on stages all around the city. She’s also produced many successful shows by combining a diverse range of performers from musicians and dancers to spoken word artists and beat poets.
“I like to showcase a lot of different performers,” she explained, “and I think that there’s a lot to present here in Seattle. If I can showcase all these people that I love, I think it’s about curating the right group of performers. If you have the right group of performers, what you’re going to get is magic, you know?”
It’s a choice not to see us. It’s a choice not to support us. It’s a choice not to come out to those shows. It’s a conscious choice.”
It was when she’d caught the attention of other producers, though, that she realized why the arts community was suffering from a diversity problem. She’d begun being invited to meetings with different producers who were interested in diversifying their performer pool. While those conversations seemed genuine at first, it soon became clear that they weren’t.
“The conversation would degrade into: just tell me who to hire,” she admitted. “That’s when I started feeling a little used, because I started to feel as if I’m being treated as a representation of all of these other people. Although that is kind of an honor, it is somewhat insulting.”
It would be hard not to feel tokenized under those circumstances.
“I feel very tokenized,” she agreed. “It made me question: do you hire me to do things because you get to fill a slot or are you hiring me because you actually like what I’m putting out? Are you asking me questions because I’m your one brown friend, or because you really value my opinion as a producer a part of the community?”
That’s when Boom Boom began to take a hard look at just how many performers of color were working in the area. The numbers were disappointing.
“The Lady B and I decided to make a list,” she told me. “There’s a Facebook group that I would say 90% of the Seattle burlesque performers are on. There’s 600 subscribers to that group, and of those 600 there are 23 performers of color.”
If people of color make up less than 5% of the working members of Seattle’s burlesque, that could go a long way to explaining some lack of diversity. But are the numbers low because of a lack of performers, or because of a lack of opportunity?
“When you think about it statistically,” she offered, “the numbers are stacked against us to begin with. They’re not there. And then we start questioning why not?
“When I started looking at it that way, it really started shaping my mission, as far as elevating performers of color and creating that space. Showing people that we’re here and if you don’t see us it’s a choice. It’s a choice not to see us. It’s a choice not to support us. It’s a choice not to come out to those shows. It’s a conscious choice. You can’t say you want to be more inclusive without supporting those communities and fostering those artists.”
It’s unapologetic statements like those that truly represent Boom Boom as an artist, and Jess as a person. But isn’t art supposed to be unapologetic? While that would be the ideal, the reality is oftentimes far different. In order to make a living as an artist, someone has to hire you, and pay you. That puts an awful lot of the power into just a few hands. If producers aren’t looking for what you’re offering, after all, you probably not going to end up on the bill.
“That’s kind of where Dear White People came about,” she explained. “Why are people not seeing us, and what are some of the things we tell ourselves that we can’t do in order to be palatable or marketable?”
Why can’t I be unapologetic in my art,” she wondered. “When I started talking to other performers of color, I realized that was a common struggle–that we’re trying to put ourselves in boxes and sell ourselves in a certain way in order to get a paycheck.”
So she created a show where she, and all the other performers, could be exactly who there were with no apologies. It was a frightening proposition. What if the truth they were sharing wasn’t something the audience wanted to swallow?
“As performers, we live for that audience,” she told me. “Who are we without our audience? We do it because we want them to love us. We want them to hire us. We want them to come back and see us and give us those accolades. How do you navigate that as a person of color? I’m gonna do this things that’s very much me, and they’re gonna say that’s too brown, too black, too political, too queer, you know? It’s scary.”
But despite her fear, and the fear of her performers, they persevered and turned their show into a triumphant celebration of people of color. Even the voluminous hate mail she received wasn’t enough to stop them.
“It was hard,” she admitted. “I had a lot of hate. My event was put in Facebook jail for like a week because someone flagged it for hate speech, which I thought was quite funny, because they were offended that it was titled Dear White People.”
Jess is right, of course. We, as an audience, have a responsibility to support more diversity in our arts scene. Art should challenge. It should beckon us to travel beyond the limits of our comfort zone, for it’s then, when we start to feel that stranger discomfort, that we’re also most likely to hear the truth about things.