A Detroit burlesque revival in historic Black Bottom
By Steve Furay
Special to the Michigan Citizen
“I like the challenge to be innovative,” says Rachel McCollough, the Detroit-born burlesque artist who produced “Noir Night,” an all-Black female cast cabaret show this past Sunday evening. “I want to produce something that no one has ever thought of. I like to be cocky, later on, like ‘nobody thought of that.’ I love the attention. I like the verification that people want to be on board and love.”
McCollough, who performs as Charlotte La Araigne, owns the production company International Black Burlesque Performers. She produced the show “Noir Night” at the Tangent Gallery on Feb. 23 as a celebration of the rich history of Black Bottom — a once-thriving Detroit neighborhood of Black-owned businesses and homes.
Outside of the Tangent Gallery, located at Milwaukee and Hastings, are the ruins of Black Bottom, which was torn apart with the building of the city’s freeways in the 1960s. They were the first stages of the city’s redevelopment plan that led to suburban sprawl, white flight and today’s gentrification. Over 50 years later, the neighborhoods have never recovered, and the stories of Black Bottom remain mostly hidden.
“A lot of our history is written off in story books,” says McCollough. “I like to teach it in an entertaining way and in a very cheeky, very baudy, very in-your-face kind of way, because it’s the only way that you get it, and it also tells a Black audience that your history matters and that somebody thinks it’s important.”
Acknowledging the various cultures of people who’ve attended her shows, McCollough says, “I have one of the most mixed audiences in Detroit burlesque. And I say that honestly and humbly.”
Contemporary burlesque revival began nationally in the early 1990s, with Detroit being one of the main cities where dancers took to the stage to recreate the images from styles long ago. Cabaret clubs were one of Black Bottom’s most popular attractions, with dancers and musicians setting the scene.
Backstage, Dainty Dandridge, who was born in Detroit but currently lives in Washington, D.C., and Jeez Loueez from St. Louis, Missouri work to prepare their costumes, hair and makeup with the rest of the ladies.
“I’ve never been to Detroit, but I’m from St. Louis, that’s where Josephine Baker is from, so we have a lot of history there,” said Jeez Loueez. “We did have a lot of burlesque venues back in the day, but we have a pretty big scene (now).”
“My grandparents came up from the South with a suitcase, and their family was ‘don’t write, don’t call, we’re acting like this didn’t happen,’” said Dainty Dandridge recalling her family’s history in Black Bottom. “Cause he got into it with someone and they were after him, like literally a lynch mob was coming after him.”
When he was 13, Dandridge says he lied about his age to work in the automotive factories. “It’s unreal to me, some of the things that my grandfather would talk about.”
McCollough is comfortable in her self-portrayal as a burlesque dancer, proud of her body and dedicated to the creativity and stories that are able to be told through the performances.
“The sexuality of Black women is not in our hands right now,” she said. “There’s cultural appropriation; it’s not ok when we celebrate our culture and ‘twerk’, which is an African dance movement of joy, and which is a movement of strict health of sexual organs. It has nothing to do with sex, but it’s inappropriate and hyper-sexualized when a Black women does it.”
She explains that for burlesque performers, the seduction comes from much more than the woman just showing off her body. The entire performance is a reflection of the woman’s personality.
“There is huge hegemony that Black women face in celebrating sexuality, and one of the things I wanted to show Black women is that these women who are performing with me dazzle people with more than their T&A. And there’s so much more than their virginity and there’s so much more that shows how intelligent they are in how they put their strap down and they’re not intimidated. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a scantily clad woman.”
Modern burlesque shows can take on many forms, but for “Noir Night,” the goal was to honor the culture of Black Bottom.
“This is honoring Black History (Month), but these shows go on all the time. I like tricking people into learning Black history,” says McCollough. “Like ‘oh I’m going to see T&A,’ but you just learned something. You learned something about Paradise Valley. With this show, you learn Black people contributed to Detroit in more ways than just Motown, in more than just crime, more than just poverty.
Paradise Valley was one of the most successful economies in the world, in the country, and it was a Black-run community. Conveniently, it’s not shown in the history books. What I like about this show is that it’s confronting the issue and it’s about making sure it could never be forgotten again.”