“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
The re-election campaign of President Barack Obama received what is likely to be one of the strangest, most memorable fundraisers of its punishingly long tenure in the public eye on August 31. “Burlesque for Barack,” presented by The Shanghai Pearl and gay rights group PNW Glitter PAC, treated a packed house at the Oddfellows Building West Hall to a night of politically-charged performances that touched on every major issue on the minds of today’s electorate. And it did so with some artful stripping and a liberal helping of humor.
The MC for the first half of the show was the inimitable Armitage Shanks, the so-called “Carny Preacher” who implored the crowd at the West Hall to dig deep into their pockets and remain politically engaged in the long slog to election day. Amid his jokes, Shanks acknowledged that he was preaching to the choir.
“Let’s face it, nobody here is voting for Romney,” he sneered. The night wasn’t just about the presidency, though. In the opening number, “I Need a Ballot in My Box,” the intentionally on-the-nose act flashed some familiar Democrat names at the audience, include aspiring governor Jay Inslee, who had a much tamer, more sober fundraiser just across the hall from the burlesque show only two weeks before.
There were no surprises, politically speaking, at Burlesque for Barack. The performances and the audience were all on the same page about health care reform, same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, and the image control of women in public office. As a barometer of social issues, the show could have been predicted from across town, however serious the issues remain. The truly interesting thing about Burlesque for Barack is what it said about the state of live performance art in Seattle.
Through years of small theater and a persistent penchant for the campy and anachronistic, Seattle has cultivated a stunning array of modern cabaret performers. A crop of skilled, innovative burlesque dancers, drag artists, and conceptualists have sprouted on the stages of numerous bars, music venues, and black boxes. Capitol Hill, Fremont, Eastlake, and a seemingly growing list of neighborhoods have something intriguing to offer several nights a week. Seattle’s local stars include the likes of Aleksa Manila, an award-laden drag queen who inspired the audience at Burlesque for Barack to literally toss money at the stage. Every dollar went to the president’s campaign, but Aleksa could have convinced the lot to fund the creation of the world’s biggest cream cheese hot dog if the idea caught her fancy.
Burlesque for Barack wasn’t all drag shows and luchadore wrestling (yes, there was a very well-choreographed tag wrestling match presented by Renton’s Lucha Libre Volcanica). A dramatic burlesque in the first half of the night made a moving case for marriage equality by eschewing high theatricality and camp in favor of a sweet, realistic pantomime of courtship between two women. Far from the intentional shock of the old guard Pride Parade concept, the performance was a 90/10 split between reality and symbolism. It was a meet-cute at a bus stop, a few tame dates, and a love scene that used bare skin to suggest intimacy rather than inspire titillation.
Of course, there were far less subtle moments throughout Burlesque for Barack. The reproductive rights performance featured a giant, papier-mâché vagina, while sleaze-master drag king Ernie von Schmaltz did no less than a pornographic dry run with a blow-up doll bearing a grotesque mug approximating Sarah Palin. Shock is still alive and kicking in Seattle’s burlesque scene, though probably not shocking for a crowd that ponied up the price of admission at Burlesque for Barack, certainly for a conservative audience who are likely to never see it.
That shock brought in a not-insignificant contribution to Barack Obama’s campaign. The current tally for the night’s donations is hovering just south of $5,000, $450 of which came from a live auction. A small painting left the block for $175 dollars, while one young groom-to-be enjoyed a $275 dollar lap dance care of a very generous bachelor party crew.
Watching the sometimes wild, sometimes this-is-the-new-normal performances of Burlesque for Barack, it was easy to feel inured to the flavor of liberalism that is so common in modern-day Seattle. The closing musical performance by the David Guilbault Band put the whole thing in perspective, though. The bare-bones trio played a recently written, but old in style protest song, dour and accusatory of vague forces of war and oppression. The concept of the left that has emerged in Seattle and its fellow deep-blue cities is a far cry from the electric blues of the Vietnam War era. Though the protests may be about startlingly similar grievances, the style couldn’t be more different.