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'It’s Definitely Been My Church:' Black Performers Star In Upper Valley Burlesque Show

JAG Theater on the Hill Burlesque photographed in Norwich, Vt. on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.
Rob Strong, Courtesy
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Life in Sepia premiered Friday, Sept. 3 in Norwich as part of JAG Productions Theater on the Hill series.

Sharonna Henderson first got into burlesque because she was looking for something fun to do. Her son was getting older, and she wanted something different.

“I was like, I want something that's not kid-friendly. I want to be out at night,” Henderson said. “I grew up dancing ... and I've always loved being on stage. So I decided, with the help of people in the community, I was like I want to do a burlesque and variety show at the Main Street Museum in White River Junction.”

That show sort of blew her mind. “That was my first time seeing a reverse striptease,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is wild.’”

Burlesque is a “symphony of theatre, comedy, and striptease,” according to a description from JAG Productions. There’s feathers, rhinestones, and, usually, a lot of skin.

Henderson, who lives in Randolph, began performing under the stage name Golden Mystique. She’s been in Burlesque shows in Vermont and across the country. But finding a community of other performers has been hard. There’s only one burlesque group in Vermont, in Burlington, an hour and a half from where Golden Mystique lives.

And she’s felt disconnected from other Black performers. That isn’t necessarily unique to Vermont.

We don't get these opportunities as Black burlesque performers to all come together to do a show.
The Maine Attraction

“It's an unusual thing for there to be two Black burlesque performers in a show,” said Maine Anders, who performs under the name the Maine Attraction. “I know that sounds so wild and crazy, but that is the reality of our world. It is a very white world — the discipline of burlesque.”

Henderson and Anders, who is based in New York, have produced a burlesque show featuring all Black performers, with JAG Productions, a Black-owned theater company.

A Burlesque performer with a costume of long green peacock tail feathers performers on an outdoor stage at nighttime.
Courtesy Rob Strong
For the Maine Attraction, the Norwich performance was a historic moment.

“It's definitely been my church,” Anders said. “And what a gift. Because we don't get these opportunities as Black burlesque performers to all come together to do a show.”

For Anders, the show is more than bringing these performers together. It’s also documenting their existence and impact on the art form.

Because historically the names of many Black performers were never recorded.

Anders remembers stopping at a university library where there was a section on the history of burlesque. As she was flipping through photos of Black performers, she saw the same thing again and again.

"Every picture had unknown underneath it, and it said sepia dancer, because that's what Black burlesque performers were referred to back in the day. And there was no identity,” she said. “It just broke my heart.”

This show is to ensure their names are remembered, so future performers will know who came before them.

“I'm gonna lose it. I'm gonna cry a lot,” Anders said. “I’ll do it before the lashes go on though.”

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp @KruppLexi.

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