Jeezy’s Juke Joint is the Burlesque Festival Bringing Diversity to Chicago’s Stages

I wasn’t expecting to cry during a burlesque show. As performers danced fearlessly, sang soulful songs, and recited poetry about growing up on Chicago’s south side, a community united as if to say, we see you, we hear you, we support you and we celebrate you. In a time when the world itself has been at its most vulnerable in ways that our generation has never seen, both the artists and audience members present in the long-time Chicago staple, the California Clipper, which had recently reopened after two years of a pandemic-induced closure, ignited an atmosphere inside the venue that was electric and intimate all at once. The evening’s host, Shimmy LaRoux, gracefully welcomed the audience with a warm ease and then, halfway through the show, took a moment for an emotional intermission break after paying homage to one of burlesque’s own Black trans artists who should have been in the room that night. And that’s when I, along with some new friends in the crowd that I had bonded with over burlesque and the arts, quietly cried.

The weekend extravaganza was Jeezy’s Juke Joint: A Black Burly-Q Revue. It consisted of four shows in three days, Thursday through Saturday, followed by workshops for aspiring performers on Sunday led by some of the weekend’s burlesque stars. From the California Clipper to The Promontory and ending at the Hairpin Arts Center, Chicago unknowingly hosted one of its most important festivals. This festival, now in its tenth year, was created by burlesque host and performer Jeez Loueez to make burlesque more accessible to Chicago’s Black community and to allow the performers to celebrate their Blackness unapologetically onstage in a safe space.

RedBone performs at The Promontory in Chicago.
Photo by APRoberson Photography.

The burlesque shows that I had seen before had been very intimate and very, very white. Intimacy aside, the shows I saw hadn’t reached me on a more personal level. I hadn’t connected with the performers and I had not been emotionally invested. It wasn’t until I was in a room filled with people who very clearly poured their hearts and souls into these performances, showcasing their authentic selves so purely and shamelessly, that I realized burlesque could be so much more than fringe, feathers and tassels. Jeezy’s Juke Joint was an environment where Blackness and queerness came together and was supported, uplifted, celebrated and ultimately thrived. It was one of the most beautiful nights of live performance art that I have ever witnessed and I grew overwhelmed with gratitude to have been welcomed into such a vibrant yet vulnerable space after centuries of misunderstandings and discrimination towards the art of burlesque and the lack of diverse representation onstage.

Ray Gunn performs at The Promontory in Chicago.
Photo by APRoberson Photography.

Jeez Loueez was kind enough to take a few minutes away from producing and prepping to sit down with me before the weekend’s opening night show and share what went into the making of Jeezy’s Juke Joint and how she hopes to see burlesque continue to grow as an accessible and diverse art form.

Jeez Loueez performs at The Promontory in Chicago.
Photo by APRoberson Photography.

So how did Jeezy’s Juke Joint start?

It started out as a blog for my Black History Month project just for like, my life. And I would just interview Black performers and was just documenting you know, what was going on in video interviews. And then I was talking to my friend and was like, I should make this a show. And the troop that I was in had a monthly spot, so they were like, yeah if you want this spot… and I had never produced a show before so I didn’t know where to begin at all. So I got some people from Minneapolis, St. Louis, and New Orleans and then we had one show in the summer of 2011 and it was sold out. And it was insane. People had never seen Black burlesque performers before. They had never seen pole dancers outside of a strip club. They had never seen a drag king before. It was Shea Couleé’s first drag performance. And yeah, it was just insane. And I was like, we have to do this again. So we did another one in 2012. Then 2014 we made it bigger. And then by 2015 it became two nights. And then it was three nights. And now it’s four shows. So it’s definitely just grown exponentially and we’ve had performers from Canada, from London. All over the world. We’ve had a sword swallower from Berlin. So yeah, it’s pretty great to see people from all over the world that want to represent what their Blackness means to them and how they can be onstage unapologetically.

Have you seen people’s responses to it change over the years?

Oh, don’t even get me started. Absolutely. Because back in the day when we first started, when there was a male burlesque performer or a drag king, the straight men in the audience who came there with their wives would clearly get up and go to the bar or go to the bathroom. You know, no one was saying anything outright but you could tell that they were uncomfortable. And now it’s like, everyone knows to clap and cheer and throw money and it’s definitely grown into something that also is about representing Black queerness and Black trans and Black non-binary and Black femininity and masculinity. So, you know, we have to train our audiences for that. And they really have grown as people and as audience members.

Shea Couleé performs at The Promontory in Chicago.
Photo by APRoberson Photography.

And I’m sure there’s still a long way to go.

Oh, absolutely. A lot of our audiences, they have been super white at times. Which totally can change. You don’t want to perform for a white gaze, which is what we’re trying to get away from. But a lot of Black people don’t even know about burlesque or don’t know that it exists. So we have to bring burlesque to our own community and so we’re seeing the audience grow in that way, too. And like, white people know to not buy up all the VIP seats and be in the front two rows. It’s so awkward! Or if you buy two tickets, you better be bringing somebody Black!

That’s really good to hear you say. Because I’ve noticed that the only shows I’ve gone to before the one I went to in New Orleans, I really didn’t see many people of color performing.

And because it’s like, Black people are like, why am I going to go to a show if I’m not going to see myself represented onstage? Even me, in my mind, I’m always like, yeah burlesque is for white people. And we know that it’s not. But on the outside looking in, it looks very white. So of course people aren’t going to get diverse audiences if you don’t have any diversity onstage. And plus, for a lot of people, this is the only burlesque event they go to all year. Of course I want them to go support the rest of the shows but like, I get it.

I mean, if this is an environment and a place where they feel seen and they feel comfortable.

Well now there’s way more. There’s a lot more POC shows. A lot more Black and POC producers. So that definitely has changed a lot over the years.

Photo by ABRoberson Photography.

I figure that there are probably quite a few stigmas around burlesque in general.

Oh absolutely. Even in 2022. It’s like, is it theater? Is it sex work? Is it stripping? Like, what is it? You know?

It’s its own show. It’s its own genre of performance art?

Yeah, oh absolutely.

So aside from this, do you have any shows coming up?

I haven’t thought about my life past Sunday. In St. Louis I help produce the Show Me Burlesque Festival [May 19th-21st, find tickets at the link!], which has also been like ten years. It’s a big burlesque festival. And we’re doing a Juke Joint in Minneapolis on July 9th [tickets and more info coming soon!], so that’s exciting. And I’m trying to get it down in New Orleans, but I’m very picky about venues. It has to be the perfect place. I’m not just going to throw it together anywhere.

I didn’t realize that this [The California Clipper] had been closed for two years during the pandemic.

I know! So sad. I’m so glad it’s open again because we love performing here.

Is there anything else that you want people to know about?

Tell people to spread the word. I have like, no help. No media’s giving us the time of day. They’re not gonna run it in the newspaper. I’m constantly trying to pay out the ass for ads. And the best promotion is just to tell everyone you know about it. It’s very hard to get people to respond to me sometimes. I don’t know why.

Maybe about burlesque in general?

Yeah, they don’t know what it is.

I tried to get my friends who are in their 30’s out but they’re like, I’m on the couch.

Well half the people in the show are over 40. So there is no excuse. We have people over 50. We have people that are grandmothers. So when people who are 32 are like, nah… I’m like, but she’s 60 and she’s on the pole.

I love that. So what’s the age range?

Anywhere from 23 to over 50. And you wouldn’t know because everyone looks…

Phenomenal?

Yeah, exactly.

Photo by ABRoberson Photography.

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