This is an excerpt from Movement Matters, an interview series from the arts publication Sixty Inches From Center by writer Michael Workman which investigates art at the intersection of dance, performance, politics, policy and issues related to the body as the locus of these and related socio-cultural dialogues on race, gender, and ability.
This installment features Jenn Freeman, also known as Po'Chop, a burlesque dancer and performance artist who refuses to gloss over politics for the sake of entertainment.
Michael Workman: Your practice comes out of the burlesque scene, and has migrated from there into other disciplines. How did that all come about?
Jean Freeman ( aka Po'Chop ): Before, I had been predominately in the burlesque scene. In burlesque cabaret shows, audiences aren't coming to face of any of the things I'm trying to deal with. They're not interested in having that conversation. They want to be entertained. They want simple, surface entertainment. They're not interested in examining sexuality, let alone black sexuality or asking questions about what some of the stereotypical views are in a nightlife setting, know what I mean? They're there with their date and they want to see a pretty straight-forward show.
MW: Right, they don't want to look under the surface and challenge their own assumptions.
JF: Right. I think I've been fortunate that, for the most part, my work has still been accepted in those spaces.
MW: When was that moment for you that you saw this shift taking place in your work?
JF: I don't know if my work has changed. Gigging has slowed down for me. And I know I don't need to be out in the nightclub scene doing my Black Panther piece. When I first started, it was kind of fun because those are the spaces, those are the audiences that need my work the most.
But I came to Chicago to study dance to become a missionary. I honestly don't think I knew what liberal arts meant. Had I known, I don't think I would have gone to Columbia. I would have gone to a more conservative school. But I'm not complaining. I'm very grateful that I did go to Columbia. But when I came out, my mother pulled me out of school
MW: Oh, wow. They flipped out.
JF: Oh, yeah. And also, my first relationship was with an R.A., so my mom kind of saw it as the school's employee had manipulated me and it turned into a whole thing. So, I dropped out entirely. Everything that I had known was completely gone. I spent three to four years drifting around Chicago, just plowing through it. Then I found burlesque. I had a couple of friends who started a troupe and they [were] one of the first groups who were a part of that trend here.
MW: Right, there was a resurgence of burlesque, going back into the '90s.
JF: I think I was drawn to it because it was all women and because of the fact that the person who's presenting it is in charge of all aspects of it.
MW: Was this Jeezy's?
JF: At the time it wasn't Jeezy's Juke Joint. It was The Ripettes.
MW: So, from there to RDDI...
JF: Yeah. RDDI [Regional Dance Development Initiative] was this huge gift. It changed my life.
And I'm still definitely thinking of burlesque as a form of storytelling. One of my acts is called For the Record. I come out in my own interpretation of a demure, high feminine figure and slowly transition into more aggressive, irreverent, very foul manner in which the final reveal is a bull dyke figure.
This was all inspired by a trip that my partner and I had taken to New York to go and see a comedy show. I don't go see comedy shows but I guess in New York a very common thing to do is just come out and heckle the audience, to come out and do joke after joke like they do about whoever's in the audience. And every single comedian would come out, scan the audience and do jokes about every single person in the audience except me and my partner. So I thought about this and maybe one may have said something about my partner. You know, she looks like a lesbianshe's very butch. But just to think about that, what it means, that invisibility. For some reason they couldn't even see us, we're two women sitting at a table, very obviously touching each other and they couldn't even acknowledge the fact, in my brain at least, that we were lesbians. We're all humans in this room. If you feel it's appropriate to make fun of that dude over there, then why can't you make fun of the two obvious lesbians sitting in front of you? That inspired that particular act. I think something I clearly struggle with is that I'm someone who identifies as a lesbian and identifies as queer, but I don't look like that. Sometimes I want to push back against the expectation.
MW: That you can't switch or can't be fluid? Then, [you're] performing that act in a typical nightclub environment...
JF: I think that act is probably the most feminine I am on stage. Soft and demure. My stage personas are usually very, very aggressive. When I first came into flirtation with performing, it was an alter-ego, kind of like a superhero. I'm very shy. I consider myself an introvert. I didn't speak up for myself. So, when I created Po'Chop, I wanted that space. I don't think it was intentional.
Read the full interview and more coverage of Chicago art + culture at SixtyInchesFromCenter.org .