PINK BOX BURLESQUE KEEPS TUSCALOOSA ON ITS TOES
Move over, Christina and Cher: the Pink Box Burlesque troupe is here to take Vaudeville variety shows to a new level in Tuscaloosa.
‘HAPHAZARD’ BEGINNINGS, BIG REWARDS
Founded in 2008, Pink Box Burlesque started as a one-off charity event featuring four locals who put the entire show together. Mama Dixie founded the troupe after the show received overwhelmingly positive feedback, and as stage manager, emcee and performer, she said the group evolves but stays consistent as a family of misfits who love what they do.
“It became a troupe that is focused on empowerment and expression through physical interaction,” Dixie said. “My goal is to give them a creative outlet and to challenge them to express the things they are feeling in that moment, regardless of how comfortable they are with that.”
In short, the troupe was formed, as Dixie put it, “haphazardly.” With each hurdle, she and her PBB family pressed on, eventually becoming the stars of 12 successful seasons. But, it has not always been easy.
“It was one challenge to tackle, it was the next challenge to tackle, it was ‘what happens if we do this,’ and so it’s always been, we try not to structure it until we test what that structure looks like and then we’ll solidify it,” Dixie said.
Much like the troupe’s overall dynamic, the alter egos each performer gets to portray evolve and change with each passing day. Winnie Wont, a PBB performer who has been with the troupe for four years, said stumbling into the burlesque world was a safe experience for her, but the vulnerability she faces when developing her character never ceases, and that’s a good thing.
“I’m still figuring out what character Winnie is and what she wants and how that’s different and it’s just all about being honest and opening up the space for yourself to allow to explore what’s next,” she said. “What is it that you want to look at next, what feeling, what time in your life are you looking at, working through? It’s ongoing.”
Wont was introduced to the troupe when she, a college student studying journalism at the time, began photographing the shows. The body positivity and empowerment each performer exuded was enough to rope her in, eventually leading her to an audition and, later, a spot on the team.
“I got a slot for an audition and ended up just loving what I was doing and how I was able to translate things I was feeling into motion and movement and communicate that with other people and share that story with other people,” Wont said. “The thing I love most about the troupe is that it is a way for me to help others to not feel alone in whatever they’re feeling, in whatever emotion they’re holding.”
Cali Gunner, one of the newest members of the troupe, said her endless research prepared her for the audition but never expected to make such tight-knit friendships right away. Her character, whose name was created from her talent of spinning weapons, is someone she loves developing as a more confident, empowered version of herself.
“I’m still trying to decide what she’s like,” Gunner said. “It’s a process; every time I come in I get to choose what Cali is today and who she is today. And it’s refreshing to be able to just sort of just step away from your everyday life and go into somewhere where you’re a new person and you get to decide fresh what you’re going to be like that day.”
The troupe is currently comprised of 10 all-female performers and three to five all-male band members. Dixie said the gender breakdown is a common trend in their troupe, but purely by happenstance. Some sing, some are tease artists, some are trick artists and there are even a couple comedians every now and then. The group helps itself work, with one performer also serving as a backstage manager and the music director also playing in the band. Dixie herself plays many roles throughout a typical performance, besides her own, and that collaboration, she said, is what makes PBB work so well.
“Characters evolve like people evolve,” she said. “And it’s important for everyone to have the freedom to do that. So I play multiple roles. I’m stage manager but I’m also emcee, but I’m also owner of the company, but I’m also a tease artist. So my character will be multiple things during the show, depending on what I need to do. My roles are functional.”
ABIDING BY BOUNDARIES
In these characters, members of the PBB troupe take extra care to hide their “true” identities to those who do not need to see it. In each contract a member signs before joining the troupe, one of the main rules is that a person’s birth name is private and anonymous. Dixie stressed that this is the highest priority for her as owner of the troupe.
“Not everyone has a supportive family or supportive employers, so we try to be respectful of that,” Dixie said. “So everything for me here is about consent. You consent to being on stage, you consent to performing in the way that you do, you consent to us using your stage name, you consent to us using the photos or not, every step of the way, you have agency to make decisions, and that is part of empowerment to me, is being able to say at any given point, ‘This is what I need.’”
The protection Dixie stresses as the “Mama” – name befitting – of the group helps build and support that familial comfort Gunner said she was happy to receive when she joined the troupe.
“I feel like they’ve already accepted me into the family, and it’s really nice because I joined on the sole purpose of, these women are so confident, and that’s something that I struggle with, so for me, surrounding myself with a group of women like this is empowering in and of itself,” Gunner said.
The shows are funny, they’re risque, they allow audience members to have a good time. But, the ever-present blanket of empowerment, protection and embracing one’s true feelings and expressions, to Wont, is exactly what PBB is supposed to be.
“It feels like an extra layer of safety and consent in this space that I get to choose what I share about my alter ego’s world because right now I’m this character and that’s the fantasy I’m giving,” she said.
Not to be forgotten, Dixie uses her jobs as an emcee and saucy maternal figure to make sure the audience members enjoy the show just as much as the performers do.
“And we know that the audience is taking a risk in being vulnerable just as much as we are in some cases, and especially when it comes to serious performances, someone in the audience is going to connect with that in a way that’s going to make them feel overwhelmed,” Dixie said. “And my job is to salve that and pat it a bit and tell them it’s OK. I’m the mama.”
In popular culture and movies like “Burlesque,” scantily clad dancers shaking it to a jazz tune is, according to Dixie, the only connection between PBB and what the world thinks of burlesque performances. With roots similar to drag shows and traditional Vaudeville variety shows, PBB taps into a world of allowing outcasts to shine as whoever they want to be.
“Vegas-style (burlesque) is about a specific body type covered in a specific color of rhinestones and feathers and coordinated group acts and a lot of polished perfection,” Dixie said. “Vaudeville-style is more diverse, both in body type, in gender, in performance style. In the sense that the movie is risque performance with a live jazz band, OK. That, I’ll give you. Everything else is very different. And one is not better than the other; they’re just different.”
Dixie said it is the same answer to the question, “Are you strippers?” Burlesque can take many forms, but PBB thrives on non-mainstream methods of performing in a way that is both empowering and out of the box. The passion is similar; the delivery is different.
POTENTIAL PUSHBACK MEETS POWER
In rural Alabama, it is expected for PBB to receive some criticism for its existence. To the naysayers, Dixie said those who have an issue with her performers generally do not have one for long.
“You are 100% allowed to not like what we do,” she said. “That’s OK. And I’m not upset about that. No one is asking you to come to a show against your will, I hope. And in exchange, I will not show up in your comfort space and tell you to stop being you. And if we can share that mutual respect or the decision to agree to disagree, then we’re good.”
The PBB crew, well-read on Alabama state codes and any rules presented to them in the spaces in which they perform, makes sure to carry themselves with confidence and candor, something that has come in handy when dealing with cautious newcomers and curious cops.
“We’ve had people threaten to protest, we’ve had people threaten to, I don’t know, a number of things,” Dixie said. “And my answer is always the same: ‘OK.’ In the same sense that we have the freedom to express, they also have the freedom to express.”
Ultimately, while PBB has experienced people who have been unhappy about a show, Dixie said they have never had a disruption or situation that has threatened the existence of the troupe.
“It’s comforting to know that even in a conservative area, we can, while being respectful, be respected,” she said. “And that’s all we ask for.”
Rest assured, PBB is not going anywhere – with shows being booked in the Tuscaloosa and Birmingham areas over the summer and beyond, Dixie assured that the future is full of art, expression and, of course, glitter.