By Arlo Wyatt
Queerniverse Burlesque is a local burlesque troupe formed in Omaha. They’re POC-centered, body positive, LGBTQIA+ inclusive, and they’re taking the local performance art scene by storm.
“It became a living organism, and it’s been growing and changing, and now our focus is specifically POC, queer, trans, non-binary individuals who want to perform in different mediums – whether that’s performance art, dancing, singing, rapping – whatever that medium is, we want to give people that safe space, that platform to do that. So that’s how it came about and that’s what it’s become.”
I caught up with the group’s co-founder Stephanie Diaz, known by her stage name, Patti Perra, after their latest performance, “Gayentine’s”, on February 16th at Brother’s Lounge. A queer ode to February 13th — known affectionately and celebrated by many as Galentine’s Day — the two and half hour performance was the first installment of their seven deadly sins series, Lust.
Beautifully eclectic and varied, the show included elements both typically found in burlesque, as well as components you normally wouldn’t expect in a performance like this. There were of course leashes and handcuffs, along with more unconventional props such as bubble blowing guns, gorilla suits, a cauldron, and an outfit made of popping balloons. The music chosen for the performance was just as diverse, including songs from Alanis Morisette, Ariana Grande, Tame Impala, and even the Winnie the Pooh theme song.
Crowd interaction is a big part of their shows; the performers often enter the audience and playfully tease or dance with their viewers. Throughout the show, they will pause for a couple quick sessions with the “Thicc Stick”, a cheeky wooden paddle with its own name carved into it. Patrons can pay a mere two dollars to be spanked with it on stage by whichever performer’s turn it is to administer the punishment.
In the best way, the troupe was bolder than I’ve ever seen them before. One cast member dressed as Pooh poured honey into onlookers’ mouths, and another held a live auction for a lap dance, earning a considerable amount of money in the process. At one point, I even got pulled up on stage and (consensually) had a banana shoved in my mouth. I suppose that’s what I get for sitting in the front row.
Queerniverse is ever growing, adding new performers and stage hands to each and every show. At Gayentine’s, they introduced multiple new members.
I got to chat with one of those performers, Cari Jack, aka Mr. Little Cat, who had her stage debut that evening. Jack’s biggest inspiration behind her participation are Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, so naturally her debut number had to be to “Hey You”, one of the band’s biggest singles. When asked who inspired her to audition, she said it was her friend and fellow cast member, CC Pebbles.
“CC asked me to join multiple times and I was like, ‘Hell no! I’m not talented, I don’t have any talents; I can’t sing perform or dance.’ So finally she’s like, ‘How about a stage kitten?’ Because my persona is a cat.,” Jack said. “Then it easily transitioned into performing because I kinda got jealous, like I wanted more attention… and for me to get more attention I had to perform.”
“With every show we expand, we get more volunteers, we get more performers, we get more elaborate with the performances, and it’s just keeps growing.” Diaz laughs, “It’s the mitochondria, it’s the powerhouse of the cell, it’s just strong.”
They’ve even expanded their membership to include a performer from Lincoln, and I can only imagine they’ll keep expanding their troupe to include folks from other nearby cities, bringing even more diversity to their already incredible assembly of entertainers.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the night was the size of the crowd. The night of Gayentine’s also happened to be the night of one of the worst storms Omaha’s seen this winter. Arriving to the show, I was admittedly nervous for the performers that not many people were going to attend due to the condition of the roads. Thankfully, my assumptions were squashed as soon as I filed in through the small entrance of Brother’s Lounge – there was a full house eagerly anticipating what was to come. I should’ve known, as Queerniverse consistently packs our few local DIY venues with many familiar faces, as well as faces that you wouldn’t otherwise see within the performance art scene around here.
Queerniverse sees such large and diverse audiences because they themselves are both diverse and larger than life. Each performance they put on is absolutely electric, bringing excitement and variety to a DIY scene that is often dominated by the same few cisgender, heteronormative, white male faces and voices. Judging by the response of the community, it’s apparent that this shakeup they’re creating is wanted. “I think that our focus is really truly centric on the fact that we want to make a creative safe space for POC, for people who are queer, trans, non-binary, and we want to make that platform and space for them; I think that’s what sets us apart. It’s not that other groups are better or worse or different in any way; it’s just that we want to create that safe space for those individuals, and that’s why we’ve been able to create basically a family of people who want that space and feel comfortable sharing that with us as a group and with the community of Omaha.”
It’s extremely important for marginalized communities to have their own spaces to be unapologetically themselves, and it’s just as important that people with more privilege honor those spaces. When asked if Omaha was lacking in POC centered safe spaces, Diaz said this: “Yes. [Through laughter] I think that all of America is probably. But I think we’re making our part in hallowing out that space and making a name for ourselves, you know.”
About changing such a dynamic, she said, “I think policies need to be changed at a macro scale. At a micro scale, I think people need to be receptive to not only people of color, but people of color who are queer, trans, non-binary, who maybe feel unsafe just being themselves in public, let alone in specific areas, and I’m glad that we’ve been able to partner with venues that receive our mission and understand us and understand our needs and have been able to be there for us — places like Brothers, OutrSpaces, Reform those places have really been there for us and have met our needs and are meeting the needs of our population, and we really appreciate that.”
White people have a specific role in maintaining such safe spaces, and that is simply to listen to people of color and what they need. “Be open to the conversation that we’re going need specific needs [met],” Diaz stated. “We talk about it a lot in the beginning of our performances. We say [things] like, ‘This is what we constitute as a safe environment.’ I think being able to sit down with us and be like, ‘Hey, what do you need, what do you require from our end?’ Being able to listen instead of telling us what’s gonna happen. We want to be able to share with you what we need, and then we can collaborate and talk about what that vision looks like.” Jack simply exclaimed, “Let us have a voice; listen to us!”
Catch Queerniverse at their next performance, “Dirty Decades”, at OutrSpaces March 28th