BOSTON — The young Japanese woman appeared against a massive backdrop screen projecting machine guns and babies tumbling from the sky. Wearing a Red Cross helmet, Cono Snatch Zubobinskaya brandished a submachine gun. As the stage lights of the Coolidge Corner Theatre brightened, it was clear she had come in peace: The barrel of her gun was a sex toy, not steel.
Zubobinskaya then did what one might expect from a performer on the Sex Workers’ Art Show tour. She put a condom on her “gun,” stuck it in her mouth and fellated it for an several uncomfortably long minutes before unceremoniously shedding her clothes and declaring, “I will suck your cock as much as you want, if doing so can end the war. Just don’t force me with your guns or I will kill myself.”
How might history-yet-unwritten be altered if we could only get a videotape of this performance into the hands of the world’s elected leaders, dictators, religious authorities, the freemasons or whomever else might be pulling the strings? I wanted to rise and shout: “Please Cono, tell us how we might channel the theoretical precepts you’ve laid out here into a broad based movement to achieve peace, preserve workers’ right to organize, enshrine environmental standards in global free trade agreements and help elect Barack Obama?”
Before I could, Zubobinskaya donned silver go-go boots and camouflage underwear. As she danced ’50s style across the stage to the blaring strains of an Elvis Presley, it was clear the window of opportunity had closed.
ONE OF THE MOST interesting aspects of the Sex Workers’ Art Show was how many middle-aged, well-to-do couples were part of the hundreds standing outside in subzero temperatures at midnight to gain entry to it. To be sure, most in the massive line snaking around the theatre were indie rock twenty-somethings playing their Goodwill retro-chic non-conformist-conformity to the hilt. But it was also speckled with fifty-something women in fur coats and diamond earrings alongside shivering men in golf hats and expensive overcoats.
Perhaps they believed advertisements promising sex workers had constructed a show which “entertains, arouses, and amazes while simultaneously offering scathing and insightful commentary on notions of class, race, gender, labor and sexuality!” After all, even the respectable sounding Theatre Journal endorses the show as “an active force in articulating, shaping, and contesting the meaning of the identity ‘sex worker’ in the public sphere.”
Sadly, articulate and insightful weren’t exactly one’s initial thoughts when the first performer bounded through the aisles in military fatigues handing out potatoes before making a topless victory run with purple biohazard warning stickers covering her nipples. Is this about the military industrial complex, trans-fats or the insidious way Mr. Potato Head ogled her as a young girl? Sometimes it’s tough to decipher the message.
Other times it’s far too easy.
To wit: The plus-plus sized burlesque dancer Miss Dirty Martini offered an interpretive dance version of the PATRIOT Act that began with her holding some shaky cash-filled scales of justice and ended with her flipping the audience off and pulling an endless string of rolled up dollars out of her posterior. This might have been more awe inspiring if, pretty as she may be, there wasn’t room enough back there to hide the gold bars that backed those once-greenbacks up until 1975. Martini did all this with only a tiny American flag covering the body part Eve Ensler has been known to dialogue with to create monologues. My sense is it designated something other than support for the troops.
This is not to say the show was valueless. A young female writer read a searing, touching piece about the creeping degradation of working in a call girl flop-house dubbed Mel-Ho’s Place. Julie Atlas Muz’s contortions into and dance within a giant latex balloon was a dignified and elegant piece of performance art. (“On any given night in New York City,” her bio reads, “you can see Julie Atlas Muz swimming in a salt water aquarium as a mermaid, peeling off the outlandish costumes she dons, or covered in fake blood in the basement of a gay bar.”) Stephen Elliot — author of the “almost all true sexual memoir,” My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up — opined, “So much of what we’re talking about here tonight is labor,” and read a poem, “What If I Was a Stripper and You Were a Whore,” at least loosely connected to the topic.
To be generous, let’s assume Reginald Lamar, whose operatic musical number would likely constitute assault in some states, had some intellectual/historical purpose when he offered that he “thinks about lynching” and racial prejudice in America “while old white men are sucking my cock.”
Mostly, though, the show felt like attending a sex worker trade conference.
For example, Jo Weldon — winner of the prestigious Best Bump N Grinder award at the New York Burlesque Festival and an activist who, as show founder Annie Oakley noted, “Spoke at the f—ing UN!” — advised strippers not to wear glitter. “Men tend to carry it home on them,” Weldon explained. “We call it ‘divorce dust.'”
Don’t accept free drugs from clients, callboy/author Kirk Read counseled: “When ecstasy is involved, condoms are impossible.” Whether to take advice from a man painted up like David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust, who tells stories that begin with asides like, “Basically he wanted to put sex toys up my ass while smoking a cigar — which was fine,” is, of course, a matter of personal discretion. In a blog post from the tour, Read surveys news coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death and Britney Spears’ shaved head and sniffs, “This culture has gone completely insane.” You think?
“Naked ladies are what make the world go around, right?” Oakley asked to applause as the show opened. She hastened to add she also wanted to move naked women “out of the mythological realm” where they are forced to be “anonymous.” The implication was that the Sex Workers’ Art Show was an empowering forum where objectification did not exist.
The question attendees were left to wrestle with alone, however, was whether simply plastering a look of exaggerated irony on one’s face while bouncing up and down to twirl shiny nipple tassels delineates empowerment. If one’s sole qualification for an alternative strip show is having a body type that mainstream America will not pay to see unclothed, are you rejecting objectification or merely marketing your niche to a niche audience.
Chances are even the sensitive boys in corduroys aren’t staring at your breasts to make a feminist political statement.