Tête-à-tête with Po’ Chop
Po’ Chop is a multi-disciplinary performance artist, burlesque performer, and creator of the Black Burly Q Directory and The Brown Pages.
We talked with Po’ Chop about her journey into and around burlesque, and her latest project, the acclaimed dance film series, Litany.
Where are you from? How did you get into the arts and entertainment racket?
I grew up in a very small town called Poplar Bluff, Missouri. I started dancing when I was three or four; my mom put me into dance class because I was a very energetic child, always bouncing around the house. My mom needed to put me somewhere where I could do that, so when I came back home I was just a little bit more chill.
I took to dance immediately, just the feeling of being in a dance class has always felt good to me. Being in a studio has always felt good to me. At a very early age, it was a way to be in my body and process my feelings. In general, I am a very quiet person—taking dance class definitely changed my life and gave me a voice.
It was a little mom and pop dance studio, we studied ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop…we did recitals and we had all our costumes and makeup which I really enjoyed. I was very active in the arts growing up, I was in the marching band and colorguard in addition to dancing, but I really started developing my artistic voice in church, praise dancing. I grew up in the church. Church was an extremely important part of my childhood.
When I turned 18 I moved to Chicago. As soon as I got the internet and realized what the world was like outside Missouri, I knew that I needed to leave. Missouri was not for me. Chicago was the closest city to Missouri, so I ended up moving to Chicago to study dance at Columbia College.
You made some big changes all at once—moved from a tiny town to a big city, went from a traditional dance studio to the predominantly modern dance program at Columbia. How did that go?
I was introduced to modern dance, and that would become another major influence on my art making. Before Columbia, I really didn’t even know what modern dance was. I remember after taking my first modern dance class my roommate and I were like ‘what the f*** is this?’ Being introduced to modern dance was a huge shift for me. Modern taught me how to move and understand my body in ways that immediately felt right for me.
At the same time that I was discovering modern dance, I also discovered that I was queer, which was another huge moment for me. I came out, it didn’t go well with my very Christian family and they pulled me out of school. This whole time period was traumatic. I was 18 coming from a small-town to a liberal arts school in Chicago. It was a lot for me to process.
After leaving school, you were in Missouri and then found your way back to Chicago. Did you keep dancing or gravitate to any other creative outlets during that time?
When I was pulled out of school, I spent about a month in Missouri. My family didn’t tell my older brother the real reason I wasn’t going back to school, which was a red flag to him. When I told him the truth, he was like ‘Oh naw, you can’t stay here! I don’t care what you do with your life but you don’t hafta to stay here.’ He brought me to his home in Atlanta for a bit before I headed back to Chicago. I still have insecurities about that, not finishing school, not finishing training.
After I left school I stopped dancing for about five years. No dancing. When I look back on it I know that I was experiencing PTSD. For about five years I was just glazed over…I don’t know what I was doing…just working, thinking, smoking, drinking. The most creative thing during that time was when I was working retail and I was doing visual merchandising.
So how did you transition back into dance, specifically burlesque?
Jeez Loueez and a couple of people in our friend circle had started doing burlesque. I do remember thinking when I was watching those first shows, ‘I think I could do this.’ Something about it seemed accessible. Especially seeing Jeezy, she just has her own unique style. Seeing that, I could see myself in this art form, like freaking it, and making it my own. Then Jeez happened to be out of town missing a show and they asked me to step into her place. I was a little Jeez Loueez substitute and from there it just kind of snowballed.
Like most people’s debut show, mine was a hot mess! Being trained as a dancer, I was drawn to burlesque because of the room it afforded me as an artist. I wasn’t performing someone else’s vision, everything was a reflection of myself.
I do think those first probably three to five years of performing burlesque, it really was me facing my trauma. There was therapy too, but artistically burlesque was how I processed a lot of who I was, my identity, all of that really started showing up in my burlesque.
When you started doing burlesque, were you Po’Chop from day one? Or how did that persona develop and emerge?
My very first name which was given to me by somebody who actually did not like burlesque was Champagne Mystique. That lasted for just one performance. The second name someone picked for me was Jenny C’est Quois. I performed with that name for two or three months before I found out there was already a Jenny C’est Quois and I needed a new name.
Jenny C’est Quois didn’t really capture the style of performance I was creating anyways. I tried on classic burlesque but as I performed more and experienced more burlesque my performances evolved. Both Tyrone and Lost in the World (a tribute to the Black Panthers) were already in my repertoire and definitely informed my renaming.
What was the path to Po’ Chop??
I had a dance teacher sit me down right before I moved to Chicago and he asked if I was serious about dancing full time. I said ‘yes’, and he asked what my favorite food was. When I said ‘pork chops’, he scanned my body, stopped at my legs and said ‘If you want to make it, you can’t be eating things like pork chops.’ Essentially telling me I needed to lose weight, I didn’t have the ideal body for a dancer…So…I took back pork chops!
Food is a thing people play on in burlesque for sure, and I wanted to push back on the standard burlesque names. It’s important to me that people know even before I hit the stage that I’m Black and that it’s going to be something different.
You push back in so many ways, from your name to your costuming to your dance style, you’re just different from any other performer. What else influenced the development of Po’ Chop’s character?
I identify as a woman and I think a lot about femininity and how femininity is often portrayed in burlesque and wanting to push back on that. I love taking up space, I love taking up space on stage, I love being aggressive, I like making people uncomfortable. Only because I think when we are uncomfortable is when we start to think about things. Maybe not in the moment, but when you go home you think ‘OK, I felt this certain way when that person did that… why?’ I don’t necessarily want people to think about me, but to think about what they felt when they watched me days, weeks, months later.
My mom, my parents, all the beautiful, strong women who raised me influenced Po’Chop. Religion and spirituality are another huge part of my practice, reshaping how we praise and who we praise. Growing up in the middle of nowhere Missouri shaped my visual aesthetic.
I am drawn to dirty things. Objects that are worn in or distressed from having been used over and over. Evidence of a ritual enacted. Burlap, brown paper…all those materials remind me of the middle class. I want to be accessible as an artist. Burlesque doesn’t always have to be associated with glamour, glitz, richness. I think sometimes glamour can be used as a tool to put performers above the audience. I want to be eye level with my audience. There is something deeply fulfilling for me when women and queer folks walk away from my performance thinking ‘I could do that’ or ‘I’m going to try a little burlesque.’
Who were the burlesque champions that made you walk away from a show and think ‘I could do that!’?
Jeez single handedly is the reason anyone knows my name within the burlesque community. From the moment I started performing, from day one, Jeez booked me for every Jeezy’s Juke Joint. If she was traveling somewhere, she’d say to the producer, ‘Do you know Po’ Chop? She could come with me.’ In ways that I probably will never know, she was always pushing for me to get visibility. Also, Elektra Cute, Siomai Moore….and I’m sure there are others. Thank you.
What challenges did you encounter moving into the burlesque genre?
My aesthetics are a challenge within burlesque. I know that there are opportunities and bookings that I don’t get because I don’t rhinestone my costumes, I don’t wear shoes, I use more popular music. I think it continues to be one of my biggest obstacles.
Also, I think money. It’s interesting because outside of burlesque, in the arts community at large, it’s not always expected for you to fund your own projects. In the arts community, you can write a grant or find funders, in burlesque we are on our own. I’m expected to pay $500 for my costume, $300 for sound design, and I’m expected to pay to go perform in a festival. That was especially hard in the beginning but I still don’t know how else to get my name and my work out there other than traveling and making connections at these festivals.
There aren’t any big individual benefactors or institutions for burlesque like there are in other genres. I see the burlesque community supporting each other, buying tickets to each other’s shows, promoting each other on social media.
If you give a dollar to one performer, you can pretty much track that dollar and follow it through the community from one performer to another. But we need to get new dollars circulating.
As burlesque performers, I want us to start shifting how we think about how we make our work. We don’t have to pay for everything ourselves. There are ways to reformat our community so that we’re not paying for everything. I just don’t see how that’s sustainable. We’re putting $1000 into an act but get paid $100 to perform. How can that work?
When you work outside of burlesque, you do have those opportunities. Litany, your gorgeous series of dance films was created with a little bit of funding and a lot of artist ingenuity and hustle.
I feel so lucky. Everything fell into place, I had been working with Jordan Phelps, my collaborator who shot, edited and directed Litany, for a year on the idea for the films. I got commissioned to do a video for an award ceremony right at the beginning of the pandemic, and you know artists are resourceful…I talked to Jordan and said ‘yo, I got a little bit of money, want to do what we can?’ He was all on board. I was also a resident artist at Rebuild Foundation in Chicago who own a bunch of different spaces. The locations were such a crucial part of the work. I felt like the universe was like ‘You need to make this art…here is everything you need.’
What was the origin of the project?
The title is based on a poem by Audre Lorde, called A Litany for Survival. Audre has been a huge muse in all of my work over the past three to four years. Litany is really a portfolio of my work thus far in my career. Much of it is from a project I did two years ago called The People’s Church of the G.H.E.T.T.O. These were reimagined church services using Audre’s life and work to shine a light and uplift the legacies of Black women who were rooted in Bronzeville, the historic neighborhood I live in here in Chicago. I took the work I created for that live series and transformed them for film.
Torchy’s Togs was based on the work of cartoonist Jackie Ormes, Issue of Blood was a line of movement research I have been working on for several years imagining Audre Lorde’s idea of the erotic as the holy spirit, Collage came directly out of all the conversations between Jordan and me, Ebony came out of my residency at Rebuild and their amazing archive of Johnson & Johnson publishing…Ebony, Jet, Tan. And the final piece, Dynomite, is a remembering of grandfather.
Your visual aesthetic is so strong..in the films, on your website, the illustrations and collage work…is that all from your brain? Do you do that all yourself?
Aww, thank you. Yes, my website, illustrations, and collages are 100% all me and is intended to offer insight into my process. Now, for Collage, the film, I pulled reference images for Jordan and he just ran with it. Jordan is one of my closest friends, I’ve known him forever. He is one of those collaborators who needs just a tiny bit of inspiration. I can just show him an image, a piece of clothing or some footage and he’ll just figure it out. He’s a phenomenal collaborator.
Collaborating on Litany differed from your process with creating burlesque where as you said, it’s all you. But how was the creative process similar?
Music and sound probably comes first, no matter what I’m working on. The sound is what inspires me. I’m really, really picky when it comes to music. That’s probably why I don’t have that many burlesque acts, because I really have to live in the music. It has to create a specific feeling from within for me to create.
The music comes first….then the movement comes. Part of creating the movement for me is creating a world. I build a new world and then allow this new space to inform and affect my choices. It takes a loooooooong time for me to get there.
I loved the sound design in Dynamite.
That is my favorite one! The Precious Lorde track was created especially for that piece by Avery R. Young. We had a lot of conversations about why I was picking that song, Avery has a similar art practice to mine, of reimagining church and how we praise. What he ended up creating honestly blew me away, it’s so beautiful. The sermon was from a friend’s mother’s funeral—the music I was working with before Avery’s just wasn’t working. My partner was going to the funeral, and I asked her to record the sermon. As soon as I heard it, I was like ‘Bam that’s it. That’s what I’ve been looking for.’
You made Litany during the pandemic, people are really struggling with not producing during this time. It’s complicated—you feel guilty and put all this stress on yourself to produce, but really, what are you going to produce? For whom?
It’s been hard for everyone. Everyone is hustling to do what they can. I haven’t been able to participate in virtual burlesque performances. I’m just not sure how to engage with an audience in that way. I struggle with wanting to create digital art and wanting folks to spend less time on our screens. Power down all devices and tune into self.
I hope that artists and performers can practice grace throughout this time. There is a slew of content these days. I mean everything from the Metropolitan Opera House to local burlesque troupe are finding ways to create high quality content. It truly is impressive. Whatever place you find yourself, whether you are creating or not we have to as artists and humans experiencing a global pandemic find ways to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves.
What are you working on now? What’s coming next from Po’ Chop?
Along with the films, I have a newsletter/online magazine called The Brown Papers. I’ve been creating editions that pair with each of the five films, and I’m still working on the last two.
I lost my brother and my nephew late last year which completely blindsided me, so this year 2021 is going to be a year of rest for me. As we were saying, as an artist, I have to get used to not ‘producing’ in the traditional sense. Just because I’m not putting stuff out there, doesn’t mean I’m not working. It’s such a hard thing—even this morning I took a meeting about a project, and while I do really want to do the project, I have to learn that it is ok if I just lay down. I need to lay down.
It’s hard, especially in burlesque we’re always churning out new looks, new work, new videos. I feel like I’m expected to be constantly delivering. ‘I have a new act! I have a new video, I have a new photo set!’ I don’t know where this expectation came from, but I am really trying to push back. I need time to let things stew, let them marinate. And then we’ll see what’s next….
While we wait, there is a whole Po’ Chop rabbit hole to get lost in at itspochop.com and follow her at Po’ Chop (@itspochop) • Instagram photos and videos