CONTINUUM: The Journal of African Diaspora Drama, Theatre and Performance  ISSN 2471-2507
Volume 4 Number 1
 - August 2017

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Performance as Participatory Policy-Making: Taja Lindley’s Trinity, Black Life as Burlesque

By Nina Angela Mercer


In my exploration of black neo-burlesque performer Taja Lindley, I intend to illuminate the ways that black queer burlesque performance creates space for new possibilities in the performance of citizenship in this U.S. national climate of heightened surveillance, violence and imprisonment. I will ask the following questions: How does black, queer burlesque performance speak to State violence in the contemporary U.S.? How does the use of political satire, digitized media, and the black protest narrative further the subversive power of such burlesque performances? In what ways do black neo burlesque performance and social justice advocacy intersect, and what individual and audience/community benefits may be born through such intersections?

My central methods of inquiry will rely on first-person interviews of Taja Lindley, who performs neo burlesque as SassaBrass the Poom Poom Priestess. I will include a close reading of video footage of Taja’s compilation of performances Trinity. I will also utilize some auto-ethnography as an art practitioner and producer who has written neo burlesque performance into my own work.

I will support my first person and auto-ethnographic research methods by analyzing the dramaturgy of black neo burlesque performance from various socio-political contexts that help to explain the cultural positioning of the black and queer woman’s body under surveillance in the United States in this contemporary moment. Furthermore, I am interested in using Yoruba cosmology and Hoodoo survival technologies as additional theoretical frameworks to explore black neo burlesque performance as ritual. Through a methodology that takes the transcultural and simultaneity into account when exploring the African Diaspora, I hope to recover the black body from oppressive bodies of knowledge by using frameworks directly linked to the cultures of the Black Atlantic.


In my exploration of Taja Lindley’s solo work Trinity, which she performs as Sassabrass, The Poom Poom Priestess,[1] I will illuminate the ways that Black, queer, neo-burlesque creates a space for new possibilities in the performance of citizenship through embodied participatory policy-making in this national climate of heightened surveillance and state-sanctioned violence against black bodies. I will ask the following questions: In what ways can black neo burlesque performance and social justice advocacy intersect, and what opportunities for community engagement may be born through these intersections? Further, what are the best conditions to develop and produce such critically resistant work? While performance is labor, and neo burlesque is certainly an industry that has the potential to wield and generate capital, this performance was constructed as a cultural strategy of resistance closely linked to social justice and direct action through embodied performance. I am privileging the artist’s aesthetic and intention, as well as the missions and programs of multiple organizations and artistic ensembles which have nurtured Taja Lindley’s development as a social justice advocate, performing artist, and healer.

            My central methods of inquiry will rely on a first-person interview of Taja Lindley, as well as a close reading of Taja’s performance of Trinity constructed from my own notes after witnessing her performance at Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX). Taja was awarded a Space Grant and Artist Residency at BAX, which culminated in the July 2015 performance of Trinity as part of BAX’s 2015-2016 season, as well as from archival video footage of the same performance.

            I support my first-person research methods by considering the history of burlesque performance in the United States of America, using Robert C. Allen’s seminal work Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. I also make a critical nod toward “Naughty but Nice: Re-Articulations of Value in Neo Burlesque Striptease” from Sherril Dodds’s Dancing on the Canon: Embodiments of Value in Popular Dance. While Allen’s work provides both historical and theoretical frameworks that help me to situate Taja’s work in a continuum of subversive burlesque in the United States, tracing the popular theatrical dance form to the 19th century, Dodds’s work provides an opening for me in the 21st century, one that does not include adequate consideration of neo burlesque performers emerging from the African American community with a specific emphasis on the embodied practice of social justice in a hostile national landscape, even from the relatively protected space of the theatre. I will challenge this lack of inclusion with Black feminist/womanist theory provided by Audre Lorde regarding the uses of the erotic[2], along with theories on breathing as a radical act of presence offered by Alexis Gumbs [3] and Omi Osun Jones’s seminal work on the intersections between the Black avant-garde, Queer theory, Yoruba cosmology and spirituality, and Black feminist theory in the embodied performance of artists within the “theatrical jazz” genre.[4]  Taja’s work is kindred to “theatrical jazz”; it shares characteristics with the definitions offered by Jones. Thus, it is part of a continuum of Black feminist and Queer performance aesthetics rooted in resistance, improvisation, non-linearity, and simultaneous narrative strategies.

However, I will use a transcultural cosmology as my lens for reading Taja’s work, joining HooDoo, Bântu, and Yoruba systems of being, knowing, and seeing as ways into Lindley’s performance ritual. Furthermore, I am privileging an understanding of embodied Black feminist subjectivity as a site of contestation in performance as a result various troubled moments in history - the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, and the systemic bodily violence experienced by women of the African Diaspora through various forms of exploitation which continue today through state sanctioned police violence against Black lives. This multi-tiered method is necessary due to the unusual excessive violence against embodied Blackness in the Americas. One cannot simply look to Allen’s historic account of burlesque in the United States to find the African American woman’s body in performance, because she is not there, except as a tangential reference to blues singers.[5] Lindley’s performance of an embodied Black feminist and queer aesthetic speaks back to this void, subverting stereotypes of Black women’s subjectivity with origins in minstrelsy, granting complexity and self-authorship to Black women’s bodies in performance in a way that troubles the gaze, often implicating the viewer in the critical exploration of the vital and living Black presence through the performer’s body and voice.

            In exploring the history of burlesque performance in the United States alongside the critical lens of women’s embodied performance of a resistant blackness, I am particularly interested in asserting the conditions through which such performances are most well-served. This is not simply an aesthetic inquiry but one that inevitably calls for theater production companies that place an emphasis on creating space for performance practices that challenge the cultural and socio economic hegemony.

Sassabrass, The Poom Poom Priestess and Her Trinity:

On a late July evening in 2015, a dance studio at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) is transformed for interdisciplinary artist and reproductive justice advocate Taja Lindley’s burlesque performance, Trinity, a ritual in three parts, which moves from “The Rain/Letting Go” to “This Ain’t a Eulogy,” culminating with “Race Jones.” The house is full with audience members. White plastic garbage bags and white and silver balloons are set throughout the performance space in what appears to be a random design. As the lights dim, fans whir gently, invoking the presence of wind. A soundscape begins with the ambient sound of a rain shower. A glass bowl of water is placed center stage on the floor; it is illuminated by the soft glow of blue light.

            Taja enters as Sassabrass, The Poom Poom Priestess, dressed in a white leotard and white skirt made of white plastic strips cut from white plastic bags. The design is cut gracefully against the fullness of her body. The fans move the skirt with an odd elegance. She wears a headdress adorned with white and silver balloons and strips of white plastic hanging from a white rod, which she balances effortlessly as she moves. This is a sacred rite of beauty salvaged from unexpected and ordinary objects we encounter littering our streets.

            Standing center stage with her arms outstretched, Sassabrass places each foot in the bowl of water one at time, and then she begins walking counter-clockwise in the performance space in a ring shout[6], opening the space for communication with the ancestors. As she walks, bells worn on her ankles create a rhythm. When she returns to the center, she stomps out a more intricate rhythm that builds to a crescendo. She stops and sways. The soundscape shifts to Missy Elliot singing, “I can’t stand the rain against my window, bringing back sweet memories.”[7] And Sassabrass begins dancing with more energetic movements; these are movements we know, movements that we hold in our bodies when we lean into a rhythmic beat at the club or at the family barbeque. But, somehow, Sassabrass has taken these movements to a new place, a sacred place, a place of wonder and anticipation. As the layers of plastic strips and balloons move with her body, she becomes a formidable force.

            Here, I’d like to return to the placement of the bowl of water in the center of the performance space, which she uses to clean her feet before the performance begins, as well as the soundscape’s invocation of rain. I understand this bowl of water and the rain as symbolic ritual elements necessary when opening a channel of communication between the living and the dead. While the ring shout is linked to HooDoo cosmology, the symbolic presence of water resonates across multiple systems. I find Dr. Kimwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau’s explanation of the kalûnga line to be especially helpful when considering the transformative power of water in sacred ring shout rituals. According to Dr. Fu-Kiau:

“The world, [nza], became a physical reality floating in kalûnga (in endless water within the cosmic space); half emerging for terrestrial life and half submerging for submarine life and the spiritual world. The kalûnga, also meaning ocean, is a door and a wall between those two worlds. Kalûnga became also the idea of immensity [sénsele/wayana] that one cannot measure; an exit and entrance, source and origin of life, potentialities [n’kîngu-nzâmbi], the principle god-of-change, the force that continually generates.”[8]

            Thus, when Taja dips her feet in the water, before she begins moving in the counter-clockwise pattern of the ring shout, she anoints her feet in water as a way of entering the realm of all of life’s potential for regenerative transformation. It is a journey she takes with her audience as participant-witnesses. The rain further invokes the cleansing possible through entering deep communication with and reverence of the ancestors. A rebirth is foreshadowed.

She removes the headdress and begins opening the large white garbage bags scattered throughout the performance space, revealing a Mohawk of long braids wrapped in white fabric. She pulls smaller white bags out of the larger bags, and walks toward the audience passing the bags out to some of us as she admonishes us all, “Don’t get wet … Can y’all hear me? Protect … Take it … Trust me; you gon’ need it. Stop looking at me! Some of this ain’t mine. It’s yours.”[9] She is holding memories belonging to all of us, and we are being challenged to look inward.

            As she continues emptying the large garbage bags of the smaller ones, allowing them to litter the floor haphazardly, she demands that “we [r]emember; remember the time you lied to me? Yeah, you. You said I wasn’t good enough. I’m too damn loud. Remember that time you choked me in the closet? The time your child support check bounced?”[10] She asks us to remember rejection, the moments our humanity ruptured societal norms, and the haunting sting of betrayal, disappointment, and domestic violence.

            Slowly, Sassabrass descends to her knees. She puts some of the small plastic bags in her mouth. She chews, trying to digest the memories as she speaks of traumas. She spits the bags out of her mouth and puts a plastic bag over her head, pulling it down to cover her face, telling us, “I be seeing real good. Got me on some psychic shit.[11] She sees her future, and our own, through the memories of heart break, violence and disappointment, and she asks us “[w]hy should I give this up?”[12] Thus, the transformative power to release the trauma becomes a personal choice.

            Sassabrass’s opening dance and monologue demands a lot of us, moving from laughter to shame and recognition. She is dancing and testifying our own messiness, our complicity in struggles we’ve sworn we could never own. She tells us, “No such thing as death. Nothing new. All you thought you left behind is all right here … shape-shifting … I feel powerful with the weight; letting go is a lie … to forget is to not know self.” [13] Here, she emphasizes the vitality of the ancestral realm and its connection to the living, noting that time and mortality are tricksters. The permeability of the kalûnga line makes the Western ideals of linear time and death as the absolute end of life unstable.

She moves as she speaks these revealing and troubling truths. She spins low to the ground; she squats as if giving birth to self. She removes the skirt made of strips of plastic bags, revealing a simple white leotard, asking, “What would you have left if you forgot?”[14] And then she quickly puts the skirt back on again. She is not ready to be without the memories, the sorrows, the micro aggressions and abuses. She puts the skirt around her neck, an albatross. “Who’s god?”[15] She screams the question. She begins a praise dance that leaves her scrubbing her body with the plastic bags as if she can clean the memories off of herself. She kneels as if in prayer or in forced submission to some disciplinary figure we cannot see. She rises, gently touching the space between her legs and sliding into erotic hip movements, rocking her pelvis forward and back, kicking her legs open in anger as the music blasts a booming command, “Make it rain, bitch. Make it, make it rain.”[16] This is the rain of dollar bills expected at the strip club. A man’s aggressive voice barks out the commands that move Sassabrass’s body. But she is not coy or seductive; she is angry. She moves her legs as if she is trying to defend herself by kicking some offensive weight far away.

Abruptly, the music shifts to New Edition’s teen age, bubble-gum-pop love song, “Can You Stand the Rain.” But there is no innocence of a teenage crush here. There is only disappointment as Sassabrass slides her skirt off of her body, standing alone in her white leotard again. She walks silently out of the performance space, and we are left to ponder what remains in the white empty trash bags undulating just above the floor.

            The remaining plastic bags and balloons are removed from the stage and silence pervades the space. A montage of audio clips from the news interspersed with blaring police sirens begins the soundtrack for “This Ain’t a Eulogy,” the second segment of Trinity. The news clips remind us of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson; the grand jury’s failure to indict the police officer responsible for his death; the voices of witnesses to the shooting, remembering what they saw and what they felt, and the shocking news of the massacre of nine Black people in Charleston, South Carolina during bible study. Now the performance space is cluttered with black balloons and large plastic black garbage bags full with something unknown. One cannot help but think of body bags.

            Sassabrass stands to the left of screen images projected onto the wall. She is dressed in a black bustier and skirt made of torn strips of black plastic. She moves her arms as if she is a clock as the soundscape shifts to the familiar tick-tick of time passing. A black and white video from the 1950s plays stock footage of white children at elementary school. They are pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. They sit at their desks in rapt attention as their teacher beams a smile back at them. They are clean and well-dressed. A male voice speaks in voice-over, “Training starts in school each day in the good American way.”[17] Then the voice instructs us all, “How you boys and girls safeguard your liberty is your responsibility.”[18] These words replace the image of the children projected onto the wall, and the words “your responsibility” spoken by the male authority are looped over and over again, mocking us.

            The entire time the children are projected onto the screen, Sassabrass is frantically waving, saluting, and placing her hand over her heart as if she is pledging allegiance. She moves across the floor in front of the projected images with a mechanized side-ways movement so that her feet never leave the floor. She jumps and waves, raising her arms for the teacher’s attention with her eyes looking over our heads to some unknowable horizon.

The projected footage of the white children represents popular images of American life supported by Cold War rhetoric and United States media propaganda. As theatre scholar David Savran notes, “[a]lthough the Cold War was aimed explicitly at containing the Soviet threat, the American family was, in many respects, even more deeply affected than the Soviet military,”[19] and that the nuclear family’s main purpose was the “education of children who grow up to be like their parents – property-owning husbands and housewives living a life of affluence and abundance.”[20] Because this 1950s mythology is projected simultaneously with Taja’s unruly body, a body that will not and cannot fit within the frame of the projected image of the past, time is ruptured, disclosing the trouble with  our lingering and virulent “domestic version of containment.”[21]

            The soundscape shifts to Nina Simone’s haunting rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” It is as if we are caught in some a time warp. Our bodies are here and now, inside July, 2015. We have just experienced the public and communal grief and protest rituals following Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s murders. Some of us have protested in the streets for Renisha McBride and Aiyanna Stanley Jones. Yet, Nina Simone sings of black bodies hanging from poplar trees. Lindley’s choice to put these two time period’s in conversation through music forces us to confront the historic violence against black bodies in the United States of America. Further, the video footage of the 1950s classroom of white children pledging allegiance to the United States of America in the “good old American way” forces us to contend with the mortally dangerous ways racialized difference leaves black children unprotected, whether they are citizens of this country or not.

            The screen projections change to images of the desolate landscape of a housing project. Black plastic bags hang from tree limbs, reminding us of lynching again. The bags also hang from iron fences. On each bag, a name of an unarmed black person killed by the police is written in white print. The soundscape shifts to chants of “Hands up; don’t shoot,” and “Black Lives Matter.” Taja swings the large plastic garbage bags from each arm as if she is a storm or windmill or clock. Then she furiously opens each bag, releasing smaller black bags from them. She picks up one of the large bags and carries it on top of her head. It is her crown, her work, her burden, her child. She exhales breaths audibly, whipping her head from right to left, throwing her whole body forward as if she will throw herself onto the floor.

            The repetitive exhalations of breath can be connected to Franz Fanon’s analysis of breathing as a form of combat for individuals living inside state oppression. Black feminist theorist and cultural worker, Alexis Gumbs, signifies on Fanon’s definition of “combat breathing” by invoking Ntozake Shange’s redefinition of the term, noting that “the combat edge of Black feminist breathing is a form of radical presence in the face of multiple forms of violence.”[22] Gumbs considers “Black feminist breathing as a cosmology,” which roots itself in ancestral reverence and “earth-based belief systems and practices that activate embodiments and personifications of the elements that make life possible.”[23] And, in keeping with our transcultural and Black Atlantic/Diasporic lens of understanding Trinity, this sacred breathing can be further illuminated through its connection to the Yoruba orisha, Oya, “owner of the wind … owner of the very air we breathe.”[24] Oya ushers forth the souls of the dead at the gates of the cemetery; she is a warrior, who fights alongside male orisa, and she represents the energy of sudden change.[25] Thus, Oya can work in tandem with the Bantu understanding of kalunga with a gendered twist. Through an understanding of Oya, we can read Sassabrass as a warrior-woman who has access to the poignant transformation made possible through reverence of our dead. We must (re)member their lives.

The music stops. “Shooooo,” she says. This becomes “Shhhhh,” as if she is silencing someone. She drops the bags and bends over, rising again with her hands up in surrender; she says, “Don’t shoot. Hands up; don’t shoot.” She begins calling out the names of all the cities where unarmed black people have been killed by the police. It is a ritual of mourning; it is a prayer and a purging of collective grief; it is a meditation. She gestures as if she is trying to stop bullets with her bare hands and vulnerable body. She chants, “Rewind; did it again.” This does not stop for what feels like an unbearable stretch of time, until she spins and screams, ending with an urgent exhalation of breath. The lights dim and she emerges with a cape and crown constructed out of black plastic bags. She moves with low, sweeping movements. She is a whirlwind. She is death bearing the weight of too many souls. She is grace. She is this monstrosity we live inside, and all of its chaos, and she is a promise of something more.

In the closing ritual, “Race Jones,” Sassabrass returns to the performance space in a gown made of the same strips of black plastic along with the traditional burlesque corset and long black gloves. Her dance is not a tease, though. It is a dance of defiance.There is a certain ferocity in her bold gaze at the audience members. Sassabrass spins, revealing her bustier and panties, just beneath the layers of black plastic strips. She begins the slow removal of gloves, eventually ripping them off with her teeth as if she is feral. She removes the bustier to reveal breasts adorned by black pasties with tassels covering her nipples. She slaps her own behind, swings her breasts in circular motions, and jumps on the floor, luxuriating in her body. The audience shouts, whistles, yells her name and laughs triumphantly with her. This is, indeed, the embodiment of erotic power as explored by Audre Lorde, who asserts that when we “touch with the power of the erotic … we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation … Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.” [26] As the burlesque dance ends, an excerpt from the black womanist poet Lucille Clifton’s poem “song at midnight” (sometimes known as “won’t you celebrate with me”) is heard as voice-over.[27]

Sassabrass returns to center stage where the bowl of water from the beginning ritual has been placed again. This time, she slowly cleans her entire body with the water as the bowl continues to illuminate a cooling blue light. She stands, dripping with water and cleansed, looking at us all. In this moment, it is not difficult to recall the furious and failed cleaning she attempted earlier with the white plastic bags. By allowing us to witness this final cleansing ritual, she seems to ask us to realize that it is only through purging the losses and lifting them up in the light to be remembered as truth that we can begin the process of making justice out of oppression. She has also closed the ritual, exiting out of the realm of the ancestors by cleaning herself of whatever is not necessary for her progression. She exits. Lights out.

Digging the Past to Move Us Forward:

Richard Allen’s A Horrible Prettiness provides a historical study of burlesque’s evolution in the United States during the 19th century, detailing its phenomenally successful emergence as a popular art form and its subsequent demise and relegation to the shadowy background of the New York theater industry in the 20th century. Allen traces its early years to a British burlesque artist Lydia Thompson and her burlesque troupe, who, after great success on European stages, arrived in Manhattan to debut their show Ixiom in February 1868 as result of arrangements made by George Wood, an owner of several Manhattan theatres. It did not take long for burlesque to lose its subversive power through institutionalization. From the 1890s on, burlesque became centered on the sexualized display of women’s bodies, moving into the territory of striptease away from mainstream stages and into the concert saloons by the 1920s and 1930s.

Sherril Dodd’s exploration of neo burlesque performance as an Anglo American popular dance form emphasizes how its characteristics of inclusion of diverse body types and creative autonomy are largely benefits for the performers. Though Dodd does emphasize possible transformational change through energetic performances which encourage audience members to “whoop and applaud,” thereby creating “a sense of validation, agency, and esteem [that] can affect performers’ experience on the neo burlesque stage,”[28] opening the way for possible change on the personal level for performers, she is understandably cautious about invoking any further transformation moving from performer to audience.

Though I understand this caution, I want to distinguish Taja Lindley’s performance of Trinity from Dodd’s exploration of neo burlesque performance for exactly this reason. There is a racialized urgency inherent in the performance of blackness as a woman in this country that we cannot dismiss. The historic reality for Black women’s bodies have long been bound up in racialized commercial exploitation that has a direct relationship to social, political, and economic oppressions that invade both personal and public spaces. So, we cannot separate the performance of blackness in commercial spaces from those that may happen in spaces considered more sacred, quotidian, or politically radical. That separation has never existed; there has always been spillage from one realm into the other. And that is exactly why the embodied performance of blackness practiced by Black women creates such a contested and radical site.

Furthermore, Dodds and Allen must be put in conversation with scholar Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, who notes that Black theatre practitioners must be considered both within and against traditional Black theatre, which has “found a way to encourage certain types of social change and transcendence through familiar characters, locations, and situations.”[29] Jones asserts that we must turn our attention to the Black avant-garde, because traditional Black theatre does not provide enough space for the full range of performance aesthetics emerging from Black artists. She notes that the Black avant-garde “dismantles and re-envisions the very notion of what theatre might be.”[30] For Jones, the Black avant-garde opens up space beyond “the politics of respectability,” taking up resistant embodied narratives of Blackness through which “race, gender, class, sexuality, and nationality are varied, porous, and dynamic,”[31] utilizing non linearity, simultaneity, and a certain “queering” of reality which allows for improvisation and the possibility of a liberation praxis which unbinds social structures that often function as methods of state control and surveillance.[32] Trinity can be read as Black avante-garde performance.

Like Dodd and Allen, Jones critiques Richard Turner’s concept of “liminality”; however, Jones notes that Turner’s ideas were drawn out of his problematic work with African people through a Western and colonial knowledge paradigm.[33] She asserts that it is more useful to use “ideas and concepts drawn from Black experiences to name the state commonly known as ‘betwixt and between.’”[34] While Jones uses Yoruba cosmology almost exclusively, I choose to weave together a transcultural cosmology to reflect our transcultural being as people of the Black Atlantic and its African Diaspora. Thus, we are both fully in conversation with Western theoretical and historical models while also privileging ways of understanding that resist Western hegemony.

There are Black women actively fighting to subvert the State’s power over our bodies in the streets, the media, and on the legislative floors of our local, state and federal governments. Though these forms of State power differ in function and structure, they each exhibit force on black women’s bodies and lives in ways that are inextricably linked to an oppressive history. We often die because we embody blackness and the female gender simultaneously. This double bind is tripled when queered. One need only read the narrative testimonies of the 13 black women sexually abused and/or raped by former Oklahoma City Police Department Officer Daniel Holzclaw, or the African American Policy Forum’s brief, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women”[35] to understand the full weight of our contemporary crisis.

The Performance as Embodied Participatory Policy-Making:

Taja Lindley considers her performance work a strategy to embody and activate participatory policy-making.[36] Typically, we understand policy as rules, strategies, and agreements made active in our lives by state and federal government. But Taja understands that these policies can take root through the practice of individuals outside of the government first. The legislative bodies follow suit based on what the people demand through voting power. For Taja, such participatory policy-making can happen through performance because of the possibility for radical shifts in consciousness made possible by an embodied and shared ritual; we can alter how we choose to exist in the world through our consciousness and imagination first, and this can extend to how we choose to present ourselves in the world.

Taja’s work is in alignment with these ideas. She became a reproductive justice advocate through the non-profit sector first through her work with the Women of Color Policy Network, National Abortion Rights Action League, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and through a grant from the Third Millennium to do reproductive justice work in the global north and south. She is also a trained childbirth and abortion doula. When she returned from her work in Ghana facilitating sexual health and reproductive justice for girls and young women through Third Millennium, she wanted to explore the performing arts in response to frustrations she was experiencing in the non- profit section. She wanted to connect to the issues inspiring her work in ways that did not leave her over-worked, under-paid, and sometimes, when doing research for lobby groups, far too distant from the populations of women she wanted to reach. Though she understands that art and culture have not been a primary priority for the reproductive justice movement due to the difficulty in quantifying results in ways that funders understand, she is enthusiastic about new progress in this arena made by leaders of the movement like Monica Dennis, the co-founder of the Spirit of a Woman Leadership Development Institute.[37] And Taja endeavors to be part of that new movement toward participatory policy making through art and culture with her own performance work.

Taja’s journey to the development of Trinity began with her participation in The NYC Pride Parade in 2011.[38] It is at the street festival, adorned with peacock feathers covering her bare breasts and carrying a staff, representing her power and royalty, that she discovers the seed that will propel her to challenge power relations as a Black woman through performance. Following her walk in The NYC Pride parade, Taja joined the Body Ecology Performance Ensemble, directed by Ebony Noelle Golden. This Black women’s performance ensemble devises works for performance that are often performed in such public spaces as subway platforms or trains, or on the streets of Brooklyn or Harlem. They also bring their work into radical queer performance spaces like WoW Café (NYC).[39] Through Taja’s work with the Body Ecology Performance Ensemble, she learned performance methodologies and rituals that had a direct impact on her solo work, including her understanding of performance as a strategy of direct action against injustice; her use of the sacred ring shout; layering texts for performance; the use of digitized media in live performance; and ways of devising performance through memory and ordinary gestures culled from daily life.[40] In 2013, she chose to leave the ensemble to further discover her own unique performance aesthetic by taking classes with Brown Girls Burlesque’s Broad Squad Institute. Like the Body Ecology Performance Ensemble, Brown Girls Burlesque’s Broad Squad Institute is both a performance and educational organization which seeks to dismantle internalized and external injustice through performance. Taja notes that during the Institute, participants “talked about what it meant to be women of color and how our bodies are policed and overly sexualized …We were nurtured.”[41] Around the same time, Taja founded Colored Girls Hustle, through which she collaborates with Body Ecology Performance Ensemble member Jessica Valoris.[42] The two creative collaborators produce and perform music, as well as design, construct, and sell merchandise reflecting Black women’s subjectivity in the world.

Once Taja graduated from the Institute, she applied to and entered the Hemispheric Institute’s Emerge Program, where she began the very early stages of developing Trinity. [43]  Through Emerge’s four month program, and an intensive week with George Woodman of Art in Odd Places[44], Taja created a street theater performance inspired by neo soul artist Erykah Badu’s song “Bag Lady,” using the garbage bag costuming that has become her signature in Trinity. She walked through the streets of The Village in her dress of black plastic bags, carrying a sign which asked the question “What are you willing to let go of?” on its front and “Pack Light” on the back. Following that performance, she performed at LaMama’s Squirt for two weeks, adding a monologue and burlesque-inspired dance to the costume and its concept of letting go.[45] LaMama’s Squirts features “the brashest new voices of the queer stage.” These performances led to a space grant at BAX[46], where she has been able to fully develop Trinity, performing iterations of it throughout the country over the past year.

When asked about the inspiration for Trinity, Taja states that the non-indictments for Eric Garner and Michael Brown’s deaths came down while she was devising. She “was thinking about what happens to a spirit that is taken so violently, and before their time …What happens to that energy?”[47] Though Taja does not say so herself, I would argue that this ephemeral “energy” that lingers is a synthesis of the traces of life lost and remaining injustice in our collective psyche. This “energy” gains space to activate transformation through the construction of new meaning(s) and possibilities through ritual performance. Through this recollection of energy through embodied memory of trauma, and the release that culminates in most burlesque performances, Taja has created a ritual interruption of oppressive power relations that seek to circumscribe and write our lives in ineffective policies, budget cuts, police reports and death certificates.

Because Taja’s performance methodology is directly linked to the catalyzing moment of the New York Pride Parade, a street festival which is dedicated to queer lives and bodies, as well as her work as a reproductive justice advocate with years of experience in the traditional realm of research and policy-making, it is imperative that we consider the implications of these intersections. Through her performance of participatory policy-making through Trinity, Taja’s intention to challenge the existing power relations that dominate our minds and imaginations first, impacting how we see ourselves and (possibly) how we behave in the world. While it is certainly a grand leap to ascribe revolutionary possibilities to her performance alone, she has created a site of resistance that can be shared with the public in performance spaces and in the streets. This is the very practice of engaged citizenship that makes a cultural revolution real when there are multiple practitioners doing such resistant work. We need only the institutions and communities present to support them.


[1] It is important to note that Lindley’s alias, Sassabrass, The Poom Poom Priestess, is in direct conversation with the character, Sassafrass, in Ntozake Shange’s novel, Sassfrass, Cypress, and Indigo, published by St. Martin’s Press in 1982. In the novel, Sassafrass, one of three sisters whose stories form the plot, heals from abuse through rituals connected to Yoruba cosmology and spiritual practice.

[2] Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984 and 2007).

[3] Alexis Gumbs, “The Transformative Dark Thing,” The New Inquiry, last modified 2015,

[4] Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Theatrical Jazz: Performance, Áse, And the Power of the Present Moment, (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015).

[5] Richard Allen, A Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991). In Horrible Prettiness, Richard Allen notes that such blues singers as Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith maintained a critical subversion through performance that white women burlesque performers could not sustain following the emergence and decline of resistant burlesque performance aesthetics introduced by British burlesque performer Luisa Thompson in the 19th century. According to Allen, “… the aggressively sexual musical discourse of other women singers of the same period was contained by virtue of their racial otherness … black women performers such as Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and Lizzie Miles belted out blues and ragtime tunes whose direct sexuality is arresting even today.” (Allen 272) Their ‘otherness’ as black women with excessive bodies provided them with the ability to “[channel] through these grotesque constructions and consigned to the margins of culture … the sexually aggressive songs and jokes of these performers could challenge some aspects of white patriarchal culture without provoking suppression … they still kept alive something of the insubordinate, inversive spirit of Thompsonian burlesque long after that spirit had all but drained from burlesque itself.” (273) While it is true that these black women blues singers maintained a vocalized agency that challenged normative roles for women in a patriarchal and racist society, reading their performances as having origins in Thompsonian burlesque provides a mythical point of origin that privileges a white woman as their foremother in a form that bears no direct connection to burlesque at all.

[6] Katrina Hazzard Donald, Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System, (Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 2013). In Mojo Workin, a ring shout is a sacred ritual with origins that connect populations of blacks throughout the African Diaspora. In the ring shout, groups of individuals move in a circle in a counter-clockwise motion to open a channel of communication between the living and the dead. It is also important to note that the ring shout as a performance method is part of a continuum among Black artists of the Diaspora, including Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Urban Bush Women, Rashida Bumbray’s Run Mary Run in collaboration with Adenike Sharpley and Dance Diaspora Collective, Ebony Noelle Golden’s Ring Shout for Reproductive Justice, performed by The Body Ecology Performance Ensemble, among others.

[7] Taja Lindley, Trinity (performance/performance text), July 2015, 2.

[8] Kimwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, Tying The Spiritual Knot: African Cosmology of the Bântu-Kongo, Principles of Life and Living, (Althelia Henrietta Press, 1980 and 2000.), 21.

[9] Taja Lindley, Trinity (performance/performance text), July 2015, 2.

[10] Ibid,3.

[11] Ibid, 4.

[12] Ibid, 4.

[13] Ibid, 4.

[14] Ibid, 5.

[15] Ibid, 5.

[16] Ibid, 6.

[17] Ibid, 7.

[18] Ibid, 7.

[19] David Savran, Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1992),6.

[20] Taja Lindley, Trinity (performance/performance text), July 2015, 7.

[21] Ibid, 7.

[22] Alexis Gumbs, “The Transformative Dark Thing,” The New Inquiry, last modified 2015,

[23] Alexis Gumbs, “The Transformative Dark Thing,” The New Inquiry, last modified 2015,

[24] John Philip Neimark, The Way of the Orisa: Empowering Your Life Through the Ancient African Religion of Ifa, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993), 125.

[25] Ibid, 125-126.

[26] Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, (Berkely: Crossing Press, 1982, 2007), 58.

[27] Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser, eds. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 427.

[28] Sherril Dodds, Dancing on the Canon: Embodiments of Value in Popular Dance, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 119.

[29]Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Theatrical Jazz: Performance, Áse, And the Power of the Present Moment, (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015)., 7-8.

[30] Ibid, 7.

[31] Ibid, 9.

[32] Ibid, 10-11.

[33] Ibid, 11.

[34] Ibid, 11.

[35] The African American Policy Forum, Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women (New York: The African American Policy Forum, 2015).

[36] Taja Lindley, interview by Nina Angela Mercer, Brooklyn, New York, October 24, 2015.

[37] Taja Lindley, interview by Nina Angela Mercer, Brooklyn, New York, October 24, 2015. Monica Dennis serves as a facilitator and core faculty team member for Move to End Violence, cultivating liberatory practices to recognize and uproot oppressions. Her bio can be found at

[38] Taja Lindley, interview by Nina Angela Mercer, Brooklyn, New York, October 24, 2015.

[39] Ebony Noelle Golden, “The Body Ecology Performance Ensemble,” last modified 2016,

[40] Taja Lindley, interview by Nina Angela Mercer, Brooklyn, New York, October 24, 2015.

[41] Taja Lindley, interview by Nina Angela Mercer, Brooklyn, New York, October 24, 2015.

[42] Taja Lindley, “The Colored Girl Hustle,” last modified 2015,

[43] “About” Hemispheric Institute,

[44] “About,” Art in Odd Places,

[45] “Squirts,” LaMama, http://www/

[46] “Space Grants and Artist Residencies,” Brooklyn Arts Exchange,

[47] Taja Lindley, interview by Nina Angela Mercer, Brooklyn, New York, October 24, 2015.


Allen, Richard. A Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991. 

 Dodds, Sherril. “’Naughty but Nice’: Re-Articulations of Value in Neo-Burlesque Striptease.” In Dancing the Canon: Embodiments of Value in Popular Dance, 105-124. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

 Gumbs, Alexis. “The Transformative Dark Thing,” The New Inquiry, last modified 2015,

Fu-Kiau, Kimwandende Kia Bunseki, Tying the Spiritual Knot: African Cosmology of the Bântu-Kongo, Principles of Life and Living. Althelia Henrietta Press, 1980, 2000.

 Hazzard-Donald, Katrina. Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo SystemChampagne: University of Illinois Press, 2013. 

 Jones, Omi Osun Joni L. Theatrical Jazz: Performance, Áse, And the Power of the Present Moment. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015. 

 Lindley, Taja. Trinity (performance/performance text). Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Arts Exchange, 2015. 

 Lindley, Taja. Interview by Nina Angela Mercer. Audio. Brooklyn, NY, 24 October 2015.

 Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outside: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkely: Crossing Press, 1983, 2007. 

 Savran, David. Communists, Cowboys, and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

 The African American Policy Forum. Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women. New York: The African American Policy Forum, 2015. 

 Young, Kevin and Michael S. Glaser, eds. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 Rochester: BOA Editions, 2012.


Nina Angela Mercer is a cultural worker. Nina’s plays include GUTTA BEAUTIFUL; RACING MY GIRL, SALLY; ITAGUA MEJI: A Road & A Prayer; GYPSY & THE BULLY DOOR; MOTHER WIT & WATER BORN; and DEEP SOUL IN THE TEMPLE. She is currently developing her play, BETWEEN WHISPERED BLOOD LINES with dramaturge Sandra Daley Sharif. Her plays have had stage readings or productions in Washington, D.C. at The Warehouse Theatre and The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for DC’s Fringe Festival; in New Jersey at Rutgers University-Newark and Rutgers University-New Brunswick; and in NYC at Wings Theatre, Brecht Forum, New York Public Library – Grand Army Plaza, The Classical Theatre of Harlem, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre, Dumbo Sky with The American Theatre of Harlem, The Nuyorican Poets’ Café, and Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement. In Trinidad, Nina’s work has been staged at The Little Carib Theatre. Nina has also been part of several collective actions and performances. She was the co-curator of the Women on Wednesdays Art and Culture Project at the former Brecht Forum in NYC. Her writing has been published in The Killens Review of Arts & Letters and Black Renaissance Noire. Her work will also be included in the upcoming anthology, Are You Entertained? Black Popular Culture in the 21st Century with Duke University Press (in press) and Voices Magazine #SayHerName Edition. She is a co-founder and co-director of Ocean Ana Rising, an arts education non-profit organization ( Nina currently teaches at Brooklyn College, CUNY. She has also taught at Medgar Evers College, CUNY; BMCC, CUNY; Howard University, University of Maryland, College Park; and American University. She is currently a doctoral fellow of Theatre and Performance at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Nina is also honored to be a member of Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter. Updates about productions, performances, and other musings can be found at