Stripped for justice

After seeing The Rebelles perform their debut show Through Sick and Sin last July, a friend and I were so inspired that, a few days later, we marched ourselves on up to the downtown workplace of Christine DiBenedetto, the burlesque troupe’s founder.

Our mission: to beg her to please, please, let us join her troupe of outrageous, bodacious starlets. I mean, here was a group of women expressing their sexuality in a powerful and positive way, without shame — and we wanted in!

Our stage names were already picked out. I would be General GI Jane, equipped with thigh-high army boots, an epaulette- and medallion-strewn military jacket, a riding crop and, well, not much else. (I should note that in my everyday life, I am a female version of mild-mannered Clark Kent, but without the glasses.)

My friend, a happily married woman nearing 50, planned to call herself Veronica Vavoom. Her act would involve a slow, sensual tango with another woman, demonstrating to the world that a lady of a certain age can still be pretty damn sexy.

Apparently, we weren’t the only audience members to fall for these talented dames. Over the course of the past year, The Rebelles have put on sold-out shows here in Asheville, as well as at venues in Charlotte, Carrboro, Chapel Hill (where they headlined the rock festival Sleazefest) and Atlanta. They’ve garnered national press in Curve magazine and Critical Review, while here at home, they won the 2003 Mountain Xpress readers’ award for “Best Locally Produced Show.”

Not bad for a group that started out two years ago “with just sticky pads and people,” as DiBenedetto puts it.

“Most people had never seen a burlesque show before,” she notes, recalling The Rebelles’ debut last summer. “I think they were so surprised with how complex it was. We have a sound person, a lighting designer, a live band [the talented Pheromones, otherwise known as Scrappy Hamilton], multimedia including video, acts, costumes.

“And as it unveiled, it had such a backbone. … We were really able to get our points across about the society we live in, and the paradoxes, while using a lot of comedy and sexuality.”

Most people who know burlesque remember it from its ’60s incarnation, when it became synonymous with striptease, DiBenedetto reports. But The Rebelles are disrobing on higher ground.

“We’re really taking it back to the vaudevillian burlesque of the late 1800s and early 1900s, where it was about social commentary and political satire and mocking plays of the day … while adding in acts that were outrageous in nature.”

There’s no doubt that their shows — in addition to being a whole lot of fun — are a form of activism. As their Web site (www.therebelles.com) proclaims: “Celebrities, politicians, and artists are being silenced for voicing their opinions … 17 women in Asheville, NC have joined forces to redefine the virtues of comedy, sexuality, and political satire.”

Their new show, A More Perfect Union, picks up where Through Sick and Sin left off (though seeing the first one is not a requirement for appreciating the second).

The Rebelles (sub-commanders of the G-Spot Liberation Army) are warned by the mysterious “G” (author of the G-Spot Manifesto: The Truth Is In Here) of an upcoming threat to Lady Justice, wrongfully hidden behind curtains at the Great Hall of Justice. The Rebelles steal Lady Justice and retreat to “booty” camp — and that’s where the audience finds them, preparing for the “inevitable” and performing delightful acts.

If the story line reminds you at all of that little incident where Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered the bare breast of the Lady Justice statue to be covered (at a cost of $8,000, no less), that’s no accident.

“Lady Justice has been bearing a breast and the scales of justice for an eternity, and all of a sudden, who is this bozo that comes along to waste our taxpayers’ dollars?” fumes DiBenedetto.

“It’s just crazy to think you can turn on the television and you can see somebody’s head being blown up or chopped off or … [somebody] being sexually tortured, but Lady Justice is a total offense to the people making decisions on our behalf. That sort of sparked our script writing, and was something that we really wanted to poke fun at.”

The show’s title, not surprisingly, refers to the preamble to the Constitution — though in this case, it packs a double entendre of a message, DiBenedetto cheekily notes:

“In order to form a more perfect union we must come together as a society.”

When my friend and I finally tracked DiBenedetto down last year, she apologetically informed us that The Rebelles weren’t currently taking on any new members. And, actually, we weren’t too disappointed; we felt brave for even having asked.

Mission accomplished.


The Rebelles perform A More Perfect Union at the North Carolina Stage Company (enter across from Zambra on Walnut Street) Thursday, July 1, through Saturday, July 3, and Thursday, July 8, through Saturday, July 10. Show time for all shows is 8 p.m., plus an 11 p.m. late show each Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $18 for Thursday shows, $20 for all others. Call 350-9090, or visit www.ncstage.org for tickets and information.

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