“I’m not interested in titillation for its own sake. I’m interested in entertainment that has a message — sometimes it’s comic, sometimes it’s heart-wrenching, sometimes it’s about social justice issues,” says Lauren “Madame Onça” O’Leary. The belly dance teacher and former Ashevillean, now based in Richmond, Va., launched the Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival based on those ideas. The event celebrates its 10th anniversary with workshops and performances at The Grey Eagle and The Orange Peel Friday through Sunday, May 27 to 29.
O’Leary co-founded and directed Future of Tradition Center for Folkloric Arts, a dance and art studio in Asheville in the late ’90s. It allowed her to entertain and learn from a variety of sideshow, fringe and underground performance arts. ABSFest was one of the first celebrations to weave vaudeville, sideshow and performance burlesque onto one bill. A decade later, O’Leary stands by the idea that the performances are far more than stripteases. It’s “a fun way to lampoon the powers that be and the status quo,” she says. “The word burlesque means satire. It has always been a people’s tool to have fun and take down the establishment a notch or two.”
“We’re in a world where the strange and different are being persecuted violently in a lot of places,” says psychedelic gospel singer Phat Man Dee. “North Carolina is experiencing hate in its purist form right now with [House Bill 2]. That isn’t just limited to the state or transgender people. If you’re black or have a couple of tattoos, if you’re a small person or an overly large person or have physical challenges, society has deemed you a threat.”
While in town with her jazz band five years ago, Phat Man Dee discovered ABSFest and talked with the performers afterward. “What ABSFest does is it creates a place where the strange and different can be beautiful, and their beauty is praised, and our differences are what make us unique,” says the singer. “It’s about showing Asheville that it’s awesome to be yourself and that you can be beautiful being yourself — glittery and shiny and fabulous and powerful. We’re not competing with one another, we’re celebrating each other.”
Artists ranging from jugglers and sword swallowers to dancers and musicians travel from Japan, Scotland, Australia and across the U.S. to perform in the juried festival. They’re chosen based on how their art aligns with ABSFest values and what Madame Onca feels Asheville needs to experience.
This year, more than 35 performers will take the stage, and workshops are geared toward newcomers and old hats alike. (Aerial art with Sadie Hawkins and beginner ukulele with Mab, Just Mab are just two of the options for those looking to take a class.)
For the Friday kickoff, local Euro-folk band The Resonant Rogues provide a live soundtrack to a speakeasy-style evening of burlesque. The improv battle “Last Pasties Standing: Welcome to the Glitterdome” sends artists onstage with a costume, prop and surprise music with which to create an impromptu performance. Karolina Luxe — a Portland, Ore.-based belly dancer, circus artist and trumpeter — headlines that night.
On Saturday, self-styled “Preacher of Perversion,” Ben Wisdom, emcees the production at The Orange Peel. He’s from New Orleans, “so he’s not afraid to speak on the subject of regressive legislation,” says O’Leary. “He’s going to have plenty to say about what Asheville is going through.”
WHAT: ABSFest, absfest.com
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thgreyeagle.com; and The Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave., theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Friday, May 27, 8 p.m. at The Grey Eagle. “Speakeasy” $15/$20 and “Last Pastie Standing” $10/$15.
Saturday, May 28, 8 p.m. at The Orange Peel. $25 general admission/$45 VIP