Lola Loquacious slides up through the audience, sashaying a multi-colored pastel tulle skirt as she stops at a few lucky spectators to seductively pull lollipops from her bejeweled cotton-candy pink corset.
Cameo’s 1986 hit (or synth-pop monstrosity) “Candy” blares as Loquacious hits the stage. Her tulle skirt is the first to go in a swirl of ethereal fluff. She’s carrying an oversized rainbow lollipop, which she licks with deliberate, confident glances at the audience.
She turns to unhook her corset, looking back over her shoulder before tossing it to the side. To hollers and applause from the audience, she holds her breasts in her hands as she turns around to reveal sparkly pink pasties. She returns through the crowd, laughing and still handing out candy.
Loquacious is one of the founding members of Brown Sugar Cabaret, Kansas City’s only burlesque troupe in which most, if not all, of the performers are people of color. By establishing themselves in this particular brand of performance art, they've joined a Kansas City tradition that dates back more than a century.
“For quite some time, that there weren’t many — if any — people of color represented well within in the burlesque industry here in Kansas City,” says the troupe’s matriarch, whose stage name is Yvonne De Attatime and is also known as Mother Earf.
Earf was singing karaoke at the Uptown Arts Bar a few years ago when she caught the attention of Annie-May Allure, a veteran of Kansas City’s burlesque scene, who demanded Earf audition for Allure’s show.
“It was my first time, ever, in a public singing gig,” Earf says. “All my biker friends were there, and I had a ball.”
Earf had grown up in Kansas City, the eldest in a strict military family. Her father, who was in the Navy, used to tell his children that he was the general but their mother was the drill sergeant. Put in charge of the little ones, Earf felt as if she’d been given the illusion of power: all the responsibility and none of the freedom. When she was in fifth grade, her family moved to the projects.
“(We) had rats as big as pitbulls,” she says. She also remembers that someone threw a nine-month-pregnant woman down a trash chute for reportedly telling a man “no,” and that her father taught her karate moves in the front yard. This upbringing, Earf says, gave her a no-guff attitude that has served her well in life and on the stage.
These days Mother Earf works at a bureaucratic day job, but she spent many years employed at a now-defunct retail giant where, she says, “everybody went to go shoplifting.”
Which is where she met her husband, Gary.
“I see Gary, and he’s on the ground beating this pregnant woman, and I’m getting mad,” she recalls. But the pregnant shoplifter turned out to be a man in disguise, his “belly” full of stolen merchandise. Earf and Gary soon fell in love.
Gary has become her most ardent supporter, shouting “I love you!” repeatedly from the crowd ever since that first audition. After she performed at Allure’s show, one of the performers approached Earf and Loquacious to start a burlesque troupe centered on women of color. But the original performer backed out, leaving Earf and Loquacious feeling too inexperienced to do it themselves. The idea, however, picked at them.
After singing in several other shows, she decided to go forward with the troupe in 2016.
“I just gotta start it,” Earf thought. “Got some retirement money, had the venue, all I needed was the talent. That’s where Lola came in.”
Loquacious, 42, got her start on the “boom-boom” circuit six years ago by also singing live and helping behind the scenes. Stripping, however, wasn’t on the bill for the Kansas City native until she saw another burlesque performer, Romany Jewel.
“I saw when (my best friend) Romany, who was doing burlesque, I thought it was the most glamorous thing ever,” Loquacious says. But she hesitated to perform burlesque herself, not seeing anyone similar to her onstage and wondering if she had the courage.
Other performers would approach her and say tell her she was brave to be singing.
“I would be like, ‘What? I’m just singing. You’re taking your clothes off!’ To me that was way more risk.”
Using Romany as her soundboard, Loquacious began to develop acts and learned how to come up with the three c’s: concept, costume and choreography.
“And when I can really pull it together, I get really excited about it,” she says, waving her hands.
The Brown Sugar Cabaret’s first show, in March 2017, sold out. Subsequent shows were similar, and as of January this year, the troupe performs every first Saturday of the month at the Uptown Arts Bar. (Disclosure: I work part-time at the venue.)
“I can count the number of (non-white) performers in Kansas City on one hand,” Earf says.
So to keep it diverse, Brown Sugar Cabaret regularly pulls in performers from across the country. The troupe has been joined by the buxom beauty Nox Falls from Texas; the voluptuous vixen Rose Whip of St. Louis; and the self-appointed “Commie Kitty of Titty,” Chairmyn Meow of Colorado, just to name a few.
Mother Earf is always the last act of the night, often taking the stage to a respectful silence.
Dressed in an off-one-shoulder frill-necked red jumpsuit, her afro wig resplendent, she’ll sit gracefully on a stool and begin an a cappella version of U2’s “With or Without You,” her commanding presence sending her vintage deep voice to the corners of her listeners’ bones.
Her last note is met with thunderous applause, people rising from their seats. She beckons the performers to join her onstage for curtain call. Beaming and barely-clothed, everyone takes a bow.
Having ensured that burlesque in the Paris of the Plains is now all inclusive, Mother Earf winks.
Mother Earf's Brown Sugar Cabaret Presents: The Black and White, 9 p.m. Saturday, May 5, Uptown Arts & Bar, 3611 Broadway Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri 64111.
Monique Gabrielle Salazar is a Kansas City freelance writer, artist and producer. She can be reached at email@example.com.