There’s a certain banality to a stripper undressing at home after a shift. It’s still stripping, but it’s just the bane of every working soul at that point: the slow unlacing of the stilettos and the rolling up of the leggings to be used again. A negligee for a little warmth and a tumbler of bourbon.
“I’m always really touched when they value the emotional labor I’m putting in,” says Moriah Ella Mason in her one-woman show: Sex Werque at Carnegie Stage.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Everyone is a fill-in for someone who is not there…the club is a fill-in for me too.”
Understanding the vanity of the strip club for both parties involved: the spectators and the strippers; you’re left with a qualification that is both surreal and disjointed as to ‘what a strip club’s for?’
As Mason defines it, a place of “intense, unrealistic attention…A place entirely free from real love.”
“I’m at work and I’m not your girlfriend. So if you want to act like my boyfriend, you need to pay me.”
The value, in question, fulfills a need. A condolence for something missing. And this show attempts to reconcile a justification for brilliant, bodily tribute to the female form with the damaged burden which surrounds it: patriarchy.
There’s never a moment without movement in this show. It encapsulates all the embodiments of a body’s mood: frenetic pacing, shaking, dancing, and even stillness worked up to create dramatic, stunning silences. This is a study of the body, as Mason is never not on display steadily building up the crowd with her performative moves meant to arouse. But they exist with a certain distance not allowing them to be tantalizing, but rather investigated: the ‘sexy’ becomes ‘what is seen as sexy?’. She gives numbers to the routine, building up to a point where she’s gyrating each of her butt’s cheeks counting off their position in the routine: “13…14…13…14…13, 13, 13…14.”
She offers her routine, but with the stream-of-consciousness in her head it becomes a lesson in how the sausage is made, how the magician creates their illusion.
The brilliant scoring by a percussionist and sound machine player J.F. Winkles and cellist Eric Weidenhof offer a sleek barroom jazz that transforms with electronic mutability into a soundscape which mesmerizes from mise en scène towards wildness as the story gains emotion. With the slings and arrows of Mason’s affirmations and decimations; come the palpable flavor of harmonies leading simultaneously to both promise and away into chaos.
The Video Design and Projections given by Liz Barentine provide a gracious supplementation to the singular perspective of Mason. On screen, as interludes between Mason’s stories, are sections of interviews with other strippers. You never see their faces, only hear their words and are thrown a montage of their body engaged either casually sitting around for the interview or showing off a focus of their own routines. The largeness of a singular breast on screen, or the pan across an arm or a leg gives a focus to the body that takes away from the fantasy. It separates the assumptions one makes about a person from simply seeing their face. It concentrates on the way they have broken down their body into its parts and further gains insight into this strange alien perception of objectification. You hear these women speak about their experiences, logic and understanding of both the queer motivations of men and a testament towards their identity as strippers. This is work. They are workers doing a job. But the job (despite assumptions) is not to be an object, but to be a person for someone: a stand-in for what somebody needs.
A great theme of this show is that there are two identities which define men at a strip club: “one who is actively looking for humanity versus another who is looking for an object…junk food versus a real meal.” Mason describes her experience of sometimes essentially being “a therapist with my boobs out.”
She unveils a certain vulnerability that men have with going to the strip club as a rite of passage for a Bachelor Party. The unique treat to be able to sit and talk with a man during a paid-for private lap dance rather than perform a perfunctory, ill-received demonstration of what this act of sexual gratuitousness should be:
“Masculinity is a trap,” she says, “And [some] people want to get what they paid for, even if they didn’t want that thing in the first place.”
It’s within this scheme of absurdity that her mission arises. A magically provocative set of questions. She asks the audience to ask her, “Why are you doing this?” To various people, she answers: College Debt. The Need to be Seen. Nymphomania. Loneliness.
None of these answers are simply true; maybe aspects, but not wholly. The real answer is ambiguous and layered, because it’s work. She will not have a simple back story, because there are many facets for her being this affirmative performer: money, a need not to feel ugly, to dress femme, to own herself.
“I laid back, spreading my legs and letting a strange man stare at my pussy. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that this is my job.”
Mason is no longer a stripper. And for the sake of not spoiling, I won’t tell you why. I will say that at the crux of her decision is a moment where the boundary between fantasy and reality gets betrayed. In this cultural moment where consent is being defined and refined, the elements of sexuality are being put to question. Mason pulls the audience into her show, asking us to take part in saying things to our audience neighbors. Saying them in a sexy way, to a stranger. Then engaging a stranger in a handshake, with full eye contact for 10 seconds. “Great” she says, “you now have what it takes to be a stripper.”
It’s not just the dance, but the psychology of what it takes to fulfill the fantasy for lost, lonely people looking for connection. She’s at once a human defying objectivity by having a mission and a personality, but abreast in a world where the identity of the body is betrayed by the limits of ill-gotten objectification.
It’s about identity, and the needs therein. And how someone can share themselves by being a human and by being with someone for a moment, fulfilling a human need. And ideally, transcending what misogyny makes a woman’s sexuality into a thing.
Sex Werque runs at Carnegie Stage through January 21 for tickets and more information click here.
Photos by Heather Mull.