“Blacklight” Spins a New Tale about Strippers in New Orleans

Artwork by Jessica Conn

In a year when film and TV studios have indefinitely shut down their shooting schedules, Maha Chielo, alongside cocreator Michelle Zei, pushed ahead with Blacklight—a dark comedy series based on Chielo’s life as a soft-spoken, goth, Black sex worker and socialist organizer living in post-Katrina New Orleans. Maha, a Katrina survivor, recently produced a 15-year anniversary event with a panel of fellow Black New Orleanians, discussing art’s ability to share history and guard Black futures, and donating the event’s proceeds to those displaced by Hurricane Laura. Panelists spoke about the shared trauma of enduring the chaos and agony of Katrina, and the chasms this disaster still causes between locals and expats. Blacklight comes out of this context.

The series introduces us to Brianna, a heroine based on Chielo, who’s disenchanted with and undervalued at her nonprofit job but doesn’t have an out. The writers’ hilarious and vindicating treatment of Brianna’s bosses’ racist, classist power moves demonstrates that our thorniest emotions are often responses to cultural violence, not personal moral lapses. Brianna’s swerve into the “absurd and bizarre” world of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street causes dismay in her community, a rough reality Chielo has lived herself. Blacklight reminds us that having to hustle is hard enough without having to defend our motives. There’s a chasm between strippers and civilians, which deepens and widens with each attempt to render our experiences palatable to outsiders. Nowhere is this more obvious than in some of the truly cringeworthy cinema created by those insisting that they’re lending a voice to these women.

Chielo’s insistence that “sex workers’ stories should not be told without the leadership of sex workers themselves” emerges out of the tedium of enduring stigma from friends and fetish from strangers—our lives twisted into the life. To concerned citizens uncritical of their own hand-wringing, their ordinary night shifts take on aspects of a thriller. A predictably “disgusting and bizarre” customer becomes an “insidious, dangerous, predatory” specter. But the specters in Chielo’s story aren’t #MeToo predators; they’re as problematic as they are predictable—a Dollar Tree manager, a catcaller, a charlatan mactivist crush. Brianna’s turn toward Bourbon Street is a clapback, not just to these men, but to the hypocrisies of respectability. Levity allows us to take a real look into the chasms caused by stigma, “to share our colorful life…without all the little caveats.”

Bitch spoke to Maha about growing into Bourbon Street as a New Orleanian, writing one’s own story amidst a pandemic and political upheaval, and facing structural inequality with a brave laugh.

You’ve been writing a show about strippers who’ve lost their jobs during quarantine. You also produced a socially distant table read for the pilot. We’ve seen how comedy has helped people cope; the internet’s full of jokes and memes about COVID-19. How does humor play into Blacklight?

That’s how people deal with a lot of dark things: by making jokes. We used that same kind of humor in Blacklight. When we decided to produce and release the table read for the pilot we figured this [moment was] going to be very relevant: New Orleans already experienced a horrible disaster that was made so much worse because of government inaction, corruption, and the structural problems that already existed. It’s very similar to [the current pandemic]. Blacklight and New Orleans are worlds that exist in the aftermath of a collective, life-changing disaster.

When did you start stripping?

I started nearly five years ago on Bourbon Street. I haven’t danced since March, and I miss the pole so much. I still have a bucket list of places I want to dance before I retire [laughs]. Brianna, the protagonist, is based on me; I wanted to share my experiences in a realistic way. During Brianna’s first shift, I wanted to show that you can have successes and huge failures. She does okay onstage, but when she tries to talk to people, everyone is horrible [laughs]. That’s much more realistic ‘cause it’s hard; it’s not easy! Customers aren’t just these bumbling idiots. For the most part, they’re adults with their own agenda. I tried to show the work as nuanced. Brianna’s not an instant success; she has to work through being thrown into this place where she isn’t sure what the rules are or who to trust.

Anarchy is the rule of law at the club. I really love the rapid-fire montage of all the customers and the things they say: “When does the A Team get here?” It’s too real.

The men who come into clubs, respond to online ads, or buy content are just regular men. You might get a more disgusting or bizzare version of them in the club, but they’re the same men you interact with in other settings. People say the club is this insidious, dangerous, predatory environment, but why? Remember those men don’t just exist in the club; they’re everywhere.

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Stripping in New Orleans is different than it is everywhere else. Do you feel like the experiences you’ve had on Bourbon Street resemble what’s going on across the country right now, with strip clubs closing down?

Bourbon is definitely unique, intense, and quick-paced. There are blocks of clubs and barkers trying to pull people off a pedestrian road. Bourbon is a different environment than [a single] club, isolated from all other things. That’s how most strip-club stories are told. From a historical standpoint, Bourbon is right next to Storyville, which was infamous. When I researched the Red Light District, I saw a lot of similarities between Storyville and Bourbon, [in the ways that] racism, colorism, and classism determine who can work at [which] establishment and how they get treated.

My stripping was disrupted by the raids and club closures in 2018. We had just gotten through the slow December holidays, and then we were hit right before the busy season. Hundreds of people were out of work in an instant. The resulting  unemployment march that January foreshadowed the mass unemployment happening this year. There’s a real human cost to policies: Those pandemic business loans haven’t gone to businesses that are sexually oriented. In New Orleans, we had mass [club] closures, and it changed stripping in the city permanently. It certainly did for me, being Black.

Have you had experiences on Bourbon as a Black stripper that other strippers working on Bourbon couldn’t understand?

We hint at this a little bit in the pilot when it seems like the manager is trying to [quickly] push Brianna into an office to get her out of sight. This was based on a real experience I had when I started at a club very early on in my dancing. They told me, “You’re a little bit thicker, so we’re going to give you a day shift.” So I lost 15 pounds very quickly, and the manager said, “You’re looking really good,” but when I asked about a night shift, the manager gave me the run around. Then we had other girls audition—and he [gave them] night contracts. They weren’t Black. So I went to [the manager] and he said, “Even if I [gave you a] night shift, they’ll probably look for a reason to fire you, and then you’ll be back on day shift. I had another Black girl that was really good, but then I let her go to nighttime. One of the white dancers picked a fight with her; the white dancer got no repercussions, and the Black girl got fired from that shift. Upper management has a quota for Black dancers on night shift. It’s two, and we already have two, so you can’t be on night shift.”

Blacklight Pilot

The recent anti-cop protests have called for peace, de-escalation, nonviolence, and unity. What I’m hearing from you and from other sex workers is a call for plurality: room for people to deeply disagree, to have different needs, and still demand a baseline of respect.

Aside from being purposefully excluded from activist spaces, a big problem is that sex workers, especially the more marginalized ones, can’t always out themselves. It can be dangerous. I saw an Instagram Live discussion recently with a sex-worker activist wearing a mask. I get it, but it’s hard to get taken seriously on a larger platform while hiding your identity. People need someone to connect to and empathize with. Some have less to lose [when they come out]. For example, someone who’s white might not face the same stigma as a person of color or a Black person coming out and saying, “I’m a sex worker.” Their value in society is still different. This keeps the more marginalized from being able to speak for themselves. A street-based sex worker might be a lot less likely to out herself because it’s illegal, whereas stripping technically isn’t. Of course there’s also the issue of people listening once we do speak.

I’m interested in the character, the Black capitalist, who comes to Malik and Brianna’s socialist meeting. He invites them to “come meet these Black business owners,” and the pair just roll their eyes.

During the George Floyd protests, we began hearing all these people saying, “We need to start supporting Black businesses.” I used to have a writing fellowship with Blavity, and I wrote an article about how supporting Black businesses will never lead to Black liberation. Nobody liked my article, and they wrote mean comments [laughs]. So I took some of the things I [wrote in] the article and put them in the pilot. As Brianna says in the script, people like to cosplay the imagery of Black Panthers, but they don’t even know what those people stood for. They weren’t capitalists; they weren’t supporting Black business as a means of liberation. When they were feeding kids breakfast, it wasn’t to “support Black-owned breakfast places.” They thought those things should be structurally provided. So I wanted to explore that dynamic in the activist world: all different kinds of characters with different ideas for liberation.

When I came back to New Orleans, I was having a lot of trouble finding a job. I was working at a nonprofit that sucked and not making any money. When I decided to start dancing, I told my mentor about it. His only advice to me was, “I hope you find something better to do because when I was growing up in Harlem, and my dad died of AIDS, I didn’t start selling drugs to support me and my sister.” That was so unfair. In the community there’s always a lot of hate toward Black single mothers, but they don’t become single mothers on their own.

Brianna works at a nonprofit, but they don’t even pay minimum wage.

Yes, it’s a pretty exploitative situation. Brianna’s a passionate activist, but there isn’t really an outlet for her radicalism. She’s met with a lot of resistance. The nonprofit doesn’t take into consideration structural issues that prevent their goals from being met. Brianna tries to advocate for her Black clients, but the organization isn’t hearing it. That neoliberal mindset tends to [support the] belief that disenfranchised people just need a little support and then there will be room for them in the capitalist system. If they can’t [make it], it’s a failing on their part because they aren’t following the rules.

Activist spaces [also] aren’t immune to the structural inequalities of regular life. They can be sexist and uphold unfair respectability politics. That can mean excluding sex workers and the work they’re doing. Lots of people didn’t take our unemployment march in New Orleans seriously because we’re sex workers, but those demonstrations were impressive and showed that we aren’t victims and [that we] have agency.

Sex workers are very dynamic and have their own varied, colorful lives, and we can see that without having to give all these little caveats.

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After Trayvon Martin’s murder, I Googled his name and the word “thug” came up in the auto-complete. So many people blame victims—the way someone looked or their perceived guilt.  This leads to arguments over innocence. He was a good guy. He was just a birdwatcher. He went to college. He was doing good in the community. As Jackie Wang states in “Against Innocence,” that someone’s existence, not a lack of guilt or stigma, ought to grant them empathy

Even when you look at Black Lives Matter, a lot of [the] time they’re trying to [counter] the news’ narrative and paint the victim as innocent: “Well he was a college graduate and a veteran.” But just being a person should be enough. We don’t need to justify their worth with how many times they volunteered at the soup kitchen. Ultimately, it’s not the solution. We need to move past that. Sex workers [controlling] their own narratives can [help shift] the civilian gaze [from], “She’s a sex worker, but she’s not like those other sex workers over there” to “She’s a sex worker, and that’s okay.” Sex workers are very dynamic and have their own varied, colorful lives, and we can see that without having to give all these little caveats. There still isn’t a true amplification of our voices. It sucks ‘cause we have a lot to offer.

There’s a real disconnect between people wrapped up in a trauma fantasy and people who’ve actually lived through disasters, like you have.

Sometimes people need to just be quiet when things have nothing to do with them [laughs]. There hasn’t been enough media that really talks about post-Katrina New Orleans. There was Treme, about adults in the immediate aftermath of the storm, but there hasn’t been anything [that shows] how unresolved the collective trauma has been for survivors [of the storm], or how the Black population of the city was intentionally [reduced]. There’s talk of gentrification here and there but not of how culturally violent it has been. It’s heartbreaking, but this show is a comedy. We’re laughing at the absurdity of reality.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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