The Los Angeles-based playwright Smith--or, rather, her alter ego, Vivian LaRouche ("I perform as Vivian but write under my own name," Smith says. "It keeps me out of state mental custody.")--is bringing Empire Burlesque to Tucson for a three-night run at Vaudeville Cabaret. The show is a series of vignettes, a "hootchie-cootchie reconstruction of Americana in the tradition of cabaret, burlesque and conventional satire." Significantly, Smith's press kit does not contain testimonials from George W. Bush or John Ashcroft.
So just where does liberal civil disobedience intersect with burlesque? Does Smith/LaRouche do a striptease that exposes only her left breast? "It doesn't even expose that much," Smith giggles. "I was doing research on burlesque right after the 2000 election, and somehow in my twisted little mind, the two things seemed to be perfectly paired.
"Webster's has three definitions of 'burlesque': taking something that's high and making it low; taking something low and making it high; and then the kind of burlesque that our evil minds turn to first, the naughty kind of show that was thriving in the early to middle part of the 20th century.
"I was thinking about how corrupt our politicians are, how that pissed me off, and how funny it would be to ram those two ideas together, political satire and burlesque. This was a great choice because I didn't have to get naked, which was terrifying and I'm not getting any younger"--Smith is actually an attractive natural redhead who hasn't yet turned 30--"and I figured this would keep me busy for four years, until we get rid of Bush."
The Ohio-born Smith has been preparing for this show since childhood. She got her political consciousness as a kid, largely on road trips with her grandfather.
"My grandfather dragged us around to every historical site in Ohio and made sure that we saw through things that were fake, like Ronald Reagan," she says. "Without him, I wouldn't have nearly the level of political consciousness I have now."
One of her main pastimes today is agitating for bus-riders' rights in Los Angeles.
"I'm probably averaging getting kicked off the bus about twice a week," she says. "I'm all about agitating in your everyday life. I tell everybody to shop in this particular market in my neighborhood because it's union. And I do a little bit of work with a democracy and voter-registration group. I'm not a big fan of quoting mass murderers, but Stalin said something that really inspired me: 'Those who cast their votes decide nothing; those who count the votes decide everything.' We saw that in Florida in 2000. Anywhere else in the world where the son of a former president won a contested election in a state where his brother was governor, we would've sent in peacekeeping troops. So I'm trying to get lefties to register as poll workers. When George W. Bush pulls his lever on voting day, I want him to get his ballot from some dreadlocked lesbian hippie activist, and I want him to have to say, 'Thank you, ma'am, for helping make our democracy work.'"
As for her training as an entertainer, Smith started playing the guitar at age 6. To the consternation of her family, she has never improved since then, but she did obtain degrees in English and drama at a small college in Ohio. She went on to work with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Culture Clash, Split Bitches and multimedia puppet artist Theodora Skipitares, among others. Her internship with Skipitares strongly influenced aspects of the last theater piece Smith wrote from scratch before Empire Burlesque, a skewed and screwy history of this country called The America Project.
"My grandfather and I drove across the country in a 1971 Ford F-150 with 30 to 50 puppets crammed into it, and we performed the show anyplace they'd let us," she says. "It's probably the most expensive thing I could have written; it even has a flying Wal-Mart in it."
Empire Burlesque is a more modest, puppet-free production. "It's a series of vignettes, all looped together," Smith explains. "They change all the time. I average one new one a month, and throw something out every month. I didn't realize the tax cut bill was coming so quickly, so I wrote this thing where the Citizens for Responsible Taxation team up with the makers of the Girls Gone Wild video, but it's old already and I only got to do it twice.
"Each show has up to 20 separate ... my grandmother calls them 'incidents.' I change it around depending on who my audience is. I don't do the heavier stuff where people are drinking, because it loses the drinkers. That's why Will Rogers had rope tricks."
Notice that Smith let slip that her grandmother is familiar with the show.
"Oh, my grandmother loves it," she says. "But when I told her I was doing this show on American politics and I would be singing some songs and playing the guitar and doing a dance and doing a little striptease, my grandmother said, 'Jamie, do you really think it's a good idea to play the guitar?'"
Smith denies that this is a depressing time to have a political conscience in America.
"I think it's the opposite," she declares. "With this administration and its absolute disregard for public opinion, the working class and the poor, it shows how important it is for the left to stay on its feet. I'm not glad that Bush is in office, but it reminds me why it's important not to let the movement flag."
A lot of people, including Democratic presidential candidates, backed off from criticizing Bush during the invasion of Iraq--yet Smith refused to censor herself. She gave a freewheeling show in Philadelphia shortly after the war began.
"I was not performing for an even faintly hostile crowd," she says. "It was a really supportive environment. It's nice to have a night when you're preaching to the choir and not getting bonked on the head by a can of tomatoes or a copy of the Constitution. There was no challenge to what I was saying, which is a little disappointing, too. It's more interesting for someone to mouth off during the show. It's best of all when somebody comes up after the show and says, 'You changed my mind,' or at least, 'I don't agree with you, but you made me think.' Most people don't want their wheels turned.
"Laughter is the only way you can really make politics accessible to the American public, because who the hell watches MacNeil-Lehrer? Just me and my grandmother. The Bush administration covers its fumbling ineptness with limits on civil disobedience, so I feel lucky we're still at a point where I can do this show, and I hope by doing this, I can get people fired up to put me out of business by making their own political art. That, and it's always cool to perform in a bar, because as Brecht said, a theater without beer is a theater that has lost its soul."