Torchy Brown lights way for LitanyIrene Hsiaoon August 12, 2020 at 4:30 pm

Small-town girl finds adventure, fame, and love in the big city: the evergreen plot gained new color in 1937, when Jackie Ormes made history as the first Black female cartoonist with a syndicated comic strip with Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, in which teenage Torchy Brown leaves rural Mississippi to sing and dance at the Cotton Club in New York City. Trading in a cow for train fare north and sitting in the “whites only” car to get there (18 years before Rosa Parks), Torchy was an independent, outspoken heroine who served up style with social commentary–and posed weekly as a paper doll with pinup proportions and a killer wardrobe. Like Ormes, who got her start at the Pittsburgh Courier covering boxing matches and wrote for the Chicago Defender under the androgynous moniker “Jackie” rather than her given name “Zelda,” Torchy defied expectations and broke barriers. In one strip that describes the “gentle beauty of her face,” she says, “Yes, I’m tired, Mother . . . I’m trying to find a future.”

Hailing from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, Jenn Freeman was also a small-town girl with a mission when she arrived in Chicago: “My goal was to have a dance company that would minister.” A year studying dance at Columbia College prompted a shift in the narrative. “I started discovering who I was. I realized I was queer. I came out. That did not go well,” she recalls ruefully. “My stepfather is a minister. My mom is a preacher’s wife. An exorcism was performed on me. I was prayed over. I was anointed . . . it broke my heart. I was like, ‘I’m excited to know this thing about myself, and I know this thing for certain, and I think it’s cool, and I’m excited to share.’ I don’t know why I thought that. I was raised to believe a certain thing–I learned pretty quick that wasn’t actually what I believed.”

Pulled out of college, Freeman, who had begun to dance at the age of three “at a mom-and-pop dance studio where you learn ballet, jazz, and tap,” participated in dance team at school, and danced in her church, found herself unable to dance. Six or seven years passed before she returned to school on her own. “I was trying to dance, but I couldn’t,” she says, until one day she found herself at a burlesque performance by close friend and fellow queer Black Columbia alum Jeez Loueez. When the troupe needed a replacement, Freeman found herself back on stage. “That honestly is how a lot of performers started performing burlesque ten or 12 years ago. There weren’t classes. There weren’t a ton of people doing it. It was a fringe art form. It’s more visible now. There was no resources or guidance, it was kind of like, ‘You’ve been to a show. Go out there and see what comes up, kid!'”

Though Freeman’s first foray was (in her own words) “bad,” burlesque opened a new channel to expression and identity. There was no choreographer. I was in charge. And it gave me a way to begin processing all the trauma I experienced with my family and how that impacted how I saw myself, so I kept doing it.” On stage, Freeman began to develop an alter ego named Po’Chop, built on qualities that resisted the expectations of both her family and the form. Within the burlesque and cabaret scene, it’s common to develop a persona, and it’s common for names to be what I consider ‘frou frou.’ But I’m not a Trixie! When I started working, there weren’t a lot of Black or even POC performers. I wanted people to know when they saw my name that this was a person of color. And, when I was 18, right before I went to college, my dance teacher sat me down and asked me what my favorite food was. At the time it was pork chops. He said, ‘Well, if you’re going to be a dancer, you’re definitely not going to be able to eat that.’ It pissed me off!”

“In burlesque, femininity is often presented in a demure, cutesy, sometimes hypersexual way. I knew after trying that on that that was not the route I wanted to go. So my persona was about bringing out the side of me that was bold, unapologetic, that was aggressive at times, that wasn’t afraid to demand attention and demand it in the way I wanted it. I think of Nina Simone: if you listen to her live [recordings], she legit tells people to sit down. I love that she wasn’t afraid to tell people how to experience her work. Po’Chop was a way for me to explore that. At least then, I considered Jenn Freeman to be an introvert, shy, didn’t want to take up space, shrunk. Creating Po’Chop was a way to give myself room to expand.”

“For a long time I felt I was two,” she says. “About four years ago it became important to me to acknowledge both sides of myself onstage. I needed to leave room for Po’Chop to be seen as vulnerable and not just this superhero-badass-person-thing.”

For the remainder of 2020, as Rebuild Foundation dance resident, Freeman is releasing Litany, a series of five films created in collaboration with filmmaker Jordan Phelps and developed from material built over years with Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Links Hall, and Rebuild’s archives. “It essentially means a prayer,” says Freeman. “Each one of the five scenes is a prayer in its own way–looking at anger, looking at Black women’s legacies, looking at femininity, gender, rage, and healing. The first film, Torchy’s Togs, was developed as part of my CDF lab year as People’s Church of the G.H.E.T.T.O. (Greatest History Ever Told to Our People), about three women [Ormes, Beauty Turner, and Elder Lucy Smith], who lived and worked in Bronzeville and made a huge impact on the neighborhood. And the film is also named after Audre Lorde’s poem, ‘A Litany for Survival.’

“I was drawn to Torchy’s Togs”–the cutout paper doll Ormes published alongside her Torchy in Heartbeats comic strips starting in 1950–“because we love pinup. Pinup is a huge part of burlesque culture, but I had never seen a person of color as a pinup character. Torchy was a brown paper doll, super stylish and colorful but also very smart and cutting. [Ormes] would often use the comics to make commentary on women’s rights, on the environment, on voting. I don’t know if a lot of people knew what she was doing, but they loved it.”

Premiering August 19, Torchy’s Togs also develops the motif of brown paper in Freeman’s life and work–as both surface for text to be written upon and material for textile art. “In the video I take some of the dresses Jackie Ormes drew and blew them up and recreated them on brown paper,” she says. “That is another practice of mine, trying to retrace ancestors, retrace their handwriting. I’ve always been big on covering my walls with paper clippings, magazines that inspired me. That’s how I began my process, just clipping stuff, mapping out flowcharts and bubble charts on paper, and then, for some reason, it became super important to me it was on brown paper. I used to have a coworker who was really into origami, and she taught me how to make paper flowers, so I started folding paper flowers. During that time I was going through divorce, so it was a meditation. Wherever I was, I would sit and fold flowers.” The flowers became part of a performance, and in People’s Church of the G.H.E.T.T.O., Freeman covered the walls of Blanc Gallery with 6,251 open brown paper bags.

“I’m drawn to handwriting,” says Freeman. “It’s a dying art form. I don’t think kids are learning cursive anymore. Tracing is a way to preserve handwriting–I don’t consider it drawing. I consider it tracing Jackie Ormes’s stroke, a way for me to connect to her and her process. During quarantine, I started retracing [science fiction author] Octavia Butler’s journals. That’s how she manifested a lot of her life, by writing out, ‘So be it! See to it!’ I started tracing it to connect with her, as well as meditate to soothe my anxiety. You can find the images of her journals online. I would blow them up. Sewing was a big thing for me growing up, so I even cross-stitched her journal.”

The other four films, filmed on sites in Bronzeville and at the Rebuild Foundation, draw from the history of Bronzeville, the pages of Ebony magazine, Freeman’s life, and the life of her grandfather, the first Black sheriff in Poplar Bluff (“His parents were sharecroppers. He had a lot of rage and a lot of Christianity in him”). They are scheduled for release on dates that combine personal and historical significance–including the anniversaries of Lorde’s passing, Freeman’s grandfather’s birthday, and Elder Lucy Smith’s birthday. Together, they combine images of the church and the cabaret, country and city, feminine and masculine, contradictions that live in beauty in Freeman. v

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