The Burlesque Poetess: A Jewess with "Artitude"
Jojo Lazar is a Boston-based multimedia visual and performance artist with a dizzying portfolio of projects. She puts her MFA in Poetry and love of vaudeville to work performing as “The Burlesque Poetess.” She plays the ukulele in the steam-crunk band, “Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys,” and with Meff in “The Tiny Instrument Revue” and in “WHY ARE THOSE GIRLS SO LOUD it’s ‘cos we’re jewish,” with fellow Jewish writer/performer Amy Macabre.
I wanted to profile Jojo on Jewesses with Attitude ever since her early days as the fanny-flashing Burlesque Poetess; then after I heard about “WHY ARE THOSE GIRLS SO LOUD it’s ‘cos we’re Jewish,” I knew I had to. I finally caught up with Jojo during National Poetry Month to solicit a Passover poem, and I also got a chance to talk with her about her background, her feelings about Jewishness, and her plans for the future.
On her Jewish background:
"I was raised in a very ecumenically spiritual home and educated in a Reform synagogue, I also went to Georgetown Day School (in D.C.), which at the time I thought boasted something like 40-50% Jewish students. The idea of the Jewish person as outsider, an emblem of Otherness was always with me somehow, and I knew staying close to Jewish community and also building new inclusive and open-minded iterations was something integral to my identity and to what I wanted to contribute to the People of the Book, as well as my own legacy. This is in part why I went to Brandeis, too."
"On her first day of Albert Einstein Medical School, part of Yeshiva University, my mother was told to go home and take care of her husband/family. (This was in the 1960's, right on the front steps!) So I knew that even within the Tribe, there were things I didn't like. It is an imperfect and widely variant 'culture,' but that didn't mean I couldn't rewrite what it meant to be Jewish, and a Jewess! --for myself and the future."
On role models:
"I wasn't aware of a great number of Jewish women artists (in all genres) growing up, there are precious few, and they are dear to my heart. There was the Cantor at Temple Beth Ami's Hebrew School (Rockville, MD) I attended as a child, a woman performing a man's job in kippot and on guitar no less! Cantor Sue Roemer was my earliest 'feminist' performer influence, and her songs taught me the prayers I still carry. Additionally, both of my grandmothers were painters. I grew up surrounded by their artwork, it was the only kind adorning the walls of my parents's home growing up. (Now they embarrass me with my own art hanging throughout...) My grandmother Lita Gaber was a painter-photographer who made lithographs, prints and collaged paintings. My grandmother Rose Lazar painted surreal, lively Picasso-esque oils, drawings, and even made wood-carved stamps and sculpture. I didn't get the chance to know my grandmothers very well when they were alive, but I consider my visual art to be an 'ongoing conversation' with them in some ways."
"Thinking about Jewesses in the arts and literature the first name to occur to me was 'Allen Ginsberg!' honestly (tee hee), but otherwise I was aware of: Judy Blume, Susan Sontag, Annie Leibovitz, and later on performers like Madeline Kahn, Carol Kane, (and Helen Kane! not-quite Jewess) and Sophie Tucker. My vaude-villainy draws from the dark humor and 'it is better to laugh than to cry' attitude of Yiddish jokes; the tragi-comedy diaspora brings about in the people of the book. I feel that my engagement in the arts is a result of the highly literary & artistic nature of my family, and that that too stems partially from our Judaism, truly being 'people of the book.' I was raised by insatiable readers and intellectuals; my mother is a psychiatrist with a degree in literature (Dr. Susan G. Lazar), and my father (Joel Lazar) is a conductor of classical music. My sister (Jessica Lazar) is a non-profit activist and writer.
On being a Jewish artist:
"I was always inclined to draw, write, and perform, so it felt very much like the one-day-world I wanted to contribute to, help build and be a part of, 'the Artiverse.' I came to understand that if you're expert at a craft and conduct yourself with confidence and kindness you really can surpass any obstacle. I think I have been most influenced by stories of Jews idiosyncratically charting their own life-courses, including defining their own Jewishness. The more I've read (books like Stars of David) I've realized that it is a pretty universal and not just American notion, the idea of infinite idiosyncratic 'JudaismS.' This has helped me reflect on that which came about in my performing arts organically, without much too much forethought."
"My acts are just a natural vaudevillian way of interacting/talking all over each other, doing voices, and the conversational funny general weirdness that inevitably ensues when I'm hanging with the Jewish cohort of Boston’s writing/art/carny/burlesque/music scene I am so crazy-grateful to have found myself within and contributing to. (Folks like writer/performer Amy Macabre, and playwright/musician Meff.) I see now when I'm 'loudly' actively incorporating my Jewish social performance in my arts I'm hopefully adding to the more visible legacy of Jewish vaudevillians in this new millennium."
On celebrating your weirdness:
"It is only since graduating from college (and studying abroad in England for two spells) that I learned first hand what it was to be an oddity or outsider as an American Jewess. I took great pleasure in being a warm, surreal and comical ambassador of the tribe; sharing my Jewishness with the joie de vivre I was raised with. Arting and laughing my way through it all, especially the dark times in life. That's why I'm proudly a 'Broken Toy' and that's why I'm a 'GIRL SO LOUD' and that's why I unabashedly busk in the streets of Cambridge/Boston singing speak-easy tunes with 'The Tiny Instrument Revue.' I realized no one will stop you from celebrating your outsider weirdness or status if you're charmingly entertaining, educating, and/or giving a memorable thought-provoking experience. In this way art is marvelous, magical, and the ultimate tool of subversion."
"I am the burlesque poetess-- most definitely often truly a burlesque Jewess. I believe poetry is a form of exhibitionism (hence the 'character'/act's origins) and I aim to share the trials and 'failures' and ridiculousness of trying to be 'successful' in the arts as honestly as possible. I do so by offering up poems/tunes/illustrations/blog-tales of this journey online, in theaters, in rock clubs, in my Niblet zines, and anywhere anyone will have me. It is an ongoing meta tragi-comedy routine. And I am truly blessed in my audience be it on the page or stage."
Jojo’s plans for the future include surviving "28 SEEDS," the magical yet never-ending armageddon run of the original steam-crunk sci-fi theatrical experience with Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys (band) and theater company Liars & Believers (running presently at the The BCA's Plaza Theatre through May 12), and teaching creative writing workshops virtually as well as in her new independent salon/studio space. She also will to continue her performative projects, including the premiere of a “speak-easy steamglam futurtorian parlour group” called "The Burlesque Poetess & Those No-goodniks," presumably at Steampunk World's Fair in May, 2012.
Below, (Meff 'n Jojo's) Tiny Instrument Revue performs "Shalom'ha."