Hot in Here: Women of Color Take on Climate Change Through the Radical Art of Burlesque

An interview with activist and artist Una Osato AKA eHOTic other

As the impacts of global climate change become more imminent — and immanent for low-income women of color especially in the global south — climate activism has become imperative. Unlike environmentalists of the past, contemporary climate activists are radically confronting climate change alongside multiple overlapping systems of oppression including capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Many of these activists are tackling these issues while simultaneously shattering perceptions of activism through art, song, dance, and, in the case of one group, burlesque.

brASS: Brown RadicalAss Burlesque is a multi disciplinary performance troupe from NYC that uses our unique perspectives as women of color as a lens to the myriad of issues we are faced with in society. Through celebrations of our politicized bodies, we are making politics sexy and empowering audiences to value their own stories and use their creativity towards collective action. We encourage a disruption of the passive consumption of art and use performance to re-imagine our society.

Award-winning and critically acclaimed multi-disciplinary artists exHOTic other, sister selva, and Miss AuroraBoobRealis founded Brown RadicalAss Burlesque (brASS) in 2015. Inspired by the Black Arts Movement, brASS embraces the catalyzation of art as not just entertainment, but political action. As radical artists of color continuing the political and cultural legacy of artists and visionaries including Audre Lorde and Grace Lee Boggs, they do this from a perspective which values the intersectionality of feminism, racial justice, queerness, and anti-capitalism. brASS envisions “a more beautiful world where we’re all able to be free and full of glitter.”

One of brASS’s signature shows is Hot in Here, a multi-act burlesque show focused on climate change and the environment. I had the pleasure of seeing Hot in Here last spring at Brandeis University. As a climate change activist, advocate for body positivity, and unashamed fan of burlesque, I fell in love with the art and labor I saw on the stage. One of the piece’s that particularly stuck out to me was “Polar Bear” featuring exHOTic Other. In this piece, Una combines sex, humor, and sad reality to portray a polar bear who, under the heat of global warming, begins to strip away his fur one layer at a time and ultimately is poisoned by a toxic fish. This spring, as part of a project about centering women of color in the climate movement (read that piece here), I had the privilege to interview Una about her role in brASS and Hot in Here.

exHOTic other in “Polar Bare” (Photos courtesy of Piquette Imagery)

Q: What is your personal role in the project?

A: I’m a co-founder of brASS burlesque, along with sister selva and Miss AuroraBoobRealis. The show came about because it’s an issue we’re all thinking about and also have been part of various groups and actions dealing with climate change on local and global levels over the years for many years. There was huge march in NYC a few years ago, called The People’s Climate Change march (there were hundreds of thousands of people there) and sister selva and I were out there protesting and created a protest performance piece, using burlesque and closing to do it. Miss AuroraBoobRealis also has been a long time street protest performer over the years too doing all sorts of performances at other protests too. We realized that these are issues we’re creating work about in the streets and also we each have burlesque pieces that we do on stages that relate to this topic and decided excited to explore this theme together and create an entire show about it, using burlesque. So in the show we each contribute our different perspective and commentary about climate change with our various pieces and invite other burlesque artists we work with who have pieces about this theme to be part of the show, there’s also a trio we do and an entire group piece in the show, both of which sister selva choreographed.

“I love how this medium of burlesque forces audience to face and deal with our sexualities and bodies and even challenges just what sexy means.”

Q: How did you get the idea to use burlesque as a way to talk about climate change? What does this performing arts medium provide that other mediums can’t?

A: Burlesque is an art form that allows us to use our whole bodies to tell stories, in fun, sexy, and hilarious way. And what [topic is more important to explore than] climate change which effects all of our realities and futures.

Burlesque [is] a space to deconstruct everything, nothing is normal, we get to see this before our very eyes in how that everything is constructed and taken apart, and we get to see and experience that on stage with an audience, it’s a really beautiful art form that allows for so much.

Sister Selva (Photos courtesy of Azikiwe Mohammed)

And I think finding new ways to explore a topic so big and heavy as climate change, which people often are either too scared of and/or feel too overwhelmed and disempowered to take action about, engaging them with an art form that gives space for humor and fantasy and beauty and sensuality and reflection, allows for more possibilities of entry points and inspiration.

Burlesque allows me to explore all this in fun and funny engaging ways with my and our bodies and sexualities, and constantly getting to fuck with gender, at the center of it all. I love how this medium of burlesque forces audience to face and deal with our sexualities and bodies and even challenges just what sexy means.

Also, what I find super fun about burlesque is that we’re able to engage audiences in ways that they’re not necessarily expecting. We get to play with their expectations of us performing, their projections on us, and every topic under the sun that we feel inspired to explore on stage. I have pieces about body image (seen while I have full orca whale drag on), nationalism (thinking about who is considered in and out and the violence that occurs in order to maintain those ideas and boarders), [and] gentrification (which [sister selva and I] created in response to the neighborhood we grew up in, the east village of NYC, being rapidly gentrified around us), just to give a sample of the different stories and themes/topics I and we explore using burlesque.

Miss AuroraBoobRealis (Photo courtesy of Azikiwe Mohammed)

Q: What is the goal of Hot in Here?

A: To have people think about the effects of climate change, on all of us, our whole planet. And that the things we love and think are beautiful and cute and sweet, if we don’t really take actions and make serious changes to our ways of life (I’m looking at us first world people) then things (the whole world) are going to continue to being destroyed by what we’re doing. And we’re already seeing it happen, we need to really take climate change seriously and move towards action. I try to engage people in a humorous ways through my performances in the hope that maybe it will awakened a part of them that was too scared or closed off before to really reflect on what our collective future is moving towards and work towards doing.

Q: Why is it important to center women of color in climate change dialogue? What is at stake when we don’t center women of color in climate change dialogue?

A: It’s important to me and us to center women of color in climate change, because women and people of all genders of color around the world, are the ones who are dealing with the effects of climate change first and hardest. From those living in the global south to communities in the US who have been systematically stripped of resources and means to not live and work in areas impacted by environmental racism, poor and working class people of the world, vulnerable communities experiencing the effects of climate change already and are really the ones baring the brunt of what climate is doing and will do. And even more compounded is the burden that women and femme people in communities all over the world are having to hold too.

What’s at stake when we don’t center women of color in climate change dialogue is that we don’t have real accurate understanding of the dire conditions people are living in, and also what they’re doing to organize in response and what they’re calling on us all to do to take action in solidarity with them and in general.

“From those living in the global south to communities in the US who have been systematically… impacted by environmental racism, poor and working class people of the world, vulnerable communities experiencing the effects of climate change already, [are] really the ones baring the brunt of what climate is doing and will do. And even more compounded is the burden that women and femme people in communities all over the world are having to hold too.”

Q: Have you engaged in the climate/environmental movement in other ways?

A: Yes, as I was mentioning earlier the idea for sister selva’s piece, and the whole show in general came about from us (we’re sisters in real life too) performing everyday burlesque, is what we sometimes like to call it, at a protest in NYC. We were mermaids and fish caught in a net, and walked upstream in the protest, of hundreds of thousands of people marching by, and we were just screaming and trying to escape the net. We did this for hours. People really took to the piece and really loved our use of performance and humor. People came up to us saying, super earnestly, “We’re going to fight for us all, so we can save you too, don’t worry,” and we would continued to scream and try to escape the net in response. From this all we saw openings for engaging people in fun, funny, and sexy ways to think about politics and action, both in the streets and onstage. It’s fun in both places to help us all imagine beyond what we expect of those spaces and really dream together of a more beautiful future; so if that’s on stage how do we really think of justice and politics in conversation with all the glitter and fantasy and living our own experiences in our bodies; and then in the streets or in political organizing how can we use art to have fun and imagine and create this more beautiful glittery world we’re fighting for in order to for us to have the struggle be fun, cause it’s a long haul we’re going to be fighting for — we need to enjoy it all while we’re doing it, too!

All of the pieces in our show really have a beautiful range of perspective and imagination, hopefully allowing audiences many points of entry for inspiration and reflection and ultimately taking action.

From Left to Right: exHOTic other, Miss AuroraBoobRealis, and sister selva (Photo courtesy of Nisha Sondhe)
There isn’t just one stage that can have only one center. There are stages everywhere — we create them, and there are as many centers as there are stories…
From Left to Right: sister selva, exHOTic other, and Miss AuroraBoobRealis (Photo coutesy of Nisha Sondhe)

Q: Is there anything else you would like the public to know about the piece, yourself, or brASS?

A: I see art as being an essential part of our movement. Art is simultaneously things we can use in our organizing and ways to organize. Art is the world we’re fighting for and how we’re doing it. Art allows for us to have cathartic experiences together. Art allows us necessary outlets for and reminders of our collective humanity. The movement for liberation of all peoples is one we’re committed to for the long haul, so we need the space art allows us for being seen and heard, we need the time it allows us for reflecting, releasing, and re-energizing together, so that we can create the world that we know can be real.

I’m born and raised in NYC, in addition to collaborating with sister selva and Miss AuroraBoobRealis, I’ve been writing, performing, and producing award-winning original work for over twelve years, touring nationally and internationally in theaters, festivals, universities, community organizations, classrooms, and prisons.

Like everyone, I have many parts: I’m a queer Japanese Jewish (self-loving anti-zionist) femme artist from NYC.

The work I create is aimed at continually merging my art and politics. My art is my response to a world where marginalized bodies and experiences get silenced; a world where the only option is to write myself into my own parts.

I tell stories with my whole body in meaningful, colorful ways that make The Movement irresistible as I combine the many art forms I love: theater, burlesque, dance, stand-up, storytelling of every kind.

Everything I do and create is rooted in how I view the world — and how the world views and responds to me. Through fully embodied performance, I create and explore my own reality — which celebrates my wholeness along with my brokenness.

Art is how I survive, how I breathe, how I share love. It’s how I communicate, how I connect with others, how I create opportunities for as many stories to be shared as possible — especially those we don’t usually get to hear and value.

Art is how I build community and counter the sense of isolation that capitalism breeds — within ourselves and between each other — through laughter, joy, and collective catharsis. In collaboration with other artists and countless communities, I create work that seeks to speak to people’s truths, to be action, to move others to action, because art should be useful to all of us.

There isn’t just one stage that can have only one center. There are stages everywhere — we create them, and there are as many centers as there are stories…

“It’s a long haul we’re going to be fighting for — we need to enjoy it all while we’re doing it, too!”

To find out more Una and brASS check them out on Facebook at

www.facebook.com/brASSburlesque
www.facebook.com/exHOTicotherperformer
www.facebook.com/sisterselva
www.facebook.com/AuroraBoobRealis

And on Twitter/Instagram at

@brASSburlesque
@thisisuna
@dawnsmind
@sisterselva