On a warmish Sunday night, a line of people spooled its way out onto the sidewalk in front of Theatre Off Jackson. The people were pretty diverse—tall, short, brown, black, white, ambitious-hat wearers, people of different genders and sizes. The show was running a little late.
There was an anxious buzz in the air; everyone was excited to see the Sunday Night Shuga Shaq, the only all person of color burlesque revue in Seattle.
As we all made our way inside, there was a mad dash to stake out territory. The VIP members got the plush couches close to the low stage in front. My friend and I managed to edge out another group of queers for a wobbly table in the back. The inside of the theater felt a bit incongruous with the sexual nature of the event. A boat hung on the far wall, and there were a lot of wooden beams, giving the space a meeting-hall vibe. I overheard the word "labia" thrown around a couple of times, immediately thought of splinters, and winced.
As we settled in, though, I noticed that the audience at Shuga Shaq was wonderfully blacker and queerer than a lot of other spaces I find myself in. I appreciated the different hairstyles I spotted: fro-hawks, braids, kitty cat wigs, dreadlocks, picked-out fros, teeny-weeny fros, dyed fros. Monica's "Angel of Mine" and Aaliyah's "Rock the Boat" played in the background.
Next to me, a performer and her boyfriend nomed down some Chinese takeout they bought nearby. The crowd slowly began to get their drinks and pull out their dollar bills. It smelled good. The wood began to melt away, and one got the idea that anything could happen.
After a while, the music got quieter and the force that brought each and every one of us to the show entered the room: our host, Ms. Briq House. Thick as hell, clad in a bright neon-green lace lingerie onesie, diamond pasties, six-plus-inch black leather boots, and giant hair, Briq made her way to the stage, mic in hand. Beaming, she told the crowd, "Y'all look almost as good as me." Reader, that's not even close to being true.
"I'm a very proud black woman. Being femme and being queer and being a sex worker and being a spiritual healer and a teacher—those are parts of who I am," Briq told me on another occasion, over drinks in Northgate. "But before I'm anything else, I'm a black woman, I'm a black god."
Briq is a force to be reckoned with (or worshipped). She's been hosting the Sunday Night Shuga Shaq for five years now, which she runs with associate producer Sin de la Rosa every second Sunday of the month. In addition to her hosting duties, Briq is a sex-work advocate, intuitive intimacy instructor, educator, burlesque performer, producer, professional cuddler, and Seattle native.
"I've been here my whole life, 33 years," she said. She grew up between her grandparents' house in the Central District and where her mother stayed in Federal Way, and she graduated from Rainier Beach High School. During the Great Migration, her family came from Birmingham to Seattle, with her great-grandparents and great-aunts finding work at Boeing. Reminding me that, at one point, the historically black Central District had been called "Coon Hollow," Briq emphasized how black her childhood was here in Seattle.
"I tell everybody all the time, my upbringing was very beautiful and black. A lot of times, people come to Seattle and they're like, 'Oh my God, how was it growing up as a black person here?' I'm like, the same as any other person growing up with black family, black friends—my whole experience was very black and brown."
Her family raised her Southern Baptist, and religion was a huge part of Briq's life early on. She was deeply involved in her church, working in full-time ministry and at other Christian organizations. She married at a very young age. "That was not what we should have done, but we thought that's what we were supposed to do because we were Christian," she explained.
Eventually, Briq and her husband realized that the religion they'd spent their entire lives investing in wasn't something that truly fit who they were as people and who they wanted to love. They both wanted to figure out who they were outside of what they'd been told to be.
"I was always really harassed in church for being too sexy, too outgoing, too spirited," she told me. "I was always pushing back against things, even in church. So once I got free from that shit, it was just a beautiful thing of like: This is mine. I can do whatever the fuck I want with it."
At 25, Briq divorced her husband (they're still friends) and left the church. Having no plan B ("I was raised to be a wife, I didn't know anything other than that"), she admitted to going through a period of depression, wondering what would come next. Briq had been performing in plays, theater, and dance performances her entire life, so when a friend suggested she try burlesque, it made perfect sense (now that she was free from the strict sexual mores of the church).
"Because I was going through my divorce, not only from my husband, but also from my religion, I realized that the only reason I hadn't tried burlesque was because of my religion," she told me. "So once I no longer had that belief system to hold on to, I was like, oh well, yeah, I'll try it... It really helped me reclaim my identity, reclaim my body, reclaim everything that I was told in the church was negative."
There was a lot of talk about God at Shuga Shaq. Namely in the form of Briq, who can also be addressed as "Goddess." Her lap dances, which audience members bid on, are said to have stirred up divine fits of total ecstasy in the recipient's soul. "Your goodies are God," Briq told the lot of us in between performances, with a smile that was equal parts mischievous and sweet. I believed her.
Briq entered the burlesque scene at a time when she says many performers were very thin and white. Outside of being featured in shows by other performers of color like Dr. Ginger Snapz, a pioneer of black and brown burlesque in Seattle, Briq was often the darkest and largest person in a show.
"I was tired of that, and I wanted a show that represented my folks: my trans folks, my larger bodied folks, my dark skin folks, my light skin folks, black and brown bodies, folks of different abilities—you know, everything," she said. "So I decided to make the show that I wanted to see, because I wasn't about to wait for nobody else to do it."
The show started as Heartbreak Hotel, a one-off performance at the Can Can featuring women of color telling their stories of heartbreak and triumph. It sold out, with a line that wrapped around the corner. It eventually morphed into Shuga Shaq, moving from the Can Can to Theatre Off Jackson, expanding to include not just women of color, but performers of color more broadly, emphasizing queer and larger bodied people.
The show format is different from most burlesque shows. Briq says that is intentional. Tipping is fundamental to Shuga Shaq. And there's no discreet bucket passed around for tips, either. Rather, audience members are encouraged to (and do) ball up their bills and throw them at the performer onstage.
"I feel like people of color—especially artists of color—are never celebrated, whether that be financially or emotionally, in the way that they should be. Shuga Shaq is set up so that people are taught to very, very vigorously celebrate folks of color emotionally and financially," she said.
"Every single act, you throw money on the stage. You celebrate that person, you let them know that they're the shit. And if you're not tipping, then you're screaming—you gotta be giving something."
On the recent Sunday I attended, a diverse array of performers were all showered with cash. There was Curllee Q, a Shuga Shaq virgin, whom the crowd went wild for when she took off her bright orange and pink bra, swirling her nipple tassels to "Got to Give It Up." Saira Barbaric came out to a twangy tune that immediately morphed into a raunchy, banging Megan Thee Stallion track. Choreographer Randy Ford also performed a sexy number to Megan's "Big Ole Freak" in a tight pink onesie. And Siren stripped while suspended from a hoop. It was wild.
In between performances, Briq told us that someone messaged her saying they had discovered they were queer by coming to Shuga Shaq—apparently it has happened multiple times. "For those of you who are queer and questioning, welcome to the family after tonight!" Briq laughed.
In our interview, Briq told me she witnesses a lot of transformations at her shows. "I love seeing straight folks in the audience being like, 'Whoa, okay, that was interesting. I wasn't expecting that.' They're not mad, they're enlightened and they're excited," she said.
Although straight people and white people are welcome to come to Shuga Shaq, Briq is quick to remind everyone that the show is a space to center and uplift communities and performers of color, and white people need to be chill with that.
"My goal always is to stimulate and then educate, because I believe that people are more open and willing to hear what you have to say after you've stimulated them a little bit," Briq told me.
At one point during the performance, Briq sat on a chair onstage and asked if there were any cisgender white men in the room. Three raised their hands. She beckoned two of them to come and help her out of her boots, sending them away as soon as they accomplished what she needed from them. It's a Shuga Shaq tradition to put white cis men to work, "'cause you know, reparations." I could get behind it.
Briq is also the organizer behind a new gathering called Quink Social Club, a kink-friendly social exclusively for people of color. In many communities of color, there's an idea that kink and fetishes are more in the domain of white people. Or perhaps they've encountered really racist play dynamics that white people justify as kink or fantasy.
"A fantasy can be racist, a fetish can be based in racism—it can all be racist," Briq clarified. "So it was really important to me to have a space where we all could learn and discover and play with one another outside of the white gaze. Because it's not white shit. People think it's white shit because there are so many white people on the scene, but it's not—it's for us, it's about us, it's ours."
Briq believes that kink can be a way to heal for a lot of folks, and she wanted to create a space where that was possible. Quink is a kink play party, but an actual party too—with dancing, music, demonstrations, and educational presentations. The first Quink occurred back in February. The second event was earlier this month and focused on kink and sex as an HIV-positive person, with HIV-positive presenters.
"We are a community with positive folks, and they are kinky and sexy, too. So hell yeah we're gonna celebrate that, and learn about that, and roll with that," she said. "It's important for me—for us—to learn how to love and fuck one another and love ourselves."
Back at Shuga Shaq, Sin de la Rosa was hosting the raffle while our hostess got ready for her lap dance. Ticket holders had the chance to win a pair of plus-size crotchless panties, a sexy Harley Quinn outfit, a vintage Playboy with Anna Nicole Smith on the cover, and, most importantly, $25 off a lap dance by Briq.
When the bidding began for the lap dance, Briq came back out in a sheer red lace top, glittery pasties, a so-mini-its-barely-there leather skirt, and sky-high heels. Audience members bid while she slowly walked around where we were sitting, sensually perching on the couch arms, preening, rubbing shoulders, seducing.
Three people collectively won the bidding, raising more than $600. With the winners sitting in chairs on the stage and the rest of the crowd throwing cash at her, Briq proceeded to give the most incredible collective lap dance I've ever seen to Lil Ru's "The Nasty Song" and Beyoncé's "Blow." (Note: I've really only seen lap dances in movies, and this honestly took the cake.) Crowd members started to stand up to get a better look, taking notes.
Afterward, each of the recipients looked dazed, like they'd glimpsed something divine. And they had. It was by far the most spectacular part of the night.
But there was a lot of healing and sexiness and learning at Shuga Shaq. It felt like a space of possibility, bringing together acts in ways I hadn't witnessed before. I left with a better understanding of the connection between my sex brain and my desire to throw all the cash I had at a twerking performer in front me. I left feeling seen.
"I'm really committed to my healing through intimacy, and I'm really committed to the healing of others through intimacy. I think that it's a beautiful avenue to gain some healing," Briq said. "Sex work is healing work."