Wild women shaking the season

by DANYELLE KHMARA

October in Tucson—sweaters are getting pulled out of the back of the closet, pumpkins are getting carved and thrift stores are being pillaged for that perfect thing to complete a costume.

Tucsonans love to get dressed up. They love haunted houses. And they love to be entertained. There is no shortage of spooky, shocking and sexy things to do. Any night of the week, you can go out and get your Halloween on.

I’m not a Tucson native, but the burgeoning fall in Tucson has drawn me here for the past 15 years. And in that time, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the wild women, mothers, dancers, activists and dreamers, who make this season happen.

From celebrating sexuality to providing space for honoring death, studying circus sideshow to shedding light on an often misconstrued religion, this is a glimpse into some of the influential women of Tucson in this season of fun, horror and remembrance.

The Mother Magician

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Sahar and Steven Strange of The Strange Family Circus performing a grind show, a traditional circus sideshow, at Nightfall at Old Tucson.

Nine-year-old Amara answers the door with a rat on her shoulder. Her mother, Sahar Strange is in the kitchen. Floral apron on, knife in hand, she adds veggies to a pot on the stove. The chicken’s already in the oven. Two little dogs run around her feet.

The Strange house is messy, warm and full of life. Sahar excuses the mess and laughs—she’s been busy.

Sahar and her husband Steven Strange make up the Strange Family Circus. At Nightfall at Old Tucson, for all of October, they do a grind show. A grind show is a traditional carny sideshow that repeats itself continuously for a changing audience, said Sahar.

Every Thursday through Sunday in October, they do a 25-minute show every half hour.

Steven, known on stage as Dr. Reverend Steven Strange, introduces his wife by her stage name—Mother Fakir. Fakir means Hindu magician, Steven explains to the audience. He spells it out to clarify and gets a laugh.

Sahar has been doing sideshow for 13 years. She and Steven have two daughters—Amara and Raven, who’s 12. When the Stranges perform a children’s show, their daughters occasionally join them and do magic tricks or make balloon animals.

“By calling myself Mother Fakir, it’s a way of embracing the fact that I’m mom, but in a really kind of funny way,” she said.

This October, Sahar is performing three acts. She’ll swallow and regurgitate razor blades, walk on glass and get electrocuted. It’s swallowing razors that unnerves her.

“It’s very scary,” she said. “That’s why it always goes at the beginning of the show because it scares me the most.”

That’s the part of the show where Steven is not allowed to improvise.

“I improvise jokes for the entire show, except for the razor blades because she laughs at my jokes, and you can’t really laugh with razors in your throat,” he said.

Sahar began doing sideshow with fire eating. She and Steven met in 2002, and were in a fire troupe together in Rhode Island.

“Once I learned how to eat fire, and I realized I wasn’t going to die then I realized there were other things that were possible that I’ve seen other people do,” she said.

Sahar learned to do a snake act and got a job on Coney Island, which she considered the core of her sideshow training. She was hired to be the girl in the Coney Island sideshow.

“I was supposed to be put in a box and blades got put through me, and I was supposed to be electrocuted, and I wasn’t supposed to talk,” she said.

When she started doing her block-head act, where she drives nails up her nose with a hammer, Sahar was dubbed as the first black woman to have a speaking role in the American sideshow.

“I had gone from being exotic to being a working act,” she said. “And that was something that was unheard of in sideshow.”

In the Strange Family Circus, Sahar improvises jokes with her husband. They also interact with the audience a lot.

“We try to explain to people that the point isn’t to hurt ourselves,” she said. “The point is to show you how miraculous it is that you can put yourself in a situation like this and come out unscathed.”

Besides walking on glass and swallowing razors, Sahar said she spends most of her life making food, doing laundry and yelling at her kids to do their homework.
She said getting through the fear it takes to do a show has helped her in her parenting.

“Whatever happens, I know I can do it because I can walk on glass,” she said.
In between doing loads of laundry, she’ll find herself cleaning razor blades at the kitchen table while her kids are doing homework.

“To them it’s just part of life, which is funny that it’s so seamless for them, but to me it feels like they’re these two different lives that I have to balance,” she said.

Sahar is also a writer and takes creative writing classes at Pima Community College. She had a story published in the 2015 edition of Pima’s art and literary magazine, SandScript, under her maiden name, Sahar Mitchell.

In a creative non-fiction class, she recently wrote a story about living in New York in her 20s and being followed by a man with a wire who told her he was going to strangle her.

“I had to use a mom voice, and I just talked him down,” she said. “There was definitely a moment when I found something in me that was very brave that I didn’t think was there.”

When Sahar walks on glass, the sound of crunching echoes throughout the room. She tells her audience she’s going to turn up the volume then jumps—not once, but twice. The audience gasps and moans. She looks around and smiles at them.

“Hopefully this will show you,” she tells them. “There is magic in everyday common things.”

For information about their upcoming shows, go to the Strange Family Circus on Facebook.

The Maidens

Co-producers of "The Witching Hour Revue: Burlesque Goes Boo," Natasha Noir and Pisa Cake posing for after-show photos.

Co-producers of “The Witching Hour Revue: Burlesque Goes Boo,” Natasha Noir and Pisa Cake posing for after-show photos.

“It’s the time of the year when we have things to fear. We fear the things that go bump—and grind,” said Bram Stroker, the host of The Witching Hour Revue: Burlesque Goes Boo, co-produced by Pisa Cake and Natasha Noir.

Burlesque allows Cake an artistic outlet for sharing positive, sexual energy. In a world where we’re constantly bombarded with boobs and ass, burlesque brings back some of the mystery of sexuality, she said. She and Noir also performed in the Halloween-themed burlesque at the Flycatcher on Oct. 23.

Cake has produced a number of burlesque shows over the last seven years.

“I’ve always had a deep appreciation for vintage culture,” said Cake. “I feel like I’m born in a different era. It only made sense that I got involved. I want to put rhinestones on everything. That’s why I love burlesque. It’s pretty. It’s fancy, and it brings back the tease.”

Cake entered the stage in black fur, with a cat’s tail and ears. She danced under a ladder and slowly revealed more skin and rhinestones. After her act, Bram Stroker told the audience that she wanted everyone to know she was wearing faux fur.

Apart from doing burlesque, Cake and Noir both do animal rescue with organizations such as Tucson Companion Animal Rescue Education and Support and No Kill Pima County.

Noir also does hospice and foster care for cats. She said her and Cake are a part of what she likes to call, the crazy cat ladies of burlesque.

Noir performed with Black Cherry Burlesque, monthly for eight years. She left the troop in June and decided to go independent.

Noir loves burlesque because it’s not just the porn star versions of sexuality.

“It’s a place we can express sexuality, and not in a standard way as far as what bodies are allowed to do it,” she said. “Body variety is a big part of it for me.”

There are job-hazards that come along with doing burlesque. Some are funny, like when Cake’s doctor found a rhinestone on her butt during a trip to the gynecologist, or the standard pre-show tampon-string check backstage. But another job hazard is inappropriate sexual advances, and even stalkers.

Bram Stroker opened Burlesque Goes Boo with a rule. “These ladies like applause,” he said. “Be loud, be expressive—just don’t touch anybody.”

Noir and Cake both have day jobs, but they keep dimensions of their performance lives separate from their private lives.

“We purposely have stage persona names because it’s a safety issue,” said Noir. “There’s nothing wrong with a healthy sexuality, but that doesn’t give you rights to touch me or speak to me inappropriately.”

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Cake is producing and performing in a nerdy burlesque revue at the Flycatcher on Nov. 6, as part of the eighth annual Tucson Comic Con Friday night Kickoff Mixer and Variety Show. There will be burlesque acts featuring Ghost Rider, Princess Leia, Catwoman and a duet with Consuelo the Maid and a human can of pledge.

For more info on where to see Pisa Cake and Natasha Noir, find them on Facebook or Instagram. Cake is also on Twitter and at pisacake.net.

The Storyteller

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Lauren Malanga, Magic Kenny Bang Bang Macabre and Baptiste de la Croix in “Voodoo & Black Magic,” in the remaining room on the burnt-out third floor of Hotel Congress.

At Hotel Congress every Thursday and Friday in October, at 7 and 9 p.m., Lauren Malanga plays the lady of mystery in “Voodoo & Black Magic: An Evening of Intrigue and Mystery Inside ‘The Room,’” with her cohort Magic Kenny Bang Bang Macabre.

Dressed in the signature Congress bellhop jacket and hat, Baptiste de la Croix meets the audience in the Hotel Congress lobby. Skinny and well over six feet tall, de la Croix is a fitting tour guide of the haunted hotel.

On the way to “the room,” de la Croix gives some Hotel Congress history, including Dillinger lore, suicides and the story of the fire which burnt out the hotel’s third floor. All that’s left of the floor is one room, and that’s where the magic happens.

“This is something special,” said de la Croix, as he goes up the dimly lit stairwell. “We don’t usually open this room up. Most of the staff have never even seen it.”

The room is large, with brick walls and exposed beams. There’s an altar full of candles, images of women, incense, a box with skulls and a voodoo doll. On every audience chair there is a small stack of tarot cards.

This is Malanga’s second year doing the October Hotel Congress show with Magic Kenny.

“Every year, our goal is to bring some sort of occult type theme,” she said. “Voodoo is a little tricky because you are dealing with subject matter that is someone’s religion, and so you have to be careful not to offend anybody.”

They did a lot of research for the show. Malanga said the show is almost like a book report on Voodoo, and she hopes to dispel some misconceptions people may have about the religion.

“It’s weird that it has that stigma,” she said. “So I think it’s really important that this could be an opportunity to learn something.”

Next year they want to use a Salem witch theme.

“We’ll have to do a lot of homework,” Malanga said.

She’s been performing since she was a child, doing plays for her parents and making costumes. She doesn’t know where that desire to perform comes from, it’s just always been there, she said.

In her 20s, during a summer in Chicago, she saw that all their venues had dance—not just clubs with go-go dancers, but art exhibits too. This is where she began her pathway to performance art.

“I remember being blown away, and thinking why don’t we create these environments where people can have an experience, or make it that much more dimensional,” she said.

In Tucson, she got gigs belly dancing and go-go dancing for a while, and then Tesoro, a Latin rumba flamenco rock group based out of Tucson, hired her to dance and become a part of their act for a dinner theater show they did, every weekend for eight months.

She had recently gone on a trip to Spain. Fascinated with some of the history she saw there, she wanted to make it into art and share it.

She created a Moroccan-style flamenco hybrid that told a story for her gig with Tesoro. Basically, she turned it into an abstract history lesson.

“I was trying to incorporate the Moorish migration into Spain,” she said. “That’s what my intention was. I guess I have always wanted to learn something and present it in some way.”

In her 15 years of professional dancing, she’s been hired to dance with a number of Tucson bands. But the older she gets, she finds herself going back to theater, fabricating props and sets, theatrical magic shows and burlesque.

She does burlesque once a month at the Surly Wench Pub, with Soul Strip, a sub-troupe of Black Cherry Burlesque. Performance is always present in her life, she said.

“It just takes different forms and shapes,” Malanga said. “It’s something inside of us. Not everybody is drawn to it. Performance is a vehicle for talking about something.”

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Malanga owns her home and does all the maintenance herself. She retiled her bathroom. She put in a wall, a roof on the porch, a chicken coop. And besides her snake, she has two chickens, a dog, a cat and a desert tortoise.

Malanga has had about 80 different jobs in her adult life because of trying to facilitate living off her art, she said.

“I never did it for the lime light,” she said. “I was never driven by that. I always just wanted to create some kind of environment.”

The last nights to catch “Voodoo & Black Magic” are Oct. 29 and 30.

The Facilitator

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Photo courtesy of Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli Photography
Melanie Cooley in the 2014 All Souls Procession as an attendant of the urn full of all the participants’ prayers and messages, conveying it to the finale for the ceremonial burning.

Inside the loading dock and basement of the Funeraria del Angel funeral home on Stone, Melanie Cooley, the volunteer coordinator for Tucson’s All Souls Procession, is spending her afternoon at one of the free All Souls Arts Workshops, which started in September and run until the procession, the weekend of Nov. 7 and 8.

Cooley’s in sweat pants, with her hair pulled back, under a bandana. She’s helping a woman figure out how to transpose images of black and white photos onto a white smock. Children are crafting at a table. A little boy proudly holds up a purple rock he just painted.

The 26th annual All Souls Procession is on Sunday, Nov. 8. People gather at 4 p.m. on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Seventh Street and begin the walk to Mercado San Agustin at 6:30 p.m.

The procession, started by local artists in 1990, now has over 150,000 participants annually. The gathering in downtown Tucson is adorned with costumes, people in face paint, floats and signs with pictures of family and friends who have died. People then parade the two miles to where the finale takes place and the ceremonial burning of the urn, full of all the participants’ prayers and messages.

“There is this spirit of recognition of our shared humanity that we don’t get a lot. And that we’re able, all of us who are there, to see complete strangers and recognize in that person this shared love and this shared grief, and that fundamental experience of being human that we will all mourn or be mourned by everyone we love,” Cooley said. “That we can recognize that in each other is a powerful thing, and it runs deeply counter to the way that our culture functions on a day to day basis.”

People create elaborate packets, which they decorate and prepare to be burned in the urn. It’s not uncommon for people to put in wedding dresses, dried flowers, photographs of loved ones, messages to letting go of a dream that isn’t going to come true, a name of somebody that has died or an actual letter to that person, said Cooley.

She’s been the volunteer coordinator for three years, and it’s a full-time job for the month-and-a-half leading up to the procession.

She’s also on the board for Many Mouths One Stomach, the organizing body for the All Souls Procession, and for seven years she’s been part of the Community Spirit Group, a group of urn escorts during the procession. She’s one of the urn attendants.

“The attendants are very much about being the hands of the urn, a role that’s about being kind of ritually prepared to be a non-person,” said Cooley. “Not an individual, but somebody who is able to be entrusted with all of those messages and those precious remembrances from hundreds and thousands of people over the night, so it’s really about being that physical, embodied extension of the urn.”

This year, she’s focusing on leading the ambassadors—the people that give out paper and pencils during the procession so people can write their messages for the burning of the urn at the end of the evening.

“Putting remembrances into the urn is something we do collectively,” said Cooley. “What that means is really up to everybody who put something in it.”

The theme of this year’s procession is unmournable bodies. She describes the theme as a commemoration to those people that are culturally turned away, forgotten, rejected, and aren’t considered worthy of public mourning.

She explains that can mean a whole range of things—immigrants crossing the desert that have died, prisoners, addicts or enemies killed in battle. One of the angles some of the participants are looking at is veterans that have committed suicide.

“So many times, if somebody is killed in active duty, they’re valorized, but we’ve lost three times as many of our veterans to suicide once they’ve come home, and they are not valorized,” said Cooley. “They become unmournable bodies. They become not recognized. They become difficult for our culture to embrace.”

The urn ambassadors are focusing on the forgotten ghosts of the road, Cooley said. The forgotten people who have built the infrastructure of this country—the slave laborer, the prison laborer, miners, braceros and Chinese railroad workers.

“And really looking into that history of how has our country been built, and who are those people who have done that work, and can we bring their names, if we can find them, their faces, their memories into this and honor them,” Cooley said.

All the work of the procession creates community in a way that we don’t have a lot of in our culture, short of sports and religion, said Cooley.

“Over my adult life, I’ve really worked to find ways to find community and find that kind of community commitment to one another, that sort of energy that church communities traditionally have,” she said.

Cooley grew up in an atheist family in a predominantly Southern Baptist town in Chicago. As a child, she felt cut off from community celebrations and organizations because it was structured around church.

“This community really has that feel, of people that are focused on a common greater good and as a result, will take care of each other, will look out for each other, have a connection to each other even if they’re not intimate friends,” she said.

“And that community crosses cultural and socio-economic and all sorts of traditional barriers. We have everybody from bus drivers to billionaires who are involved in the procession, who are connected to one another through this. So it really has a potential to change our world for the better.”

For more information on the 2015 All Souls Procession or for information on how to get involved in next year’s go to allsoulsprocession.org or All Souls Procession Weekend on Facebook.

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Photo courtesy of Aztec Press
2013 All Souls Procession

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