The actors in the Pink Box burlesque troupe are a close-knit family of men and women who don’t even know each other’s names.

As funny as that sounds, it’s true.

“There are other people who don’t necessarily agree with what we do,” explained Highball Hannah, who recently began dancing with the troupe.  “[Remaining anonymous] is an issue of keeping our privacy paramount and making sure that no one tries to take it against the members because they have a moral objection to it.”

Sure, some may not agree with the Pink Box’s risqué performances. Nevertheless, it was the burlesque troupe’s popularity that convinced Co-Founder Mama Dixie to continue performances after their first show.

She was never a theatrical person, really, and she certainly didn’t spend her childhood yearning to start a burlesque troupe. She didn’t consider the idea until six years ago when a friend called her with the idea of hosting a burlesque show for a local charity.

Neither friends expected a crowd, so they chose a small venue for the performance. To their surprise, tickets sold out almost immediately. On the day of the show, the venue was packed with patrons. Afterwards, they received numerous calls asking for an encore show.

Six years later, Mama Dixie is now the leader of the troupe. The other original founders have since moved on, but Mama Dixie seems to have found her calling.

Each week, she and the performers collaborate to determine the direction of their show. Typically, each performer gets to play a lead character periodically and writes most of his or her own material. Later, the other performers meet to contribute their ideas.

Recently, on April 11, it was once again Mona Squeels’ chance to dance [mostly naked] in the spotlight.

With only six hours left until show time, she joined Mama Dixie and fellow performers Kitty B. Haive and Highball Hannah for a break from their rehearsals outside of the Bama Theatre. Mama Dixie and Kitty B. Haive arrived outside first and the others soon crossed the street to join them.

Dressed in plainclothes, their regular patrons probably would not recognize them, if not for the gray tee shirts advertising the Pink Box they each wore.

Mama Dixie and Kitty Behaiv wore faded blue jeans and left their hair hanging loosely. Mona Squeels stood next to High Ball Hannah, her legs concealed underneath a long, gray cotton skirt. Her hair, usually an endless stream of pin curls on stage, was tied above her head. The few bobby pins that peaked from beneath her scarf were the only sign of her impending transformation.

“There is something cathartic about being on stage, and being in that creative space, that you don’t get in real life,” Mona Squeels explained as she alternated bites of mozzarella cheese sticks with sips from a white Styrofoam soda cup.

“I don’t think I consciously created Mona, she just kind of came out of me,” she added. “Nothing inhibits Mona, I don’t have split personality disorder. She’s very much me uncensored. She is freedom.”

That night, it was Mama Dixie who took the stage first. The audience included middle-aged men and women, college students and even a few college professors. As Mama Dixie made her way across the stage, she was met with their boisterous shouts of approval, including a few requests for marriage, or at least a one-night stand.

Her transformation was simultaneously striking and strangely anti-climactic.

The shoulder length black hair that had just barely missed her shoulders at rehearsal was now elaborately pinned atop her head and adorned with feathers. A bustle added considerable width to her waist. Yet her sleeveless, corseted dress top did little to conceal the numerous tattoos of various colorful shades that poked unabashedly through her costume. She did not even bother to remove her nose ring.

“Mama is a mockery,” she’d explained earlier, during rehearsal. “Everyone does [burlesque] for different reasons and my reason personally is that I find societal expectations on what makes a woman rather absurd. So that’s what I am. I’m a big ole Southern Mama.”

Now, she stood safely tucked behind a microphone stand at the corner of the stage closest to the audience.  Once the audience quieted, she lifted a sign listing three rules for the show.

“Now this is the boring part,” she warned the audience. After a moment’s reflection, she repositioned the sign.

“Here, it’ll be less boring because I’m gonna hold [the sign] right here under my cleavage,” she offered. The audience was not shy in voicing their approval.

Mama Dixie began reading from the list.

“No touching of my ladies,” she warned the audience. “Or yourselves.”

After she finished reading, she revealed the plot of the night’s show.  It would be an adaptation of childhood “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, but with a lot of adult twists.

“So Mona is unsatisfied with life,” she explained in a low voice. “She wants a challenge. She wants adventure… She wants a man.”

Mona Squeels soon appeared on stage. Mama Dixie held out a book for her and directed her to choose. Silently, she pointed to a spot on the page.

The lights in the theater dimmed as Mona then disappeared behind the curtains. Mama Dixie remained on stage as the band began to play the opening chords of Ella Fitzgerald’s “The Lady is a Tramp.”

“I’ve wined and dined on Mulligan Stew and never wished for turkey, as I hitched and hiked and grifted too, from Maine to Albuquerque,” Mama Dixie crooned the lyrics in a low smoky voice as the curtain peeled back to reveal Mona Squeals, bathed in deep blue stage lighting.

The tempo soon sped up and Mona gradually pulled away parts of her short red dress before finally tossing it to the floor as Mama Dixie’s voice rose higher.

“I get too hungry for dinner at 8, I like the theater but never come late, I never bother with people I hate, that’s why the lady is a tramp.”

Over the next hour and a half, Mona Squeels traveled the globe in search of a suitable beau. She danced with Medusa, she pouted her lips and stared quizzically at a fortuneteller, and she narrowly missed arrows from a drunken female Cupid who was sincerely trying to help.

Between scenes, Mama Dixie offered frequent commentary and often reminded the audience that “ya’ll are as easy as I am” when they laughed at her jokes.

And then Mona and the other dancers would saunter across the stage, teasing the audience by lifting up the backs of their dresses and stripping away their tops to reveal breasts concealed only by small pasties.

“I think having stage names and set characters that we come into when we do a performance allows our audience to get into it more,” Mona Squeels explained during rehearsal. “Even friends we have that come to the show, they address me differently when I’m here just because they get into it.”

True, the women and men who have appeared on stage together leave the theater after each performance without knowing much about each others lives outside of the Pink Box.  Still, they contend that the intimacy of shedding their inhibitions together on stage makes them close.

“That is the number one thing about this troupe, and burlesque in general, is that safety is the number one concern,” Mona said. “And whether that’s safety as in feeling like you have a safe place to come and cry if you need to cry, laugh if want to laugh, we’re a big family and we will always be a family, so anything that could make someone uncomfortable is thought about.”

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