The Red Umbrella Diaries: A Show and a Documentary About Sex Work (and really about healing)

You’ve probably  heard stories about sex workers. Whether as the subjects tasteless jokes or sob stories of abuse and addiction, sex workers hold an almost mythological place in our culture, as a work force that exists under layer upon layer of taboo, and off the books, in the United States. News stories surface from time to time about sex workers’ entanglements with celebrities and politicians, about big police busts, about the “them” of the sex industry. We hear their plight touted by activists and religious zealots, their status debated by politicians.

But when was the last time you heard a sex worker tell his or her own story? In front of an audience? On a stage?

I’m glad to say that I’ve attended several performances of The Red Umbrella Diaries, a sex-worker storytelling event held monthly at Happy Ending Lounge on the Lower East Side. I left these evenings feeling blessed with the opportunity to hear, first-hand, the trials, tribulations, joys, and comedies that go on every day but rarely get told. Sex workers don’t get asked to speak for themselves–the cops or the activists or the moralists always want to tell the stories for them. But the Red Umbrella Diaries, since 2009, has provided a safe and welcoming environment in which those stories are celebrated–and they are fascinating. Funny, tragic, insightful, and sometimes deeply moving.

I’m excited to report that the Diaries are taking on a new project: a one-night only engagement for a crowd of over 200 at Joe’s Pub in Greenwich Village on November 14, and a documentary about the Diaries and its performers to follow. The project’s Kickstarter has two more days to go, and has already raised its $15,000 goal, but is making a push to reach its stretch goal of $18,000 in order to fund a short film about the Trans Women’s Theatre Troupe, which will also be performing at Joe’s Pub on the 14th! I’m encouraging you all to donate whatever you can (donations start at $1–they’ve got till November 1 at 4:00 pm) to help make this happen. Not just because donating to the Kickstarter is the only way to get tickets to the Joe’s Pub show, but because… well…

Last night I went to an early rehearsal for the Joe’s Pub event to get a feel for what producer, Diaries founder, and all-around badass Audacia Ray was working on. I sat in and listened to the rough cuts of a few of the performers’ seven-minute stories, as well as the notes the group offered them afterward, and I swear I had a few breakthrough moments just from being there.

As I entered, the group was giving notes to Page, a second-generation stripper. Although I’d missed her reading of her story, when I came in, the warmth of the comments the others were offering her, and the understanding that they showed about the story’s content, struck me. Far from being catty attention-hogs, this was a group of people whose lives all brought them to similar places and whose experiences–so foreign and even shocking to most of us–aligned. Their notes were all supportive, constructive, and loving, and the group’s members don’t even know each other very well.

Essence Revealed reads her 7-minute story for the film crew, Audacia Ray, and Page.
Essence Revealed reads her 7-minute story for the film crew, Audacia Ray, and Page.

As Essence Revealed took her place at the podium and read through her piece, it became clear to me just how badly these stories needed to be told. The group was coalescing around a shared experience of silence and repression, then bursting out of an enforced cocoon to speak about its experiences with astonishing energy. And as the evening progressed and more notes were given, I noticed that the performers were talking a lot about that energy–the energy of the stories , of the storytellers as they told them. There was a nuanced perception and ease of discussion about energy happening around me, and my brain suddenly lit up.

Sex workers are ready-made performers, as strippers, dominatrixes, go-go dancers, escorts, or anything else. Because isn’t sex work all about putting on the face that the client needs to see? About putting oneself on hold in order to make someone else feel good? About reading the energy of the client in order to tailor the experience to his or her needs? Far from the desperate denizens of an underworld that the media and our moralistic society like to paint sex workers as, the group before me was tuned-in, highly empathetic, and connected in a very real, very deep way. They were performing stories about performing, helping, and healing. This is what they do.

Cayenne Doshorow performs her piece.
Cayenne Doshorow performs her piece.

I’ve often ranted about how unjust the criminalization of many kinds of sex work is. I’ve mourned the lack of access to health care that many suffer, and the stigma attached to a workforce that performs what I consider necessary and important duties. They minister so often to the rest of us sinners (as Cayenne Doroshow will tell you if you attend the Joe’s Pub event), and somehow they are considered the ones in the wrong. And, as the group took a five-minute break between stories and Sailor brought me cookies and candy to my seat in the back of the room, I realized that we don’t need to tell their stories for them. We need to learn to shut up and learn to listen, and let ourselves be healed.

More info in the video below, and of course on the Kickstarter page:

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