Michael Cross Burke on Michael Jackson, JonBenet & Himself

Michael Cross Burke
Michael Cross Burke
All photos by Krys Fox

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an American consumer in possession of cable TV and the internet, must be in want of real answers about what, exactly, Michael Jackson did or didn’t do with children and who killed JonBenet Ramsey.

Performance artist Michael Cross Burke has better researched and more deeply held opinions about both of these celebrity tabloid scandals than most, and now you can find out what he thinks. His show, Michael Jackson was Innocent… and I didn’t kill JonBenet Ramsey, but I was there the night she died, opens on Thursday, July 16, as part of the 24th annual HOT! Festival — “The NYC Celebration of Queer Culture” — at Dixon Place. (Full disclosure: I have my own connection to HOT! Festival, for which I co-curated a visual art exhibition, but I have no direct affiliation with anything to do with the festival performances.)

Story continues below.

In addition to working through his ideas about MJ and JonBenet, the highly personal show explores Burke’s difficult past as a high school dropout who ended up forced to work as a teenage prostitute by a controlling pimp. All in all, a heavy and tragic collection of themes, but Burke’s own story takes a happier turn—he escaped from that life of exploitation to become an award-winning performance artist and arts educator. He is on the faculty of Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Theater and Dance and the Artistic Director of the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Semester in New York City.

Ultimately, Michael Jackson was Innocent… and I didn’t kill JonBenet Ramsey, but I was there the night she died rises above these personal and tabloid struggles to examine and try to dismantle them. The website explains:

[T]his oddly humorous and eccentric journey digs its teeth deep into the U.S. Court System and celebrity culture by fully exposing the intricacies of greed and deceit (and the front of [Burke’s] own body).

The two-person performance features Burke and Daniel Diaz on stage, with video by Gian Franco Morini. Gian Marco Lo Forte directs (with Marisa Tornello as assistant director).

Performances start this Thursday, July 16, at 7:30 pm at Dixon Place. Other show times are: Friday, July 17, at 10:00 pm; Thursday, July 23, at 7:30 pm; and Friday, July 24, at 10:00 pm. Details and tickets are available here and here.

Story continues below.

And now, 5 questions Michael Cross Burke has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

Honestly, the most perceptive question about Michael Jackson was Innocent… and I didn’t kill JonBenet Ramsey, but I was there the night she died came from my amazing director Gian Marco Lo Forte and it happened during the workshop showing we presented of the material back in October. He told me that at the end of the show he was going to come out and ask me a few questions to end the piece. He asked me “Why did you make this show?” and I had all these intellectual answers in my mind, but after the experience of sharing this story with an audience, I realized that I created the work to honor my close friend Danny, who experienced the same life as a teenage prostitute under the same pimp. Unfortunately, Danny passed away due to a heroin overdose when he was 22 years old, and was not as fortunate as I was in terms of escaping “the life.” I think about him every day and share his story as well as mine in the show. My fear was that this show would come off like a Lifetime Movie of the Week. I never like to present myself as a role model or be didactic in my work. However, I was shocked by the audience’s response. I received over 30 emails from people telling me about their experiences being in abusive and controlling relationships. I realized this piece really resonated.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

Story continues below.

I think the most idiotic question would be someone asking me why the show isn’t sex positive. Clearly, this person didn’t understand the show or has seen any of my previous solo shows I have made over the past 16 years. They are missing the fact that the show is about myself and another teenage boy having sex with 6 – 8 men a day with a pimp who controlled our every move, paying us $12 for the entire day. I am all about people over 18 doing anything they like sexually, as long as no one is getting hurt or being forced to do things against his or her will.

Story continues below.

Burke and Daniel Diaz
Burke and Daniel Diaz

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

With this piece, the weirdest question has been, “Do you not like sex after your experience as a teenage prostitute?” What this person didn’t realize is that when your first sexual experiences are with men in their 50s and 60s and you have to do what they want, that’s not exactly the same as sex. Once Danny and I were given the gift of plane tickets to Boulder, Colorado, we experimented together with sex and had a blast. It was so empowering to be able to say, “touch me here, do this to me, don’t do that, hold me this way.” We had an amazing time as best friends exploring our sexuality. Also, when you are a prostitute for nearly 4 years, you become very skilled at sexual acts, and we felt like we were finally ready to reap the benefits of this.

4) Michael Jackson Was Innocent And I Didn’t Kill JonBenet Ramsey… But I Was There the Night She Died is a complex show, both artistically and thematically: It is a multimedia performance combining found and original text, dance, music and visuals; and the subjects you take on include celebrity, wealth, the courts and child abuse. How did this show come to be? Were all these facets always a part of the concept, or did you add elements and expand the breadth as you developed it?

The piece actually began ten years ago. I was sitting in Penny Arcade’s apartment. She figured out that I had been a sex worker. But she told me I would need to wait 10 years to write and perform a piece about this experience. When I make my work, I don’t censor myself. I actually time myself when I write to ensure that I don’t censor myself or leave anything out. And all the elements just sort of fall into place. I became obsessed with the Michael Jackson case and have literally read every book on the topic, and researched it heavily. It angered me that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office would spend millions of dollars pursuing an innocent man, while there are teenagers like me experiencing human sex trafficking in this country and abroad. It is so obvious that these boys were lying and that their parents were blackmailing Michael Jackson for money. This is why we perform the actual transcripts of the first accuser and his psychiatrist and incorporate it into the show. That is why we include the Michael Jackson component. I also heavily rely on my fellow collaborators, Gian Marco Lo Forte, Daniel Diaz, and Marisa Tornello to help form a piece that creates a thorough world with a clear message. Essentially, I make a big mess and clean it up.

5) You’re very open about your experiences as a high school dropout and teenage prostitute, as well as your escape from that life and subsequent journey to acclaimed performance art and academia. Do you address your past differently in the classroom than you do on stage? Do your students respond to this differently than your performance audiences? Have these personal experiences always figured into to you work?

Story continues below.

Yes, I believe these personal experiences have always figured into my work and the messages my work makes about queer culture. In terms of my teaching, I actually don’t show my work to my students. If I assign an academic text that I have written, I take my name off of it. It’s not because of my past that I do this, it’s because I want to help my students find their own artistic voices rather than mimic what I do. Obviously, there is some overlap in how I create my work and how I teach others how to create work. A few students have ended up at the show, and were incredibly loving and supportive. I feel that my experiences as a teenage prostitute and the abuse I experienced makes me a better professor because I have compassion and love for my students.

Story continues below.

Bonus Question:

6) Why do you think JonBenet Ramsey has captured the imaginations of downtown performers so powerfully? In addition to you, at least Penny Arcade and Julie Atlas Muz—probably more—have worked her into their shows over the years. What does JonBenet mean to you, culturally or otherwise? What drew you to her story more than some other tragic and salacious tabloid sensation? Who really killed her?

Coincidentally, Danny and I were sent to Boulder, Colorado, and given a large sum of cash by a neighbor in the building where we lived. We arrived on the night JonBenet died. I think artists are obsessed with it because it is so clear that the parents did it. Just look at the handwriting samples of Patsy [JonBenet’s mother] compared to the ransom note. I think artists are obsessed with it because the Ramseys got away with murder because of wealth and class issues. All artists like Julie and Penny and myself are constantly struggling for money, constantly trying to give voice to urgent cultural issues, yet we have to live paycheck to paycheck.