ROGERS PARK — The puppeteer who gave a racist performance involving a Black puppet named “Sista Girl” during Touché’s 45th anniversary party said he is retiring the character.
Puppeteer Jerry Halliday has faced backlash for last week’s performance, in which he spoke for the puppet using a stereotypical “Blaccent,” or voice that non-Black performers use to imitate Black vernacular, and told jokes about loving watermelon, being on welfare and having five kids.
On Sunday, Halliday told Block Club he removed Sista Girl from his act.
“I have permanently retired the Black puppet, just like the Rolling Stones recently retired their song ‘Brown Sugar’ when they received similar criticism,” Halliday said. “I continue with my other puppets full speed ahead.”
Halliday, a national performer who’s headlined shows in Las Vegas, said Sista Girl has been part of his act for two decades and he’s never received backlash for the puppet.
“I have been doing my show for 20 years for thousands of people of all races to standing ovations and rave reviews in the press, then suddenly a handful of people at Touché attack me while the majority there were enjoying my show,” Halliday said. “The one-sided attacks on my act have been greatly exaggerated and with many total fabrications.”
Parts of the performance, which led to several audience members walking out and a bartender quitting mid-shift, were shared in a video posted by audience member Philip Smith.
The video shows a confrontation between Halliday and a white audience member, who tells the puppeteer “everyone in the crowd thinks this is a little weird for 2022.”
Halliday, speaking through the puppet, responds, “Everybody who wants this man to shut up, make some noise [and] clap.”
People can be heard clapping and booing the audience member, who leaves the bar shortly after.
At the end of the video, Halliday asks bar manager David Boyer to pass around a tip bucket to collect money for the Black puppet’s five children.
Touché’s leaders have apologized for the performance. The bar will host a town hall to collect feedback 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Leather Archives & Museum, 6418 N. Greenview Ave.
“Hopefully, people will look at the 45-year history of the establishment over a 45-minute tasteless performance,” bar owner Chuck Rodocker previously said. “If there’s something we can do to support someone more in the future, we’d be more than happy to because we are one of the oldest gay bars in the city and always had a very diverse crowd that’s welcoming of women, people of color and people with disabilities.”
Halliday’s act wasn’t vetted because he had been hired to perform at previous Touché events where he went over well with the crowd, Rodocker said.
“We thought it would be fun to bring an entertainer from the past to include him with the holiday party, but apparently his material has not changed with the ages,” Rodocker said. “I wasn’t there, but from my understanding … people took offense to one of his Black characters, and they were just not amused.”
In an email that went out last week to Touché’s clientele, Boyer said the bar will work to be more inclusive of all people.
“We have and will continue to work hard to make this space more welcoming to all people regardless of their racial, ethnic, sexual or gender identities,” Boyer wrote. “Your feedback is noted and appreciated if we are to make that a reality here. We could not have remained in business here for the past 45 years if that were not a core purpose of our business.”
The incident is the latest in a series of high-profile anti-Black incidents within Chicago’s LGBTQ community over the past few years. In 2020, one of the city’s top drag performers was dropped by Berlin Nightclub and Roscoe’s after Black performers came forward with allegations of racism.
In 2019, protests were held following two racist incidents in Boystown. The first happened when Progress attempted to implement a rap music ban. That same weekend, vintage clothing and costume store Beatnix was found selling a Confederate flag vest, prompting former employees to come forward with allegations of racism against the owner.
Miguel Torres, a longtime patron of Touché who won the 2014 Mr. Chicago Leather, a contest hosted by the bar, said he left after the audience member was booed.
“It was extremely unsettling and disgusting,” Torres said. “I just looked at my friend and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever felt unsafe in this bar. Let’s just go.’”
A group of people of color were standing outside the bar when Torres left, talking about what they’d seen, he said.
“This bar is a safe space for a lot of us people from disadvantaged and marginalized communities, and this is just outrageous,” Torres said. “I feel extremely disappointed and betrayed by this.”
Torres has worked with the bar for years helping its management make the space more inclusive through things like making sure its posters feature a diverse mix of people and posting signs that say bigotry is not acceptable.
“I poured years of free community work into this bar, so this feels like a big slap on the face. You just ruined all that work in one night,” Torres said.