The sisterhood of 'She Burns Bright' returns

Joel Oliphint
Nikki Wonder, center, surrounded by some of the women who will perform at the second in-person edition of She Burns Bright at Natalie's in Grandview on Friday, July 3.

In January, Bloodthirsty Virgins singer Nikki Wonder assembled a group of musicians, poets, visual artists, comics and more — all women — for a female empowerment night at Ace of Cups that Wonder dubbed “She Burns Bright.” The idea was simple, but the results were life-changing. 

“Once somebody got up there, and they were willing to be vulnerable on the microphone, the whole place just clicked. Everything got quiet, and people pushed all the way up and got right into it. It was pretty profound,” Wonder said. “I felt a real sisterhood, not just with the performers, but with the people in the audience, as well. They were completely full of love and acceptance that night. … There was this really powerful energy in the room. I'd never felt that in my life. It made me feel like, ‘This is what it's supposed to be like.’ … Here I am — an old fart now, practically — and for the first time in my female life, I'm in a venue full of hundreds of women, and they are laughing and dancing and meeting each other and exchanging information.”

Since that night in January, a kind of pop-up community formed among the She Burns Bright performers and show-goers. “I didn't know these hundred women, but now I'm in touch with at least half of them since that first show, and it's really made my heart feel so good,” Wonder said. “I've had people reach out to me since the show to say, ‘Oh, my God. It was the best night of my life. When are you doing it again?’ I've had tons of talent reach out to me, saying, ‘When can I be on a bill?’”

Wonder knew she had to keep She Burns Bright going. Something that fun and inspiring couldn’t be a one-off. Plus, there’s no lack of talented female artists in Columbus. So she decided to hold the event quarterly, booking an April show at Ace of Cups. Tickets started selling right away. Then COVID hit.

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“We had some great momentum, and then it got completely squashed by COVID,” said Wonder, who pivoted to a livestream event in April. But it’s just not the same through a screen.

Then in late May, Wonder attended the Popgun show at Natalie’s in Grandview, her first live music event in months, and she walked away encouraged by the careful way the venue handled new safety measures that incorporated socially distant seating and masks. “It felt like a big risk going out to the first live performance in 12 weeks. But we talked to [co-owner] Natalie Jackson, and she's so incredibly on it and thoughtful and really wants to run her business the right way,” Wonder said. “I was skeptical, but I called about buying tickets, and I was on the phone with her for 20 minutes.”

Wonder felt comfortable enough with the venue that she booked Friday, July 3, for anew edition of She Burns Bright, which will feature poet Karen Marie, magician High Priestess, dancer Kelly Hurlburt, music from Paisha Thomas, visual art from Lisa McLymont and more, including some repeat performers: poet Amy Turn Sharp, musical comedians Tickles and Pokes and Wonder’s band, Bloodthirsty Virgins.

Booking the show at Natalie’s was a bit more intimidating, though, given the ticket price. “[In January] we were charging 5 bucks a person to come and party at Ace of Cups, and now it's $25 and dinner,” Wonder said. But her fears were quickly quelled; Friday’s show is sold out.

There’s something else different this time around, too: Protests demanding racial justice have filled the streets of Downtown Columbus for the last month. “I don't think there could be anything more important happening right now than the current protests,” Wonder said. “I don't know that it's affecting the way that I'm approaching She Burns Bright, but I do want my performers to feel like they have a platform to say whatever the hell they want. And I do know that everybody on this show is like-minded, in that every human being deserves every respect and courtesy — across the board, regardless.”

“We've got some lovely women of color performing. … We talk pretty regularly and cry together pretty regularly about what's going on,” she continued. “I have a lot of courageous ladies on this night who I'm sure are going to have a lot to say about what's currently happening.”