Former Circus performer is approaching 10 years of running off the Strip

About Ten years ago, Wassa Coulibaly jumped from a hit show on the Strip to open a theater in a shopping, dining and entertainment center off the Strip.

Few could have imagined that Coulibaly’s intimate Baobab scene, which she debuted in November 2012, would outlast Cirque du Soleil’s “Zumanity” in New York-New York. But it is so. The “Zu” crew shut down in November 2020, a victim of the Cirque pandemic constriction.

Meanwhile, Coulibaly’s Baobab scene, as well as the adjoining fashion boutique and cafe, are thriving. The theater regularly features burlesque variety shows, live music performances, comedy nights, fashion shows, poetry readings, and tribal dance events.

On Friday, Baobab hosts “Nest,” a showcase and competition between poets, songwriters and musicians (the winner is awarded a paid reservation at the theater the following week). Saturday is the “Tribal Night” of world music and dance for the benefit of the family of the late master “Papa” Diarra Zumana, beloved interpreter of the Baobab since its opening. On August 4, “Sistaz of Soul,” hosted by subway officer Ken Young and featuring singers such as Smokey Robinson backing vocalist Serena Henry and Gladys Knight.

Coulibaly is from Dakar in Senegal, a naturally gifted artist who loved to dance. She left Dakar as a teenager to move to Hawaii with her musician boyfriend whom she had met while performing on the streets of her hometown. They married but soon divorced over her demands to work as a hardcore adult performer or risk deportation. She escaped to Santa Monica, California, attending Santa Monica College and wowing the school’s drama department.

Coulibaly auditioned for the role of the tribal character in “Zumanity” in 2003, winning the role and joining that show’s opening night cast. She opened Baobab during her Cirque days in November 2012. The following October, she left “Zumanity” for good to focus on acting.

Johnny Kats: So what’s on your mind right now?

Wassa Coulibaly: I got up late to work on the choreography for our upcoming benefit show for dad. He had been with us for 10 years. It’s very important and I’m very tired. They put on a traditional show for him at the Baobab because they had to bring his body back to Africa, and it’s very expensive. Dad was an integral part of the African drumming and dance community.

You’ve expanded your reach over the years, inviting more variety into the theater. Today, what types of shows are you passionate about at Baobab?

My passion is not just to make money. I like to release really edgy, really bold, fresh and original stuff. Like last weekend, I saw a girl doing burlesque who came out all dressed up and she took her eyelashes off, she took her makeup off. She did a total reversal of what you usually see in this act. I like something like when you go to Europe and make you say “Wow!” because art and fashion are so out there.

You talked about making money, and I know keeping the club alive has been a challenge. How is Baobab doing financially?

We are financially successful. It’s been 10 years, and we have grown, grown, grown from my beginnings until today. There has been tremendous growth recently, and I want to celebrate that. It’s okay, not perfect, but it’s okay. More than that, I love it.

You’re expanding your fashion line, aren’t you?

It is blooming. I got into making shoes, handbags and working with artists and people close to me who work with me on creating these items. The circle is theirs. For me, if you’re talented, if you’re not lazy, I can create work for you instead of just giving you money. I can do this with many of my relatives and people back home.

We met when you were developing your autobiographical show “La robe rouge”, which opened with the theatre. Where is this production?

We are revisiting the show now, and we want to put it back on stage in November, for the 10th anniversary. That’s how I started it all. I was looking for a place to put “The Red Dress”. I have people reading it, I’m looking for a director, I’m talking to a producer in New York who’s interested. I hope we can round him up and bring him back. I miss that.

What are your long term plans for Baobab?

My focus is going to be creating live events in the theater, even if that means creating in the shop might become secondary. That’s what I foresee. Personally, I just want to bring in more art, even if it brings back “Red Dress”, more parts, more productions. Not just once in a while, but all the time. I’m so excited about what Area15 is doing. It shines. I take inspiration from it.

What goes through your mind when you look over the past 10 years, where is Baobab now?

It’s impressive. Ten years have passed, and I’ve finally said, “That’s a good idea. (Laughs.) Let’s do it! I always see the need for Baobab when people come up with a new number, such original stuff. We are here for a great experience. I’ve seen so many amazing artists. For 10 years, so many people have grown, along with the Baobab.

John Katsilometes’ column airs daily in Section A. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at Contact him at [email protected] Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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