11/1/2022 0 Comments
Katie Watson (she/her)
On September 29, the entrance to the Michigan Theater opens its doors to let in a crowd that will fill nearly every seat they have. The organ piano belts out pop songs in anticipation of the presenter for the evening, Ben Johnson, a former UM leader in the University Musical Society and now Director of the Performing Arts in LA. With ties both in Detroit and the west coast, Johnson brings together four drag queens from Gigi’s Cabaret in Detroit and Aunt Charlie’s in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, two interconnected institutions with rich and colorful histories. Inspired by James Hosking’s short film “Beautiful by Night,” this multimedia presentation explored the history and development of trans and queer culture in San Francisco and Detroit through the lens of the drag community.
The pianist ends his final song and sinks into the floor to a loud applause. The curtains open and show the audience an empty stage, with a sparkling disco ball hanging high above– and then the drag queens come out. “The Best” by Tina Turner sets the mood for what will be both a celebration of these drag queens and their accomplishments, as well as a somber recognition of their struggle and fight to reach the place where we stand today as a community. From left to right: Maxi Chanel, bold and beautiful; Nickki Stevens, striking and self-deprecating; Donna Persona, understated and transformative; Lady T Tempest, thoughtful and surprisingly boisterous.
The drag queens leave the stage in single file for Johnson to share some context about the show. He starts with a homage to Jim Toy, an ardent activist in Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, followed by an exclusive tour of Gigi’s led by Nickki Stevens, one of the oldest drag bars and drag competitions in Michigan. Then, the audience views a clip from “Beautiful by Night,” which follows Donna Persona and another drag queen, Olivia Hart, in their time at Aunt Charlie’s. Next, Johnson presents a history of Compton’s Transgender Cultural District in SF and Aunt Charlie’s standing as one of the last vestiges of the Tenderloin district’s queer community, now being overtaken by gentrification. He concludes with a virtual tour of Janet’s Closet, the largest “crossdresser store” in the world. These snippets of the past provide a better understanding of the contributions of drag queens and trans artists to the queer community and performing arts as a whole.
Finally, the queens return to the stage, to the audience’s delight. It’s easy to see their instant connection, despite several meeting for the first time; their casual touches, easy banter, and indulgent smiles speak of their welcoming natures and shared experiences. Johnson sits in a semicircle with them to conduct the interview portion of the presentation. His first question is a throwback to what drag was like when they started, and how it’s changed. The queens’ responses begin with some “old people” jokes, but quickly turn serious, almost somber. Nickki notes how there used to be something like 50-60 gay bars in Detroit back in the 80s, and only eight or so now. She brings up an interesting development: while gay bars used to be much more common, they were also necessarily very secretive– entering bars through side doors, hearing about drag shows through word of mouth or guesswork instead of signs– because of the dangers of being queer in public. Today, fewer gay bars and queer clubs exist, but this is tempered by the privilege most enjoy of being able to walk on the street holding a partner’s hand or dressing in drag in public in relative safety. Donna emphasizes the danger and fear that permeated the drag scene back in her day: drag queens were less likely to have boyfriends as they were such a target for homophobia outside of the bars, and had very little support. As a result, Donna was too afraid to try drag until she was encouraged at age 58 by a group of friends, when she “donned a dress and donned a persona” and decided that was who she wanted to be now. She ends her statement in a hopeful note when she adds, “Everything that I was afraid of - now I’m a goddess for it.”
The queens also share stories from their pasts that remind listeners that everyone comes from a different place. Chanel shares her story of coming to North Carolina from Africa, and finding her first queer space in Seattle where she embraced her own identity and was inspired to try drag. In Ann Arbor, Chanel and two of her drag sisters started the House of Chanel, reiterating how important queer communities and spaces are, especially to those who faced violence and isolation from the majority of society in that time. She also reminds the audience of the importance of the contributions from black queer and trans activists in creating change for the LGBTQ+ community, and how they have always had to fight harder and stick together. Much of the audience is young enough to not really remember the AIDS epidemic, or even much of what life was like before Obergefell v. Hodges. Lady T reminds the audience how prevalent the AIDS epidemic was to daily life back in the 80s, especially in places like Gigi’s. She recalls how during a show of hers that was raising money for AIDS relief, one unsatisfied audience member bet her that he would donate $100 for every drop squat– a classic move of hers– and so she got to work and did 37 drop squats in a row. He donated all $3700. Lady T then stands up and, with some balance support from Chanel and Donna, demonstrates a drop squat for the cheering audience.
Johnson’s final question asks the queens what it takes to be a legend. Each queen has a contribution that really resonates. Lady T highlights the importance of love and kindness: “It takes determination, guts, kindness, love for one another. Challenge is great, beauty is great, but if you don’t have it inside your heart, we don’t want you.” Donna Persona emphasizes being true to yourself, as she told her story with each number and each song: being a legend is “being human,” which “means I’m a mess,” and she owns that. Nickki focuses on how legends pave the way for those who come next: “Putting others before yourself and being unselfish,” bringing someone up when you can and helping those that come after you. Chanel further reiterates the pillar of activism when it comes to drag– donating tips and the show’s profits to causes like AIDS relief, youth outreach, LGBTQ+ shelters and support networks, creating groups and spaces for queer people, and supporting the communities where places like Gigi’s and Aunt Charlie’s are so connected.
In their closing comments, the queens offer some important advice. Lady T stresses that “it costs not a dime to be kind.” Donna advises to give more than you take, that “I give a lot and it feels like I’m getting the most joy.” Nickki adds that “it’s better to be hated for what you are than loved for what you’re not.”
With that, the chairs are swept away and the disco ball returns. “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” by Barbara Streisand blasts from the speakers, and the queens do what they do best: they perform. This time, it’s easy to see that they’re feeling sentimental but also connected. Several audience members run up the aisles to offer up a few dollars, and although they accept with grateful smiles, it's clear that the queens are much more absorbed in the moment and each other. It’s a real celebration.
To everyone’s pleasure, the queens return for an encore. Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” comes on, and the queens are laughing. Lady T shakes her chest, Chanel has got her hands on her hips, Nickki’s spreading her arms wide, basking in the moment, and Donna is breaking out some fancy footwork in her floor-length gown. The crowd lifts for a standing ovation as the queens come together in the middle of the stage, holding hands and lifting them above their heads.
Johnson’s presentation and the queens’ honest, raw contributions proved for a show at once uplifting, celebratory, thought-provoking, and sorrowful. And isn’t that really what the history of drag is? A celebration of trans and queer stories, a fight against injustice, a place shrouded in shadows where bright lights can illuminate someone being truly themselves, if only for a night.