On Buffalo's arts scene this winter, you can hardly walk five feet without running into a drag queen.
In a happy series of coincidences, the ancient art and craft of drag, long a tool that has helped communities to expand their ideas of normal sexual and gender expression, is having a moment.
Exhibit A is “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” The show, about two queens and a male-to-female transsexual on a journey across Australia told in various shades of glitter and sequins, wrapped up last Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center. The crowd at Shea's applauded more enthusiastically for “Priscilla,” which was promoted by a sassy cadre of drag performers from nearby Club Marcella, than any musical I can recall.
Meanwhile, MusicalFare Theatre ends its run of the musical “Rent” today. That show features MusicalFare regular Marc Sacco as Angel, a drag queen who embodies an idealized mix of masculine and feminine.
Next Friday, Buffalo United Artists will open its production of “Limitation of Life,” starring the inimitable Jimmy Janowski, who frequently performs in camp-laden drag roles that send up classic film performances by the likes of Joan Crawford and Tippi Hedren. He'll be joined by a diverse cast of men also in drag, which is old hat for BUA but perhaps not for the prospective new audience members who whet their appetites for drag with “Priscilla.”
And on Thursday, Canadian artist Kent Monkman – who often performs in drag as a character known as Miss Chief Eagle Testickle – gave a talk at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center as part of University at Buffalo Professor Jonathan Katz's extraordinary Leslie-Lohman Queer Art Lecture Series. Monkman's use of drag, which goes far beyond the typical lip-syncing routines and outrageous dresses, is a smart commentary on gender expression in Native American communities and the portrayal of those communities by European artists.
All this drag activity, whether merely coincidental or indicative of some growing appreciation for the art form among the general public, is a welcome sign. It points to the rapidly accelerating progress citizens of all backgrounds and political affiliations are making toward the acceptance of all kinds of sexualities and gender identities.
Of course, the public's growing appreciation and acceptance of drag doesn't necessarily mean that the public is entirely shedding its prejudice. Many conservatives, for instance, feel free to embrace drag as worthwhile entertainment while supporting the federal government's treatment of those performers as second-class citizens. Many Americans' philosophy about homosexuality is, “You may entertain us, but don't think that means you are entitled to the same rights as us.”
As the nation's attitudes toward gays and lesbians shifts dramatically, the political establishment is reluctantly following suit. In a turn of events unthinkable even a year ago, a group of prominent Republicans petitioned the Supreme Court to back gay couples in their decades-long quest for equal treatment under the law.
But there is still an enormous disconnect between an appreciation for a campy attitude, or a gift for fashion, or a sharp sense of humor and an acknowledgement that the people who possess these qualities should, for instance, be allowed to marry one another.
And that's where “Priscilla,” “Rent,” Buffalo United Artists, the performers at Club Marcella and Kent Monkman come in. They're not just entertaining us. They're helping in the final push to actual equality under the law.