Most areas that interest me I tend to approach from an aggressively intellectual perspective that borders (or is firmly on the wrong side of) pretension. Drag shows are no exception, which is why it was particularly interesting to compare my thoughts about drag in general to those I had when I actually saw a show.
One night I headed to Ego Providence to catch one of their weekly drag shows. Every Thursday they have an early show at 10:30 consisting of unpaid performers and a headline show at midnight. To promote the event, there’s no cover charge and anyone eighteen or older can get in. As I approached the venue, I saw a handful of performers making their way inside. They were dressed for the occasion, dresses, high heels, makeup, jewelry, and hair all done-up to impress. If I’d seen them in a different context, I likely would have just assumed they were women on their way to a club. Considering drag performers in a different context is precisely what makes them so interesting to think about because it reveals that they perform in two distinct senses.
On one hand, they perform their songs and dance routines for a crowd. However, they’re also performing their gender, a different one than they typically identify as. There’s a reason why drag performers are referred to as ladies, girls, she, or her which doesn’t seem out of place or forced, but to call them men does. The ease with which words typically reserved for women are applied to drag performers and how easy it is to mistake them in different circumstances shows what drag can reveal about gender. The difference between drag and gender in society is one of degrees, not kind. People constantly perform their gender, through their actions, appearances, and mannerisms. Just like drag, everyday people are performing to an audience and hope their performances are interpreted correctly. Most people only expect to see performances falling into one of two categories, men or women, but as non-binary identities become normalized, those sorts of performances are sure to be better received. The only difference with drag is the ambitiousness of the roles and the desire to have their performances showcased on stage. As much as I’d love to say I’m insightful enough to have had all those thoughts while at the show, in reality I was too enraptured to focus on anything other than the performances.
I arrive at Ego shortly before the early show is set to begin. I flash my ID, grab a drink (whiskey sour), and find an empty table near the stage. The club is fairly large with bars on either side of a dance floor and stage bordered by tables and seats. Low ceilings and dim lighting, provided mostly by circling rainbow spotlights, give the room an intimate feeling. A few minutes after I arrive, the hostess steps onto the stage and the pockets of conversation die down. She introduces herself as Annie B. Frank and asks who is there for the first time. I raise my hand and look around to see that only a few others have done the same. Most of the audience knows exactly what to expect and can’t get enough. After noting who all raised their hands, Annie moves on to state the three rules of the show: 1) Do not touch the performers without their consent; 2) Tip your performers and your bartenders; 3) Cheer after everything Annie says. Not wanting to break any of the rules, everyone bursts into a loud cheer as Annie announces the first performer.
The opening performer, Victoria Obvious, steps onto stage in a thigh-high blue dress and gives the audience what they were hoping to see. Her routine consists of her dancing and lip syncing to the song “Look But Don’t Touch” by Empire Cast. As the lines “Look at my body/ Don’t I look sexy” play, Victoria drops into full-splits in a maneuver that is equal part awe and cringe inspiring. As she finishes her act, she is met with applause and dollar bills thrown onto the stage. Ego has the practice of calling first time visitors up on stage, having them introduce themselves, and then asking them to pick up the tips and hand them to the perform. I learned this tradition (and the fact that you’re more likely to be called up first if you’re sitting alone at a table taking notes in journal for an article you’re planning to write) when Annie beckons me on stage after the first act.
Most of the nine acts are like Victoria’s, consisting of lip syncing and dancing, typically in a sexualized fashion. One notable exception is Nia List’s performance. She comes onto stage with dark make-up and a long-black dress. Interestingly, she is the only act of the night to actually sing. Her performance is passionate and deeply emotional, culminating in her throwing off her wig. The power of the performance and its demonstration of the variability of drag is more than enough for me to take out my wallet and throw a few dollars on stage.
The final act of the night is introduced as “resident slut” Avery Goodlay. It’s clear from her performance that she’s a veteran of the stage. Her long gown, crystal jewelry, and expertly done make-up make for an exceptionally polished performance. Only at the end of the act does it become clear how she earned her title. As a finale of her act and the early show, she throws off her gown to reveal that she is what I can only describe as technically not naked. Her outfit, if it can be called that, is meticulously crafted to only cover what is absolutely necessary and nothing more. Avery’s provocative willingness to bare it all on stage makes her a crowd favorite that earns the most applause and tips of the show. However, she doesn’t need to guess to know she is the favorite. After her act, Annie comes back on stage and has the crowd vote for the performer they want to see at next week’s late show. After a deafening round of applause and shouts, Avery is set to perform the following week.
As I grab my coat and head out the door, I’m glad to know I’ll see a familiar face at next week’s show.
*This article does not provide a comprehensive view of drag or deny that other forms of drag exist, but since the show only consisted of men performing as women, the language and observations of the article follow from that.