Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Kings of Cleveland

To follow is an article I wrote recently for Faction Press, a new free alternative magazine published in Cleveland, about Cleveland. For more information about Faction Press and what it's all about, visit Faction Press' Myspace.

**By the way - my favorite quote out of all of the interviews I did was not included in the article, because I just couldn't seem to fit it in gracefully, and I wasn't sure it was appropriate. I include it here now for your amusement.
"I didn't spend x amount of dollars getting my tits cut off so people could call me ma'am." ~Colin Lingus

Motley Crue blasts over the sound system. Drinks flow, and stage lights flash intricate patterns. An anxious crowd is pressed close around the stage, where a group of guys does an elaborate and entertaining pantomime of “Smoking In The Boys Room.” But all is not as it appears. Or maybe it’s exactly as it appears. It depends on your point of view.

While most people are familiar with drag queens, male impersonation is still relatively underground as performance art, despite the fact that it has been around for centuries. Women have appeared on stage as men throughout the history of theater, notably in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which was first performed in the early 1600’s. In the nineteenth century, many women were cast as men in operas such as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Beethoven’s Fidelio. The late 1960’s and early 70’s saw the second wave of feminism, and with it a more direct kind of male impersonation. At that time, male impersonation was often used as a commentary to make political statements about the traditional limitations of women’s roles.

Modern drag kings, (women who dress and perform as men,) are in their third generation as an actual movement, according to Adam Apple, founder of the Cleveland Kings and Girls. The first generation of drag kings as a stand alone performance art was in the early 1980s, and nobody is sure exactly why it fizzled out. The second generation, beginning in the late ‘80s and spanning into the 1990s, didn’t go very far either. “I think people just got comfortable,” Apple says. “Instead of getting involved and putting themselves out there, people just did the same shows in the same clubs, copping free drinks and hitting on girls.”

The 3rd generation of drag kings is happening today. The Cleveland Kings and Girls were formed 4 years ago when The Grid in Cleveland approached several performers about putting on a drag king show. Apple, a drag performer of 12 years, was asked to watch the first show and help out. “It was horrible,” says Apple. “Nobody put on facial hair or anything. They didn’t want to. They looked like 12 year old boys. From there I just took over. I named the group and trained the performers.” Since then there have been 34 troupe members cast; there are currently 13 members.

People today use drag as a platform for social commentary, an outlet for theatrical creativity, and sometimes just as an opportunity to be on stage. For others, it’s an opportunity to be accepted; to be part of a family. “I’ve always felt like I had to hide,” says independent drag performer Justin Love. “When I’m on stage, I really feel like I’m allowed to be myself.”

Donnie Waste, senior member of the CKAG and co-owner of Wasted Productions, agrees, “It’s all me.” When asked how he got into drag, Waste quips, “It all started as a sort of a cruel bet.” A friend, who knew Waste’s background as a musician, asked him to join a number as a favor. Of course it was well into an evening of debauchery, and Waste had not really been paying attention. He kept his promise, however, and soon found that he loved it.

Apple believes that this generation is going further and reaching more people for several reasons. The CKAG, for example, gets involved in community outreach, raising money and doing performances for groups like the AIDS Taskforce and Cleveland Pride. Social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook make it easier for kings around the country to connect with one another. There are pageantry systems, in which participants are judged on believability and talent. Troupes have been forming across the country, in big and small towns alike.

A common misconception is that drag kings all want to be men, but kings say that isn’t necessarily true. “Some of the best drag kings I’ve ever seen have been straight women,” Apple says. Some performers, like Wasted Productions co-owner Christopher Dane, also known as Miss Red, perform both in and out of drag. “She had been performing as a bio-queen for years,” says Dane’s business partner Donnie Waste. (A bio-queen is a biological woman who performs as a female within the drag community.) “One of the drag dads told her she could never do it, so she proved him wrong. She’s one of the most talented and believable drag kings I’ve ever seen.” “A lot of us are in it for the shock value, the gender fuck,” adds CKAG member Bryce Chambers. “It’s fun.”

Another misconception is that the kings are trying to compete with the queens. Apple asserts that, at least for the CKAG, this is not true. In fact, he believes that competition at this point is unhealthy for the movement. “It’s up to this generation to really legitimize drag kings,” he says, pointing out that the way to do that is by working together as a family, rather than competing with one another or other types of performers. On the other hand, he says, if people think the kings are competing with the queens, it means people are taking notice. And that’s a good thing.

There is a difference in attitude and approach between drag kings and drag queens. While drag queens are often a caricature of how women are perceived, most drag kings are more interested in a true impersonation. It’s more about pushing the illusion; being completely identified and recognized as male. Many kings assert that it’s more difficult to perform as a king than as a queen. The clothing isn’t as flashy, for instance, and make-up is obviously more understated. Drag kings, like their queenly counter-parts, usually lip synch, but for a king to give a truly good performance, they must rely much more on their acting skills. Knowing the lyrics and timing of a song are important. Facial expressions and breathing in the right places are key if the performer is to look as though he is actually singing the song.

That isn’t to say that the ladies don’t have it rough. For drag queens and bio-queens, the challenge is to keep things fresh. This means continually learning new dance routines and putting together new costumes, which can get expensive. Also, queens in general tend to be more scrutinized, especially bio-queens. “I’m very proud of my boys and my girls,” Apple says of his CKAG troupe.

Drag performers get varying receptions from family and friends. Bryce Chambers says he is one of the lucky ones. "My dad even comes out to shows," he says. And his mom, an early riser, wants to know if they have a matinee. Senior CKAG member Collin Lingus says his family is confused. "It took them long enough to get used to the fact that I had a girlfriend," says Collin. They're even more confused now; in addition to performing in drag, Collin has been taking testosterone shots every two weeks and recently underwent a double mastectomy, or “top surgery”. "All I knew growing up was that I liked girls. So even though it wasn't really how I felt, I just figured “Okay, I'm a lesbian.” Really though, I always felt like a straight man." Through his experiences in the troupe, Collin eventually came out as a trans-man. "I would just watch these documentaries and cry. My girlfriend of 6 years couldn't figure out what was wrong. When I told her, we broke up, because, well, she wanted to date a girl."

The different gender roles by which people identify themselves within this group is staggering, and often confusing. For many, one obstacle to face is the issue of pronouns. Waste, who identifies as a male, says, “I try to politely correct people,” when people call him “her” or “she”. “I get a kick out of it when people call me sir,” laughs Chambers, who is not trans-gender, “although my mother is mortified. It’s really a matter of being who you are, and getting others to respect that, even if they don’t understand.” “I’m not sure how people at work would react if I asked them to call me Justin,” says shy-guy Love, who goes by his birth name on the job. “But other than that, and outside my family and old friends, I’ve really started to insist on it.”

During the 1920’s and ‘30’s, blues performer Gladys Bentley gained notoriety in Harlem’s speakeasies by performing in a tuxedo and top hat, backed by a chorus line of drag queens. She was often harassed for wearing men’s clothing and for flirting openly with female audience members. For modern drag kings, it isn’t as simple as just throwing on a suit. The first thing to deal with is the matter of binding. Most kings start with a sports bra and often use duct tape to bind the breasts down. Many also use compression vests, which are extremely tight fitting lycra or spandex shirts that hold everything in.

Many drag kings have short hair cuts, but it isn’t always necessary. Longer hair can be worn in a masculine style or tucked under a hat. An important element is simulating facial hair, which can be done in several ways. Most kings save hair from haircuts, which they cut very finely and keep in small containers. Costume hair can be used as well, although it’s not as realistic. Hair can be attached with spirit gum, but this can be involved and messy. Performers have found that they can spray their faces with hair spray, and then apply the hair with make-up brushes. For precise lines and beard styles, some wipe off excess hair after application, while others spray their fingers with the hairspray to draw precise lines before applying the hair. Men’s clothing completes the look.

Wasted Productions, formed by CKAG members Donnie Waste and Christopher Dane (aka Miss Red), is a production company offering services to the drag community at discount rates. Working with Blind 7 Photography, they offer photography, graphic design, and other services that may otherwise be cost prohibitive. They put on variety shows about 4 times per year.
Both Wasted Productions and The Cleveland Kings and Girls work closely with the LGBT community, including fundraising for groups like the AIDS Taskforce, Cleveland Pride, Metro Youth Outreach, and the Center. Both are working to raise funds for events such as the upcoming Cleveland Pride Festival on June 20th, in which both groups will be performing. Drag King shows can be seen every Wednesday at 11pm at Bounce Nightclub, located at 2814 Detroit Ave. Cleveland, OH 44113.