Friday, April 26, 2019

Forward in High Heels

Drag is a protest. Drag is a raised fist inside a sequined glove. Drag is a lot of things, baby, but drag is not for sissies.
~Matthew Lopez, "The Legend of Georgia McBride"

With Maxwell Caulfield in "La Cage Aux Folles"
The last time I performed in drag was 12 years ago.  I was lucky enough to be cast as Albin in "La Cage Aux Folles"--a last minute replacement--at Ogunquit Playhouse.  It was my debut with the company and my third production of the show, and I played opposite handsome Maxwell Caulfield (best known as "Cool Rider" in Grease 2). Having recently graduated from the Academy for Classical Acting, a drag role was not something I expected to tackle at that time... but the show led to my getting seen for, and cast as, Sir Robin in the First National Tour of "Spamalot" and changed my life forever.

That return to heels and bugle beads was a big deal for me.  Six years earlier, I had publicly retired my drag act as Marlene Dietrich with a gala performance on what would have been the siren's 100th birthday.  After eight years of impersonating Dietrich and Lauren Bacall... a MAC Award and Bistro Award... and numerous great drag parts in shows like "The Mystery of Irma Vep" and "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," I felt I had hit a dead end.  Female impersonation was something I chose to do to prove my versatility and transformational talents... and I couldn't seem to get away from it.  A definitive break was required.  Many of my fans and colleagues were shocked, some even felt betrayed.  How could I just drop it and move on...?

In order to GROW.

And so, 12 years since I raised my fist in a lavender glove and sang "I Am What I Am," here I am again, donning wigs and lashes and enduring the aches and pains of corseting and high heels... to bring to life Miss Tracy Mills, the wise and magical "fairy godmother" who teaches young Elvis impersonator Casey not only how to be a "woman," but also how to be a better man--in Matthew Lopez's comedy with heart, "The Legend of Georgia McBride."

I was not prepared for how challenging this drag role would be, nor how intensely it would touch my mind and heart.  Lopez brings such reverence and appreciation to the art of drag in this play, and to the history of drag performers and their important role in the Gay Rights Movement.  Drag performers have been on the front lines of the cultural war against LGBTQ people for decades, centuries.  Challenging our limited notions of gender and championing the voices of the marginalized, drag is now mainstream, with the success of RuPaul's Drag Race.

Lopez has created in Miss Tracy and her alter ego Bobby someone of great optimism and wisdom... a survivor who indeed, in the words of Jerry Herman, faces life "with a little guts and lots of glitter."  It is an honor to play her and I have been filled with so many emotions since beginning this process three weeks ago.  I am reminded of how empowering it can be to transform so completely and submerge myself into a character.  I am reminded of how challenging this kind of performance is physically!  But mostly, I am reminded of the legacy of drag and female impersonation that I was a beneficiary of, and through my work, that I helped to perpetuate and pass on.  It truly is a received tradition, and I would never have achieved what I did as a female impersonator had it not been for the artists who generously offered me advice and guidance and who were great examples for me---artists like Craig Russell and Jimmy James... the great drag queens I worked with while in the world famous La Cage Revue, like Angel Sheridan and Jesse Volt.

I am dedicating my Miss Tracy to the performer who took me under his wing when I was just starting in drag, creating my act as Lauren Bacall.  His name was Randy Allen, and in the early 90s he was one of our top drag performers, who went mainstream with his spot-on and hilarious show, "P.S. Bette Davis" (the "p.s." standing for "post stroke").  Randy was a finely trained actor who was also a superb makeup artist.  He transformed himself into a wizened, cranky old Bette with such finesse and artfulness.  I saw Randy perform at the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown when I was there doing my act at The Post Office Cafe.  He blew me away with his mimicry, his physical work, his writing and his makeup artistry.  Randy returned the favor and came to see my show... afterward he offered to help me perfect my look and invited me to his dressing room where he not only taught me makeup techniques I still use today... but also instilled in me a sense of responsibility--to the lady I am impersonating, but also to the audience--bringing them something of quality and nuance that strives to be more than a burlesque sketch of a woman, but a living, breathing female being.

Randy changed everything for me... and he did it generously, selflessly, because he saw my talent and potential, and, like nearly all the great drag artists I've gotten to know--from Charles Busch to John Epperson--because he believed that if we all did the best work we could as drag performers--it would be good for all of us and for the art form itself.  I shall never forget Randy.  At the end of his life, cut short tragically by AIDS, Randy starred Off-Broadway in a two person play called "Me and Jezebel" based on a true story about an elderly Bette Davis.  To promote the show, they held a Bette Davis lookalike contest at The Ballroom in New York and Randy asked me to participate.  The press coverage was amazing. Not only did we get the first page of the New York Times Styles section, but CNN featured the publicity stunt.  See this video clip and you may recognize me in a sensible suit and pillbox hat (I won the contest by the way).

As the play went into production, Randy was declining rapidly and he called me and asked me to come and be his understudy in the event he was too ill to perform.  I did... and sadly, Randy passed away before the show even opened.  I was honored to know him and to have had his confidence.

It is this confidence that Miss Tracy Mills passes along to young, straight, fledgling drag artist Casey in our play. Not only the confidence to be a great performer, but the confidence to be true to himself, to be a person of integrity and honesty, of commitment and love.  Our director Bruce Warren has mined out of what could be a campy drag comedy a strong, powerful message of love and acceptance which will move the audiences here at Theatre Squared as much as the spectacular drag looks of Bryce Huey Turgeon (Haus of D'Lee) dazzle their eyes.

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" runs May 1 through June 2 at Theatre Squared in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  Visit the website for tickets and more information.