Three Drag Nights

Preview of Dragaret, Yale Cabaret

In talking about the relevance of drag to general culture, Danilo Gambini, the first-year Yale School of Drama director who is directing this year’s “Dragaret” at the Yale Cabaret, quotes drag superstar RuPaul: we’re “born naked, the rest is drag.” The idea being that, whatever you identify as, your persona is a matter of hair and clothes and grooming and, sometimes, make up. It’s all about “self-presentation,” and becomes a matter of “political and social discourse. Is it a critique of normativity? It can be, and it can not be,” Gambini said.

For the celebration of drag, opening tonight in its fifth year at the Yale Cabaret at 217 Park Street, it’s all about the performance of performance.

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Gambini sees “the bloom of the recent culture of drag” as a result of the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The TV show is in its 10th season but, according to Gambini, it really became mainstream in the last six years, which would indeed position the initial Yale Cabaret Drag Show within that time-frame. The first Cab Drag revue, back in February, 2013, coincided with a record-breaking blizzard. Those who performed and attended earned a certain legendary status in the annals of the Cab. Thereafter, the show has been a high point of the YSD school year, but only last year did the show become part of the official Yale Cabaret season, and this year the show has expanded beyond its modest beginnings.

“There will be three different nights,” Gambini noted. The current artistic and managing team of the Cab—Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey—wanted to do “a big thing for the Cab’s 50th year.” For the first time, there will be involvement by the vital professional drag community of New Haven and areas further afield. (For coverage of the relation of the drag community to the Cab’s shows, see Lucy Gellman’s article in the Arts Paper, here.) The local drag queens will be hosted by the Cab for two shows on Thursday night, February 15. On Friday, the Cab will present a “party featuring special guest drag performances” from some alums of previous drag shows lured back to revisit former glory. For both nights, the showtimes are 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., the typical showtimes at the Cabaret.

On Saturday, there are three shows—8 p.m., 10 p.m., and midnight—for the currently enrolled students of YSD to perform drag routines specially designed for the occasion. That evening, which Gambini is directing, will be hosted by Lady Lilith, the drag persona of first-year dramaturg Alex Vermilion, who created For Your Eyes Only earlier in the Cab season, and Bianca Castro (aka Jiggly Caliente), a trans-woman, drag queen and former contestant on RuPaul’s program, who also starred in a 2016 production at the Cabaret of A. Rey Pamatmat’s Thunder Above, Deeps Below.

Gambini, who used to DJ for and organize drag queen parties in his native Brazil, worries that drag is becoming “mainstream,” so that, when a new crop of queens and kings learn their method from the TV show, there may be a certain loss of the local dynamics that he associates with drag culture. He sees his task as director to be a question of “not imposing norms but setting boundaries, aware that they will be broken.” The technical team—lights, sound and projections—is the same for each show, but the performers are all responsible for their own costumes and performances which, Gambini said, entail both lip-synch and a growing tendency to sing in situ.

For Gambini, drag is a form of performance art, and, like performance art, there is always an implied stretching of limits in what performers choose to do. “There are standards, having to do with artistry and the difficulty” of the performances—which often involve mimicry of well-known celebrities and styles, or unconventional mash-ups—and “there’s an ongoing questioning of the politics of gender, informed by a gender queer outlook that sustains a non-binary idea of gender, seeing gender as an option.”

Gambini, who directed Arturo Soria’s solo show Ni Mi Madre in the fall at the Cab and appeared there in both The Apple Tree, directed by Rory Pelsue, and The Ugly One, directed by Lucie Dawkins, sees the Cab as one of the more challenging theatrical venues in New Haven, and the Drag show is “very special for the way it involves the whole school” more so than any other show produced at the Cab. He said there is “less control and more trust” involved in directing the Drag show than a typical Cab show, and that he hopes to be “supportive and excited about everything” the performers want to try.

Michael Breslin, a second-year dramaturg who performed a memorable routine as Kellyanne Conway in last year’s Drag Show, agreed that a certain “mainstream commercialization” threatens the more “intentionally local” aspects of drag. Breslin has been active in the drag community in New York City and done research of drag communities abroad, and said that he heard about the Yale Drag show before he ever considered applying to the school, and saw the student-run drag show “as a good sign” about the School. For him, the political dimension of drag is a constant, and he hopes the Cab show will “step it up this year” with more routines that “parody the culture of the school” and “push boundaries.”

Drag, Breslin stressed, is “a legitimate art form totally tied up with theater” so that Drag Night at the Cabaret is an event that lets students of theater engage in role play and dress-up in ways that foster “implicit critique” of gender norms, and of the codes of performance. And, of course, it’s “really fun” with a giant dance party afterwards. He noted that his Conway interpretation engaged with the question of what “can and cannot be put on the stage,” as some see a drag performance as celebratory of its objects, while others are more in tune with performance as a method of resistance.

In discussing the various techniques of drag, Breslin said he prefers lip-synch because it entails a certain factor of “realness” in the artistic presentation. The performance, in closely mimicking a known performer, makes representation a theme, where “pulling off an illusion flawlessly” calls attention to the nature of illusion as an element of self-presentation. Breslin feels that the Cab is a great space for the more punk elements of drag, which takes some of its cultural force from small, packed houses, as opposed to RuPaul’s television set or the traveling show that comes to the Shubert stage annually. For Breslin, a good drag revue should feature both “joy and danger.”

The program—all three nights—at the Cabaret will feature the traditional “catwalk,” a walk-way space, reminiscent of the staging of fashion shows, that stretches between a mainstage and a smaller stage close to the audience. “It’s very important,” Gambini said, “for the performers to be seen in the round” and to have options about how to work the crowd.

This will be my fourth foray into the Cab’s drag performance space (unfortunately, I missed the inaugural blizzard year) and the evening has been, each year, one of the most high-energy, creative, gorgeous, surprising and entertaining shows in the YSD calendar. This year, with the door held open for a greater range of styles, levels, and aesthetics of performers, the Dragaret may become a noted New Haven event, rather than simply a valued Yale tradition.

 

Dragaret
Yale Cabaret

Thursday, February 15th
NEW HAVEN DRAG

2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
Emceed by New Haven’s fabulous Kiki Lucia, featuring 12 New Haven drag performers:
Laiylah Alf wa Laiylan, Scarlett Bleu, Bella Donna, Kendra Fiercex Rose, Clits Jenner, Xiomarie LeBeija, Tiana Maxim Rose, Rarity Moonchild, Dixie Normous, Lotus Queen, Sativa Sarandon, Giganta Smalls, Loosey LaDuca, Mia E Z’Lay

Friday, February 16th
DRAG COCKTAIL PARTY
2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
With special alumni guest appearances

Saturday, February 17th
YALE SCHOOL OF DRAG || SOLD OUT ||

3 performances, 8 p.m., 10 p.m., 12 a.m.
Performances by current Yale School of Drama students

The house will open 30 minutes prior to performances. 
The wait list will open 1 hour prior to performances.

There will be no dinner service for the Dragaret, but light snacks will be available and the bar will be open.