A drag show is a form of entertainment performed by drag artists impersonating men or women.
Typically, a drag show involves performers singing or lip-synching to songs while performing a pre-planned pantomime or dancing. There might also be some comedy, skits, and audience interaction. The performers often don elaborate costumes and makeup, and sometimes dress to imitate various famous opposite sex singers or personalities. And some events are centered around drag, such as Southern Decadence where the majority of festivities are led by the Grand Marshals, who are traditionally drag queens.
History and development
Instances of drag have been recorded well before drag shows began. There have been independent examples of drag in England and China in the 1500s. Since women were not allowed to participate in drama or theater, men impersonated women when acting on stage. In the Victorian period English actresses impersonated men in theater, and in America actresses like Anne Hindle also impersonated men in her performances. She had a low voice and shaved regularly her facial hair to cause it to form a stubble. The impersonation of the opposite sex was popular in theater and film until 1933 when the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code was passed. This law or code was aimed at eliminating what it saw as perversion and disallowed men impersonating women in film, temporarily ending the era of male impersonation in film and theater.
The first known drag balls in the United States were in Harlem in the 1920s, at the Rockland Palace. These shows featured extravagant performances of gays and lesbians impersonating the opposite sex and competing against one another in fashion shows. Harlem drag balls primarily had people of color. White people were not excluded but did not typically participate. Drag balls were social events that brought people together who were on the margins of society and they often had to meet in secret.
Women of the Harlem Renaissance like Gladys Bentley, a prominent Blues singer, regularly wore tuxedos and dressed in men's clothing while performing. Butch African American women constructed their own forms of masculinity inside and outside of Blues performances which set the stage for future performers in drag. It was not until about 50 years later that the term drag king was coined and performances started popping up across the United States. According to Elizabeth Ashburn, "A drag king is anyone, regardless of gender or sexual preference or orientation, who consciously makes a performance of masculinity." Therefore, drag performers of the drag king scene typically identify as women, but some may be cisgender men or transgender men.
During World War II, parody drag shows were also a regular kind of entertainment for soldiers who dressed up as humorous-looking women and put on shows for each other.
Jewel Box Revue
Doc Benner, and Danny Brown produced the show which started in Miami, Florida, at a gay bar known as Club Jewel Box. This show would go on to set the stage for the touring drag show known as the Jewel Box Revue. The Jewel Box Revue was the longest running drag show that performed from the 1940s until the 1970s across the United States. They had at least ten specific performances in their repertoire, which was helpful for shows that ran for longer periods of time at the same place. The show had their own music and dances that were composed and choreographed for performers, they also did comedy sketches and some stand-up performances. The revue was made up of a diverse group that included African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and whites, which was unusual for the times before the Civil Rights Movement.
Many of the venues they performed at were part of the "chitlin' circuit", the Howard Theatre (Washington, D.C.), the Baltimore-Royal Theatre, Uptown Theatre (Philadelphia) and the Regal Theater in Chicago. In 1959 they began performing at The Apollo Theater in New York City and it was always a full house when they came to town.
In the 1960s laws and regulations were put in place against cross-dressing and the Jewel Box Revue slowed down a bit. Although places like Los Angeles had bans in place they were still allowed to play at certain theaters. Ultimately the laws and regulations against cross-dressing made it difficult for the Jewel Box Revue to perform.
In 1975, the Jewel Box Revue performed for the last time in a production at the Bijou Theater in New York City.
Pearl Box Revue
In 1955 the Pearl Box Revue began its performances in New York City. Pearl Box Revue was an all Black drag show that ran for twenty seven years until 1982. Dorian Corey was a performer in the Pearl Box Revue and also one of the drag queens in the documentary by Jennie Livingston known as Paris is Burning.
Disposable Boy Toys
Disposable Boy Toys (DBT) were a drag king group out of Santa Barbara, California. The group was started in May 2000 and had 31 members, mostly white, queer and transgender, and were a feminist collective. Their performances were centered on dismantling racism, sexism, gender binaries, ideal bodies and even militarism and they mostly performed in queer spaces or progressive spaces for fundraising and marches. Lip synching and dancing were regular components of their shows. DBT was known for performing at benefits to raise money for political and community causes.
DBT disbanded in August 2004, and although they did not officially break up they never performed together again.
After Dark was a Swedish group founded in 1976 which performed for over 40 years, mostly in Sweden, but intermittently also in the United States and Spain.
Provincetown, Massachusetts, is home to some of the most famous drag performers and in the summers months there are several performances on any given night. On July 24, 2018, Provincetown was home to the first ever Drag Camp, a camp for drag performers to hone their skills and perform for live audiences. The camp lasted for two weeks (until August 4, 2018) and showcased famous drag performers. Jinkx Monsoon, Peaches Christ, and Raja were some of the most famous drag performers who attended Drag Camp and had their own workshops sessions on how to apply makeup, or comedic performance, amongst many others. The drag performances in Provincetown, also known as Ptown, are legendary, hence why Drag Camp landed there.
Although it is typically held at LGBTQ bars and nightclubs, restaurants have also become a popular site for drag brunches. Drag brunch is especially popular in urban centers with large gay populations, such as cities like New York City, Miami, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Quebec, and New Orleans. Drag historian and New York University professor, Joe E. Jeffreys, believes that drag brunch's rise in popularity in recent years, is due to LGBTQ venues, such as Lucky Cheng's, Lips NYC, and Club 82, that arose between the 1950s and 1990s. In an article titled "The Importance of Drag Brunch in NYC", Jeffery's claimed that these venues have the ability to expose people to drag, who might not have encountered it before.
"[People] are able to sit at drag brunch and have a lovely spinach frittata and Bloody Mary while learning this lesson through observation. They start to understand that gender and drag aren't these scary things," said Jeffreys. “It’s fun and festive like brunch can be.”
In an articled titled "Dragging Herself To Brunch," Shawn Bodey, also known by his drag persona Robin Banks, describes drag brunch as dinner theater but for brunch. According to Bodey, dancing, singing and jokes about the gender binary, are some of the things one could expect to see at a drag brunch.
In cities across the country gospel drag brunches are also becoming increasingly popular. The drag venue Lips, which is based in New York City but has locations across the country, first started gospel drag brunches in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2007. Other places, such as San Antonio, Texas, have also seen a rise in gospel drag brunches. In addition to food, drinks, and the usual performances one would expect to see at a drag brunch, gospel drag brunches also feature performers in choir robes doing renditions of classic gospel songs. In an article titled "Lips Gospel Brunch: Drag for Jesus," gospel drag brunch performer Nicolette describes the event as "cross-dressing for Jesus."
Drag shows have become more popular with the documentary Paris is Burning, and shows like RuPaul's Drag Race. Films such as The Birdcage and Too Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar have popularized drag culture too. These films along with RuPaul's Drag Race have a large heterosexual fanbase. Both the stage musical and film version of A Chorus Line reference drag shows, with the character of Paul relating his experiences as a performer with the touring company of the Jewel Box Revue.
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