Drag Kings, Sluts & Goddesses: the Boston-based lesbian theatre troupe tackles big issues with dance, music and irresistible sexual confidence.
Anderson, a tall and pillowy woman of Jamaican descent, produces and directs Drag Kings, Sluts & Goddesses, a Boston-based theatre production run by lesbian/bi women of color. Twice a year for short runs, DKSG weaves together music, dance and tableau for a cabaret that mixes message with unparalleled "lesbian come-hither" art. Alongside pulsating musical numbers by performers of every size, the shows tackle substantive issues such as living on the dole and lesbian domestic violence.
As a Caribbean-American actor, Anderson has found Boston, infamous for its racial segregation, to be a tough town.
"I audition regularly in Boston and am often the only black woman in the room. None of the main theatrical companies have women of color in positions of leadership and they rarely do non-traditional casting. I wanted to create a venue in which women of color could express themselves--and not just as Josephine Baker or Susie Wong."
Inspired by the drag shows so prevalent in D.C. and San Francisco, Anderson created DKSG in 1994. The inaugural performance was a spontaneous, unrehearsed benefit for an African-American lez/bi support group. To Anderson's amazement, 70 paying customers turned up and Anderson realised she had found a market. Today, the entire DKSG team--cast, technical and production staff--numbers 25.
With new members from the Latina, Asian, Pacific Islander, bi-racial and black communities, this year's cast is the most diverse in DKSG's history. The women range in age from 20 to 38, from petite to plus, practicing every shade of sexuality. There are more butches than ever.
For the 10th anniversary of DKSG this year, the troupe put together a special production built around the theme of "Decadence." This production comes at a time when the queer movement seems to be focused on entrance to mainstream institutions, like marriage. According to Anderson. "'Decadence' represents the decaying of the morals. I think of it as the crumbling of queer tradition as we push to make ourselves fit into the normal traditional family. We wonder whether we are turning our backs on queerness."
Anderson thinks it is the right time to be challenging the direction of GLBT movements. "When I first used to go to Pride, the radical fairies would do cartwheels wearing no underwear, the leather queens would be out in force, marching next to the pagans. Now the biggest contingents are Verizon and Fleet. There's something wrong."
"Decadence" celebrates the aspects of queerness that fueled the original movement. "The radical icons of our liberation are being erased--the drag queens, the stone butches, the trannie boyz and girlz. In 'Decadence' I say that if the nuclear family is what morality is, then I don't want to be moral."
In fact, Anderson was a visible supporter of gay marriage as a civil right. She joined the demonstrations and rallies for legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts, but when she attended the celebration of victory, she saw no other people of color in the room and she was completely ignored. "It was one of the worst experiences I've had at a queer event," she said. "The crowd had no political awareness. They couldn't see past this one civil rights issue, to the wider paradigm, the bigger picture. It was particularly disturbing to me as a black woman."
Not a Fantasy
The company's creative process is very interactive. Any cast member can suggest an idea. Together with her choreographer and her musical director, Anderson helps turn those ideas into a script that works on the stage. "My biggest concern," she emphasises, "is the quality of performance. I was influenced by the MGM musicals as well as classic performers like Lena Horne and Sidney Portier."
"This isn't a fantasy," Anderson continues, "this is the real thing, not projected through the lens of male eyes." Built around top-notch choreography and socially-conscious themes, much of the magic comes from the irresistible sexual self-confidence of the performers and from a butch-femme visual language.
"Androgyny," Anderson reports with some irony, "doesn't sell as well as butch/femme, which is very much alive in Latina and black communities. I believe that its impact stems from the way it appropriates masculinity, demonstrating that it is a cultural quality, not a genetic one."
One popular performer is Dee Sangster, 27, a singer-songwriter who has brought a powerful butch presence to the cast since 1998. Short and portly, with close-cut blond hair and a voice that can knock your jockey shorts off, Dee often appears as the romantic lead. She began her musical career in her local church, and welcomes the opportunity DKSG gives her "to be as raunchy or as plain I want to be."
She speaks about how her stage experience has changed how she feels about her personal butch identity. "Now, it's just a category. I'm still classified as a butch, because of how I dress, my haircut, my talk and walk. But they try to push that category into your sexual relations. How're you going to tell me that I don't have the right to be pleased just because I'm the one who's supposed to be doing for you?"
Judah Dorrington, 47, is the musical director as well as a member of the cast. She writes some of the songs, which live musicians, The Butch Band, play to accompany the review. "For many African-American performers, DKSG is an unique opportunity. To sing in church, I'm expected to put on a dress. With DKSG, I was able to wear a suit and tie and croon. I even learned how to apply a beard. It has become more than a theater company; it has really affected the community by bringing GLBT women of color together to explore ideas from our own lives."
Some of these ideas are light-hearted and some are potent and transgressive. In one skit, "What do I do?", Dee plays an African-American preacher telling the congregation about conflicts growing up gay. "You know, Lord, that these feelings are truly hypnotically real. I cannot let this go. This is too powerful." The audience shouts "Amen!"
Another scene "What about that?" deals with domestic violence. As two butches talk about their relationships, one (played by Dee) admits that she laid hands on her girlfriend "because I love her so." When this character later strikes her partner onstage, the femme retorts, "No one hits me and gets away with it--and take these ugly-ass shoes you bought me!" Ripping them off her feet and throwing them on the floor, she exits to the cheers of the fans.
Other skits play with the butch/femme dynamic. In "After the Dance," named after the Marvin Gaye song to which the piece is performed, two femmes challenge the butch/femme exclusivity at a '40s juke joint by taking turns leading each other in bump and grind. "Indian Goddess" builds to a climax of femme sensuality through its precision choreography for six dancers.
One of those, Nancy Ko, 27, was motivated to join DKSG this year. "I wanted to be around women of color who were so loud and proud of their bodies, all shapes, all sizes."
In the first years, the troupe was exclusively African and Caribbean American, but there are now performers from Latina, Korean, Filipina, and Vietnamese backgrounds, leading to new themes and art forms.
For Nancy, the collaboration between African-American and Asian-American women was liberating. DKSG, she explains, gave her a context in which to express herself without shame, something she had not had access to previously.
"Now I feel like I can own myself without shame, that I can flaunt my wants and desires. I love being so sexy and provocative onstage, without danger of a backlash."
Usually women of color are only asked to perform in the context of their race, adds Anderson. With DKSG, "you're not defined by your race in the show, although that's why you're included. Nancy got to dance hip-hop."
Performing gave Taz Barnes, 21, permission to play with lesbian femininity. "Doing the show, I can celebrate being a young African-American lesbian. It's liberating to be allowed to be hot and seedy."
The undulating cleavage and vibrating bottoms and the sideburns and zoot suits are a sex-positive celebration of queerness. Combining that with an artistic richness based in multiple ethnicities and the singular working processes developed by Mia Anderson, Drag Kings, Sluts & Goddesses provides a sexual language that is being eagerly received by audiences of all races and sexualities.
Sue Katz is a wordsmith who has lived on three continents and has had three careers, including owning and running Tae Kwon Do institutes and promoting volunteerism globally. She is a political activist and a sexual outlaw who is presently residing in Boston.
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|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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