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Staging activism: New York City performing artists as cultural workers.

TO EXAMINE THE IMPACT OF ARTISTS AND CULTURAL WORKERS WHO ARE influencing social change, I might start by asking: What if as a middle-class, queer, white girl growing up in the United States, I had learned about the fluid and transformational nature of gender through creative, mind-provoking male cross-dressing performances? What if I had seen a Caribbean cultural activist talk to an audience about current events I never heard about on the 6:00 o'clock nightly news? What if I saw an out Argentine butch lesbian play a male monarch, commenting on social class, religion, and homophobia? How would my world have been shaped differently had I been exposed to performing artists such as Diyaa MilDred Gerestant, Imani Henry, and Susana Cook, whose performances and activism establish them as cultural workers?

Imani Henry, Susana Cook, and Diyaa MilDred Gerestant are performing artists based in New York City that produce original work addressing cultural themes related to sexual, gender, ethnic, and class identities. These three artists have been strongholds in many of New York City's alternative performance spaces, such as The Kitchen, La Mama, WOW Cafe Theater, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and Dixon Place, to name a few. In these spaces, audiences can anticipate thought-provoking work that often challenges established theater norms. Audiences comprised of social activists, gender and sexual minorities, outsiders, and people with low or fixed income are, unsurprisingly, drawn to the work of these artists since it reflects their worlds. These worlds are different from the typical upwardly mobile status quo that many mainstream performing arts programs and Broadway theater highlight in content and/or form. I will consider these three performing artists as activists and cultural workers who persistently create political work in an artistic environment where many cultural institutions and alternative arts spaces struggle to keep their leases and maintain low ticket prices.

The work of each artist/performer reveals their mulitiplicitous identities, and explores and gives voice to racial, national, class, gender, and sexual identities that are not the dominant norm in the U.S. Such intersections of multiple identities make their bodies of work unique and allow audience members who share those identities to see images of themselves that rarely get front and center stage. Moreover, the artists' positions as cultural workers allow them to bridge activist movements and communities that might not otherwise form alliances. Besides the creative work itself, their activism extends to the creative processes in their work, touring with their work, as well as other aspects of their lives.

Susana Cook, a self-avowed butch lesbian from Argentina, celebrates butch/ femme lesbian identities and exposes class structures that exclude the working class from resources and power. She plays male roles to reveal and dissect the incongruence and instability of masculine identities. Using humor and ironic representation, her performances challenge the status quo. Diyaa MilDred Gerestant, a Haitian-American, queer (1) performing artist, made her name as Drag King Dred. Her sophisticated blend of styles raised the bar of expectation and anticipation for drag king performances. She dons gender from many corners of the spectrum, creating confusion in often unsuspecting audiences who are not keen to drag. Gerestant educates her audiences by elucidating her own potential to unmask gender and has begun to produce full-length plays that explore her own personal transformational path through gender, drag king performance, and spirituality. Imani Henry identifies as a queer, Caribbean, female-to-male transsexual activist and creates characters that express masculine gender identities in his plays, ranging from butch women to playing himself. He does not use gender in a playful way, as Gerestant or other drag kings might, but rather explores real stories through characterization. Henry finds creative ways to bring the attention of his audience members to current real-world situations that demand action. All three produce provocative work that asks audiences to actively engage with the material.

Each artist has consistently inspired me and I continue to admire and support their work. This led to my desire to speak with them about their perspectives on their work, how it functions as activism, and its place in New York City's downtown queer performance communities. Consider this article an invitation to acquaint yourself with three artists who have provoked my thinking and who may, in turn, challenge you in positive ways. A section on each artist begins with an interview, followed by a discussion section that addresses the intersections of performance, identity, and activism. Themes include how performers work toward social change by using performance as a tool of visibility and connection to raise consciousness; the participatory process that enhances the activism of performance; risks in exploring personal identities through performance; and self-identifying as a cultural worker, with an exploration of that term as it is used in a contemporary context.

Trans, Butch, and King: The Gender Lens of Three Activist Artists

I conducted face-to-face, in-depth interviews about art and social change with Imani Henry, Susana Cook, and Diyaa MilDred Gerestant, New York City-based performing artists and writers. Each is nationally or internationally known for a distinctive artistic style in work that is seen as a catalyst for social change. As artists with varying levels of outsider status--that is, outside the North American mainstream--their perspectives on the dominant culture and the current state of affairs are valuable to understanding oppression, power, sexuality, and political structures where dominant privilege may be taken for granted. Additionally, all are educated, accomplished mid-career artists, and people of color who identify as queer or lesbian.

Since audience members commit at least an hour to listen to what an artist has to say, performance becomes fertile ground for activating social change. These interviews focus on art and social change through the following questions and expand into territory organically produced in the interview process: How do these artists define themselves? What is the role of the artist who works for social change? How do these artists use their performance to encourage, inspire, or incite activism for social change, and what effects have they observed? Why are sexuality, nationality, gender, class, and race important subject matter? How do working class, communities of color, gay and lesbian, and queer communities intersect? I also draw upon my own experiences as a performance artist in this context.

In 1999, Susana Cook regularly produced and directed shows at the WOW Cafe Theater. One of the best-established women's theaters in the world, it is collectively run and has ensemble casts of mostly people of color. Cook asked three performers with whom she had not previously worked, Diyaa MilDred Gerestant, Imani Henry and myself, to perform in a second run of the highly successful play, Hot Tamale. I had known Gerestant before as Dred, a preeminent drag king in New York City, and a regular at Club Casanova, the first weekly drag king performance night in the country. Highly regarded as a performer, she was one of the kings who had inspired me to perform male drag myself. Imani Henry, in the midst of his own gender transition, had recently relocated to New York City and was eager to get involved with New York's downtown theater scene. Cook's play facilitated our first meeting.

As a playwright and performer who came out of the spoken word boom of the 1990s, I found drag kinging to be an important bridge between my work with text and work that incorporates the body. "Kinging" is a term Judith Halberstam (1998) uses to describe the performance of masculinity. Drag Kings bring masculinity into the theater as a spectacle, particularly through humor, and challenge the idea that male masculinity is unquestionable, authentic, and non-performative. When masculine roles are parodied or disassembled in a drag king performance, the idea that masculinity belongs solely to men is destabilized, and the performance provides, for lesbians in particular, "the rare opportunity to expose the artificiality of all genders and all sexual orientations" (Ibid.: 240). The electric nature of spaces such as Club Casanova gave rise to subcultures within the lesbian community, creating more freedom around gender, especially to explore, play with, and make humorous masculine gender expression. This freedom grew not only in performance spaces where drag kings were central and lesbians were the primary audience, but also in terms of greater acceptance of queer masculine gender identities, such as bois and female-to-male transsexuals (transmen or FTMs). (2)

Gender identity is complex. Each artist identifies with gender differently, with each having a relationship to a masculine identity on some level. Diyaa MilDred Gerestant is a drag king and "gender illusionist" who aims to expose the artificiality and illusory nature of gender. Imani Henry identifies as a transman and is strongly connected to the transgender community. Susana Cook identifies as a butch lesbian, an often misunderstood or misrepresented identity. As a butch, she expresses her masculinity and is at the same time comfortable being a woman. As Halberstam (1998) has noted, butch--or what she calls "transgender butch"--is not a preamble to an FTM identity, but has a rich history within lesbian communities and is its own identity.

Since I am a white woman writing about three people of color with complex identities, throughout this article I am conscious of honoring their voices and words, where possible, over mediation through my own interpretation. Each section on a given artist begins and ends with quotes from the artists to privilege their own words and thoughts about their work. During the article's development, each artist received a copy for feedback, dialogue, and inclusion in the process. The reader should gain a real sense of Henry, Cook, and Gerestant on their own terms. This format was used in an attempt to dismantle the traditional paradigm of a white, privileged researcher who writes about other cultural groups and may inappropriately represent their real experiences through a skewed lens of dominant cultural privilege.

Imani Henry
 In the U.S. there needs to be a clear understanding that we are
 cultural workers--like in Cuba. This is our work and there needs to
 be health benefits. The "starving artist" thing is so capitalist.
 It is unbelievably damaging and disrespectful how racist and sexist
 the oppression of queer folks plays out as artists; how commercial
 marketability is valued under capitalism over the merit of
 someone's expression, craft, or point of view.

Imani Henry, a self-defined Caribbean, FTM transsexual activist, writer, and performer, promotes himself as a "cultural worker," knowing the importance of identifying his work as a meaningful societal contribution and, as such, deserving of support and economic compensation. Frustrated with the few and narrow roles that existed for him as an actor, he began to create his own work, knowing well the limitations for a queer actor of color who was often recruited to play thugs, prostitutes, and other stereotypical roles.

Henry made his "home" at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange, where he created and produced three plays during his artist residency from 2002 to 2004. He is a slam poet champion and is often featured as a performance poet or speaker at political rallies and events. Political activism and performance are intrinsically connected in his work. "Art can be a form of resistance under capitalism," he says, noting that when disenfranchised, multinational voices make art, it is an act of resistance because it disrupts and challenges the notion that art can be accessed only by the elite, as stories of people who do not have the same access as those with economic privilege, artistic training, and/or ethnic and gender privilege are told.


Henry expresses his work as an activist through his plays. Two of them actually feature a political demonstration. He brings his multiple personal identities into his work and says, "All of those identities mean something to me. To represent them is a big deal." Asked about the importance of visibility for identities that fall outside the dominant norm, he says that "visibility is everything." When Henry performs butch or other transgender characters, or when he travels and meets people who have never met a trans person, he gives visibility to those identities and the real life experiences that go with them. On and off stage representation allows him to do the thing he values most as "an out radical activist," which is to build coalitions and solidarity, since building solidarity requires working to understand the struggles of others.

B4T (Before Testosterone), Henry's first play, has functioned in this way. He calls it an "ode to butch blackness."
 A woman looking like a man
 looking for a woman
 who likes women
 who look like men.
 Now, ain't that some shit?...

 You ask me what it is to be Black, Butch and Lesbian.
 Words, names, I have never claimed for myself. It was given and now
 I can only remember before there was words, before there were
 names, before I could, would, say it out loud ...

 I am only telling you because it needs to be said. I am only saying
 it because it lays too heavy, cuts too deep, runs like water
 bursting from a dam (Henry, 2002).

This passage from B4T (2002) speaks to the complex issues around identity: who has the right to name us, the power of words, and how having a word for something can give us comfort, or alternately, disturb us. The act of identifying oneself allows for the development of communities around common experience, and education across lines of difference.

In 1999, Henry began his gender transition, while participating as an activist within the antiwar and Millions for Mumia movements in New York City. The latter developed to support Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist accused of killing a police officer in Philadelphia in 1981. Abu-Jamal has since served 22 years as a political prisoner and is currently on death row. Henry, a leader in this movement, says: "People have gone through that [gender] transition process with me inside a larger political movement. I look different. People respected my pronoun changes." One of Henry's great achievements was spearheading Rainbow Flags for Mumia and connecting the struggles of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer (l/g/b/t/q) community with those of political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal. He worked to build solidarity between these two movements and was instrumental in the large l/g/b/t/q turnout for Mumia demonstrations and events. Within these movements, he has seen the transformation of homophobia or transphobia on a personal level, as people have been able to see him as a brother in the struggle. Though he has had many positive experiences, he acknowledges that unlike other transgender individuals, such as transwomen or effeminate men, he has the ability to be more invisible because he more easily "passes" as a man.

Indeed, within a larger movement of people working publicly for change, another level of change happens among activists on an interpersonal level. At an antiracism or anti-police brutality demonstration, as people of color make the connection that queer people are fighting for the same issues, many are forced to think about the connections between racial, gender, and sexual justice. Research has shown that one way homophobia is healed is by knowing someone personally who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual. According to Poynter and Talbot (2006: 276), "personal contact is a significant event in the development as an ally to GLB people." Henry works hard to bridge connections and build coalitions across lines of difference, within his performances and as a cultural worker. Human connection is a fundamental component for coalition building within social justice movements. Henry speaks passionately on this issue:
 Social justice and change happens by the living, breathing
 struggle. You can't learn it in a book. Solidarity is what happens
 in the streets--you have to work with people. You can do trainings,
 but what is it to go to an anti-police brutality demonstration?
 What is it to stand in solidarity with a family whose house has
 been firebombed by the Klan? You can't learn solidarity any other

Henry echoes Bernice Johnson Reagon's (1983) statement that "coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets." Indeed, many activists enter political movements with high ideals about justice and human rights, but personal growth occurs when we learn to work effectively with people who speak different languages, have different customs, or look different. The difficult work of coalescing with others is the real work, especially in situations where the people involved experience different levels of dominant privilege, and in which privilege and oppression beg to be examined.

During his performances, coalescence happens as Henry intentionally breaks the fourth wall (3)--the accepted barrier between the actors onstage and the audience--exploiting the intimacy of theater and including his audience to the point where he actually makes the audience part of his pieces. In B4T, Henry stationed his co-actor in the audience; in his second show, The Strong Go Crazy, he created a living room out of the theater and had a TV party where the audience was encouraged to talk back to the television along with him in a group cultural critique, resulting in lines being added to his script that came directly from audience members. After he welcomed everybody and passed out popcorn, he would stand outside the theater, listening:
 people are talking and making their own jokes or comments and just
 being together. And I love it. People who didn't know each other
 came for a night of theater, and they're just laughing with each
 other. I thought it was brilliant--beyond what I've ever seen in
 theater. People organically became connected to each other and
 became part of the show.

The structure for audience members encourages and supports connection and coalescence with one another, and to Henry as performer. Some of his characters are fictional and others are based on real people; at times he weaves his own stories into the fibers of his work. Whether audience members attribute those stories to him personally, they experience an intimacy with him onstage that functions as a connecting force.

Henry is a sought-after performer on U.S. college campuses and has seen his work affect thousands of students and university communities. Audience members may not necessarily attend a march for l/g/b/t/q equality or a demonstration against violence toward young people of color, but they will come to see a play. His work functions as activism in myriad ways, reaching students who would never decide to attend his show if it were not for the extra credit offered by professors. Many of his predominantly white, heterosexual, student audience members are compelled to write academic papers about race, gender, and sexual identity after seeing his show. Additionally, various student groups have built coalitions and worked together to raise money to bring Henry to their campus. Student groups on one campus worked for three years to bring Henry's show to their school. Student groups of color collaborated with student groups working around sexual identity. The students were compelled to connect their struggles.

Henry has a class-consciousness that pervades his approach to politics and artistic work. He attests that in a capitalist system, where making money is the primary goal, art that serves other purposes such as raising awareness, creating visibility for noncommercial stories, or activating people is not going to bring in big money. Rather, it becomes a form of resistance. Much of Henry's energy is spent supporting and engaging in such acts of resistance. He states:
 If art is political, it discusses issues meant to be silent. When
 we create art that is political in any shape or form, or when we as
 oppressed peoples stand up and talk about our truth or
 experience--if a woman talks about what it's like to be sexually
 assaulted or abused, that's political. Capitalism would say "be
 silent, don't talk about that."

Susana Cook

 I am your Hot Tamale baby.
 Come sweet senorita, you know you can't resist our full lips and
 curvaceous bodies ...
 Let's dance colonizer
 I am for civilization and progress
 I am your colonized stereotype of the Latino-macho-catholic
 I am an insatiable sex machine.... Market me baby
 I love you my democratic enlightened post-modern one
 on the basis of this confrontation with this exotic other
 I am your significant other.... Do you want to know what I signify?
 Do you want to taste my exotic Passion.... with beans....
 Chew my uncivilized, primitive, barbarian second-class identity,
 while I drink your bold superior fully shaped identity of the
 Let's walk half naked under the sun eating tortilla and mango
 I was recently brought into civilization
 I could never fully overcome the fact of carrying primitiveness in
 my blood
 I arrived late to the capitalist fiesta ... but I run
 I am your Speedy Gonzales baby
 I am your bandit ... your papi chulo
 Sit back, look pretty and let the immigrant do the work (Cook,

In this classic Susana Cook opening monologue, all of the Argentine, butch, lesbian, New York City-based performing artist's signature elements are there: seducing the audience through clever poetics, using shameless humor that forces the audience into an uncomfortable place of self-reflection, pointedly poking fun at U.S. establishments and the privileged classes, and bringing her multiplicitous identities to center stage. Other elements from a Susana Cook performance to expect are unabashed butches and femmes, quick-fire dialogue with her ensemble cast made up of lesbian and queer women of color, music scored by her son Julian, and playful choreography. Cook's shows are community in their making, a dynamic, at times disjointed cultural experience for audience members and performers alike, due to the often nonlinear structure.


Cook's life experience significantly affected her creative work and career moves. Since 1991, she has participated in the New York City performing arts scene and continues to write and direct all of her own work as one of the most prolific artists to grace many a downtown stage. At age 16, Cook joined a theater group run by political Jewish artists in Argentina. It was 1976, the year the Argentine dictatorship began. The Internet was not yet a tool of global connection and Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Disappeared) started what became a political movement in Buenos Aires. As the government abducted people, the Mothers of the Disappeared searched for their sons and daughters in hospitals, jails, police stations, and morgues, finding each other and organizing themselves. The Madres had a significant impact on Cook. "Somehow my theater and activism came together out of this," she explains. When I interviewed her in her quirky house in the Bronx, she spoke with effusive pride about the Madres, whose images were depicted in large framed pictures on her walls.

For Cook, it is important to have images that represent her politics, images with which she, and others like her, can relate. This visibility is a central political force in her work and she becomes frustrated if the impact of her work is minimized because of what may be perceived as a limited audience of converts.
 I love preaching to the converted. The "norm" has a whole culture
 preaching to them--every magazine, movie, TV program is preaching
 to them and we have a couple of lesbian cultural events, and
 [critics say], 'Oh, they're preaching to the converted.' It's not
 enough to convert, you also need to create a culture we can
 identify with, to help us reflect on our communities.

As a teen, Cook did not see images of lesbians in Buenos Aires. When she came to New York City and discovered women's bookstores and women's theater, her life experience and her own struggles with hiding parts of herself were validated by knowing that there were other lesbians like her and community spaces where she could find them. She became involved with the WOW Cafe Theater, a (predominantly lesbian-run) women's theater, which has since changed its mission to include trans people, marking a challenging shift within the WOW collective. Learning of the disproportionately high suicide rates of 1/g/b/t youth (Garofalo et al., 1998; D'Augelli et al., 2001), it became critical for Cook to place lesbian women and butch identities at the epicenter of her work.

"Masculinity is not the monopoly of men," she says about her identity in a time when butches are being eclipsed in queer communities by various transgender and gender-variant masculine identities, such as transmen, bois, and gender queer people. She echoes what has been called a "butch phobia" that impedes many women from identifying as butch (Halberstam, 1998: 244).
 Many women think the associations or the stereotype of a butch are
 so negative. It's a whole idea that butches are imitating men.
 Also, butches are identified with the working class, which is seen
 as a negative thing. That they were working class and supposedly
 imitating patriarchal values gave butches a bad rap.

Cook takes great pride in her butch identity and her own embodiment of masculinity. Because she has made it a central and positive place from which to create artistic work, exploring the butch/femme identities and "energy" in lesbian relationships, she has encouraged and made a space for many others to claim their butch identities. Since it is not tied to male privilege, she rejects the compulsory abnegation of butch identities that views them as dated or as a limited form of masculinity. Indeed, because she creates an affirming space and positively encourages butch identifications, many of her cast members have come out as butch after working on her plays.

Like Henry, Cook identifies herself as a "Creator of Culture" or "Worker of Culture." Having produced 16 plays between 1991 and 2006, she sees her role as a person who likes to read, develop political analysis, and cull it into something explored onstage through humor for people who do not read or follow the news. Given her subject matter of politics, war, class struggles, and homophobia, she often grapples with how to make her shows funny. She believes her cultural role as an artist is to "create culture that will support the values or counter-values that we think are important."

Since the 2000 election debacle in the U.S., Cook has focused on making connections between the Argentine dictatorship and current U.S. politics. In The Values Horror Show (2005), Cook ends her trademark monologue by saying,
 I grew up during the dictatorship in Argentina, for example, and
 now I am sharing this one with you. I am not going to tell you the
 horrors we went through in Argentina; you have your own horrors to
 deal with. We are horror sisters and brothers. This is like a deja
 vu to me. But I am not going to tell you the end; I am not gonna
 ruin your movie.

Currently, she is exploring how nationalism and religion have been used in the U.S. to promote homophobia. Her most recent show, The Idiot King (2006), mocks the stupid, vacuous monarch who kills in the name of religious nationalism, again connecting current U.S. politics to Argentina's dictatorship. As the king, Cook (who dons a gold and red rubber crown from which her long hair steals out, and a tattered jacket adorned with gold braided rope and insignia on the shoulders) is surrounded onstage by the nurse, several advisors, and the queen. In a campy moment, the queen invites a gang comprised of gender queer people wearing pink bandanas to visit, thinking they will be reformed by seeing how royalty lives. Illuminating a blatant collapsing of the church with the nation-state, the king discusses parts of the Bible that should be modified or removed, and then addresses some homophobic concerns with his Christian God.
 King--Hi God. Yes, I called you. I wanted to talk to you about the
 pearly gates, the walls of alabaster, and the floors made of gold.
 Suddenly I realized that it might look pretty gay in heaven. Yes,
 of course it is up to you, the decoration. Yes, I want to go to
 heaven. I just had the disturbing thought of Saint Peter with a
 pearly keyholder. I can't stop thinking about the pearly, pearly
 gates ... (2006).

Her political positions are evident in her work and in her choices about how and what to produce. Disturbed by what she calls the "worship" of the rich and celebrities, Cook aims to expose the economic and political forces that support such worship. Cook says she is not interested in being a part of U.S. corporations or Broadway. "I'm a butch. I have an accent. I didn't have what they wanted." And, she sees value in the aesthetic of the underground. In her casts, she highlights the experiences of the working class, women of color, and sexual minorities. She consciously brings her work to downtown audiences, where she can "preach to the converted," keep ticket prices low, and her art accessible. Cook carefully considers what to expose, and who and what to make visible in her work, knowing that each decision expresses her values and is part of her political practice.
 Even if you don't want to be political, you are being political. If
 you are not saying anything, then in a way you make a political
 choice of complying with the general discourse. The place where you
 choose to perform, the price of tickets, the people you put in your
 show, everything is a choice where you are showing something
 onstage--the winners, the losers, the minorities--this whole system
 is based on a certain set of values.

Diyaa MilDred Gerestant
 I, Diyaa MilDred Gerestant, aka Drag King/Gender-Illusionist Dred,
 am a multi-spirited, Haitian-American, gender-illusioning, black,
 shaved, different, Goddess, anti-oppression, open, nontraditional,
 self-expressed, blessed, gender-bending, drag-kinging, fluid,
 ancestor-supported, and--after all that--non-labeling woman!
 (Gerestant, 2006)

Diyaa MilDred Gerestant describes her childhood self as shy, lonely, and sad, and as someone who had difficulty with self-expression. Like Henry, Gerestant grew up connected to the church and questioned the homophobic preachers who articulated hatred in their sermons as if it were God's word. She found this inauthentic and her spiritual path has taken her to a very different and powerful spirituality that connects to her many genders and identities. "Performance is a spiritual tool. Everything I do is a spiritual tool.... My performance has definitely helped me open up to my spirit."

Her life transformation mirrored what she expresses in her drag king performances. For many years, Gerestant stormed stages from New York to London to Rio in sophisticated male cross-dressing performances as Drag King Dred, dancing and lip-syncing as she brought to life dynamic characters such as Shaft or Superfly, and paid homage to Marvin Gaye, Grace Jones, P. Diddy, and Busta Rhymes. She would shape-shift from one character into another with onstage costume and prop changes that allow her audiences to be insiders in her transformational process. Over the last few years, Gerestant has taken the stage as herself, merging those dynamic drag performances with her own personal voice to talk about the story behind Dred. Doing so brought her full-circle, with a new confidence and ability to celebrate her multifaceted self. She reflects on her life in a deeply honest way with her audiences, and her candor imbues her audience with the strength of feeling connected to someone's struggle. She says,
 A lot of us are under a cloud or shadow of something keeping us
 from seeing who we really are. I can only share that from my own
 life experience, because most of my life was like that. I went
 through a lot of abuse and teasing; I didn't have any kind of
 self-worth. For a while, Dred was someone I was hiding behind. Dred
 was my male character. I had to really look at that and face those
 demons--like I wasn't worthy of just being myself as MilDred.

That spirit and her ability to "speak from a truthful place," she believes, contribute to social change; she hopes this will "inspire others to do the same for themselves."


Gerestant never thought she would be a performer. In 1995, though, she attended a drag king show at the Pyramid in the East Village, just as the pulse of the New York City drag king scene was starting to thump. Performances by soon-to-be notorious kings such as Busta Hymen and Mo B. Dick empowered her: "They were free of any particular gender box and I was like a little kid in a candy store." Gerestant's first transformation into what would become Dred preceded hundreds of women she would similarly inspire over the next 10 years. It was expressed in her first play in 2006,
 Looking in the mirror, I couldn't believe my transformation. I
 wondered, "Where did that handsome man come from?" I couldn't
 believe that I was looking at another side of me, that this side
 existed. It's still incredible each time I do it.

Gerestant's life was transformed by her introduction to kinging in a way she never anticipated. Over the years, the style of her character Dred solidified into a performance of a medley of songs and characters, climaxing with Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman," and stripping down from her final male drag king costume into a sexy red bikini top and miniskirt, full with a bulge, and her facial hair still intact. At the pinnacle of the medley, she reaches into her skirt in a typical male gesture, revealing a shiny red apple that she bites into, reflecting her power as a woman and referencing Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden. She has been one of the most inspiring contemporary drag kings, claiming a trademark masculinity--a political flip of the stereotypical macho man into one who did not need to denigrate women to be powerful. This is part of the reason drag kinging can be so stalwart; the way a woman interprets masculinity need not rely on sexism, but rather, on exposing the gimmicks that create a sexist persona, revealing how gender, specifically, masculinity, is manufactured.

Gerestant's strength lies in her exploration of her gender before an audience. As a gender illusionist, she challenges the internalized belief systems of audiences regarding gender. To say her performances make people think differently is to put the power of her transformation delicately. They have pushed people's boundaries in over 20 countries, each with its own set of gender norms. One of the most well-known drag kings in the world, many people find themselves attracted to her and approach her after her shows. In the presence of a person with a womanly body and a goatee, the conflicted desire becomes wholly complex, as audience members are forced to think about what they are attracted to and why. A heterosexual man will be attracted to her "from the neck down" and struggle to rectify her hairy face; someone else's attraction may be based on the belief that she is transitioning from a male into a woman--that her facial hair is "real" and her breasts are implants. Each scenario forces a person to consider how desire can be bound to ideas or expressions of gender, rather than to a real person. She aims to break down all of these illusions and get people to question what makes a man or a woman, and at the core, the nature of what is "real." In those intimate exchanges between audience member and performer, how does her joy in her whole self, with all her levels of gender expression, affect those who watch her?

"I'm very much into opening people's eyes up to [the question], 'are they really living as who they want to be or is it just something they've been trained to do?'" she asserts. Now able to more fully have Dred and Diyaa MilDred co-exist onstage, she uses storytelling, singing, and drag to speak her truths and inspire her audiences.
 The man, or the yang in me, really empowered the woman, the yin.
 The male in me broadened and empowered the woman I was born as and
 integrated all that I am.... That's where true wholeness, I'm
 realizing, comes in, and accepting all of who you are.

In her first full-length play, she tells the story of competing in a "Superfly Look-Alike Competition" sponsored by a mainstream hip-hop and R&B radio station in New York City, where,
 I wore a red velour suit, black ribbed turtleneck, thick black
 platforms, gold chains, a gold tooth engraved with the peace
 symbol, a fake black fur coat with a bright yellow lining draped
 over my shoulder, dark shades, and a big, sweet black hat with a
 feather glued to the top, tilted over my right eye.

She embodies that character, oozing confidence, as she pays homage to Superfly, the blaxploitation character, and honors her culture. At the Superfly competition, the women were crazy for her and she took second place, at which point she, wishing to express the full scope of her act, took the microphone. In her feminine voice, she told the audience she is a woman who performs as a drag king, at which point the crowd of 1,500 fell silent. For an audience she describes as "nowhere near queer," this jolt calls many assumptions into question and positions her in the middle of a bold activist move. Most people in such an audience have never seen a drag king and may have never heard of the concept. She thus simultaneously expresses her yin and yang, the flow of power between her genders in the context of her performance, and she undoubtedly sends many viewers home thinking in new ways about gender and desire.

Gerestant believes all of what we do is performance, and all of it is drag in one form or another. Social change through performance, for her, is summed up in one idea: acceptance.
 From all different cultures where I've been asked to perform,
 whether it's Germany, or Korea, or Croatia, Australia ... the one
 thing everyone really got was wanting to be accepted for who they
 are--I think that's the base of everything whether it's dealing
 with race, religion, sexuality, spirituality, gender, whatever it
 is, people just want to be who they are.... All cultures get that.

Activist Performance Art is Cultural Work

For each artist, creating connections across lines of difference is a critical aim, and their cultural work functions as activism on multiple levels. Henry, Cook, and Gerestan use participatory processes of audience engagement. Connecting the collaborative process of activist artists to the process of public participation, Nina Felshin (1995: 12) explains: "Such participation is a critical catalyst for change, a strategy with the potential to activate both individuals and communities, and takes many forms." The tactic of breaking the fourth wall makes audience members a constitutive part of a production; for example, Henry's The Strong Go Crazy (2003) dismantles the fabricated fissure between what is "real" and what is "just play." With that dismantling, the issues hit closer to home and there is less illusion that performance is something simply to watch and enjoy, then forget, as audience members quickly go back to their "real" lives. These artists' audiences are activated in classrooms and schoolwork, personal exploration of cross-dressing, community organizing, and decisions about claiming sexual identities, to name a few.

These artists have taken great risks in their work and by exposing their personal selves through performance to dispense their messages. From their own cultural perspectives, each addresses and analyzes issues of race and ethnicity. Cook and Henry depict masculine gender identities--butch and transman respectively--that they live every day, whereas Gerestant performs gender as drag, but does not identify in her daily life with a masculine gender identity. A critical component of their work is that each artist challenges a gender binary and gender roles. As descendents of the feminist artists of the 1970s "that made creative use of feminist methodologies to grapple with issues of self-representation, empowerment, and community identity" (Felshin, 1995: 19), these three artists continue to change the dialogue about social issues and assumptions about people's identities and place within communities. Claiming an identity makes possible communities based on common experience. Each performer appeals to queer or lesbian communities, artist communities of color, and many political communities; they create community within their shows, facilitating a deepening of the experience and connections made during a production.

Independent artists that connect and explore issues, invite audience involvement, and create community through theater productions perform the role of cultural workers and cultural activists. Brian Wallis (1990: 8) defines cultural activism as "the use of cultural means to try to effect social change." For all three artists, the activist/performer nexus is built into their role as cultural workers or creators of culture through their performances, where ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, as well as conversations regarding identity, are invoked. If, as George and Trimbur (2004: 2) argue, culture includes "social institutions, patterns of behavior, systems of belief, and ... popular entertainment that create the social world in which people live," then Cook, Henry, and Gerestant's work on and off the stage of translating, critiquing, and participating in these cultural elements for the public can be deemed cultural work. Henry writes for Worker's Worm and organizes protests and community events; Cook teaches theater and dreams of creating a "School for the Revolution"; and Gerestant plans to open an alternative healing center and teaches drag king workshops around the world. Each act creates culture, explores and expands belief systems, creates literary texts and art, culls current events into critical analysis, facilitates critical thought and dialogue, builds communities around common values, and generates community-based institutions and organizations.

Performance is, by nature, a political tool of visibility in which the artisan has the power to give voice to the stories and perspectives they wish to value. The manipulation of language and the creation of images manufacture power by establishing a presence. These artists put power into the hands of the underrepresented and the disenfranchised, making important those lesser-heard stories. The meaning of gender shifts as an audience gets to know a gender variant character's inner thoughts and struggles with his or her place in society, observes lesbians expressing the norms of their community, or watches a handsome man win a contest only to find out that he is a biological woman. For mainstream audiences unaccustomed to such gendered performances, or who do not typically question gender roles believed to be axiomatic, these performances may mean a shift in consciousness. Yet an audience of similarly disenfranchised individuals may experience empowerment by seeing stories with which they can relate.

Henry, Gerestant, and Cook cite many instances of the impact their work has had on individuals and communities. A young lesbian thanked Cook for validating or giving voice to her experience, Gerestant's drag king workshops helped a young women explore gender expression, while students on college campuses connected to these issues and to one another due to Henry's work. Gerestant brings it back to human connection, live performance's strength over non-live media:
 When you treat others as yourself, or when you realize we are all
 connected, you won't want to bomb someone in Iraq, you won't want
 to abuse somebody, you won't want rape to be happening, you won't
 want somebody homeless on the street. We're all connected and to me
 that's the basis of social change.

Engaging audiences "every single time" he performs, Henri leaves political literature on the theater seats and talks afterwards about what people can do next. In a mobilization effort, he educates people about little-known cases of injustice. Cook and Gerestant also engage audiences with question-and-answer periods following performances, so that conversation and critical analysis of issues raised in their work can continue dialogue with all in the room. These acts are ways of creating community and solidarity around issues and between people, both of which are necessary for effective activism.

Sociopolitical movements require consciousness-raising art. Because burnout is common, activist movements need to celebrate identities, laugh, and find humor in the dire issues they face. Political art and theater are creative outlets for activists, and the presence of a larger social movement allows artists such as Henry, Cook, and Gerestant to tell the stories people need to hear.

Interviews with these performing artists reveal a commitment to using the stage to involve and speak with audiences. Important aspects of Imani Henry's activism encompass the visibility of identities, including as a cultural worker, supporting acts of resistance, and coalition and solidarity building. Susana Cook's activist work cites issues of representation and visibility, creating images with which to identify, and her choices and political practice concerning her performance. Diyaa MilDred Gerestant's activism is based on challenging illusions surrounding gender and desire, and spotlighting transformational processes for growth as ways of creating wholeness and acceptance among people. Since performance can create contexts for new understanding through the dynamic relationship of these artists to their audiences, action is encouraged and the possibility for shifting consciousness is expanded. In New York and on their tours, they are making a meaningful contribution to activist movements working toward social change.


Brecht, B. 1992 Brecht on Theater: The Development of an Aesthetic. J. Willett (ed. and trans.). New York: Hill and Wang. (Original work published in 1957.)

Brockett, O. 1991 History of the Theater (sixth edition). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Cook, S. 2006 The Idiot King. Unpublished play.

2005 The Values Horror Show. Unpublished play.

1999 Hot Tamale. Retrieved on June 28, 2006, from

D'Augelli, A.R., S.L. Hershberger, and N.W. Pilkington 2001 "Suicidality Patterns and Sexual Orientation-Related Factors Among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youths." Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior 31: 250-264.

Felshin, Nina 1995 "Tailor-Made." Art Journal 54, 1, Clothing as Subject (Spring): 7-16.

1995 But Is It Art? The Spirit of Art As Activism. Editor. Seattle: Bay Press.

Garofalo, R., R.C. Wolf, S. Kessel, J. Palfrey, and R.H. DuRant 1998 "The Association Between Health Risk Behaviors and Sexual Orientation Among a School-Based Sample of Adolescents." Pediatrics 101: 895-902.

Gender Identity Project 2006 Trans-Care. Training presented at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center Y.E.S. Program. New York, NY (November).

George, D. and J. Trimbur (eds.) 2004 Reading Culture: Contexts for Critical Reading and Writing. Fifth edition. New York: Pearson Longman.

Gerestant, M. 2006 "Exposures of a Multi-Spirited, Haitian-American, Gender-Harmonizing Woman." Robin Bernstein (ed.), Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theater. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Halberstam, J. 1998 Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hall, D. (ed.). 2003 Queer Theories (Transitions). United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Henry, I. 2004 Living in the Light. Unpublished play.

2003 The Strong Go Crazy. Unpublished play.

2002 B4T. Unpublished play.

Levy, A. 2004 Where the Bois Are. Retrieved on November 12, 2006, from

Poynter, K. and D. Talbot 2006 Heterosexual Allies in Higher Education: The Development of a Model Retrieved July 5, 2006, from 06).doc. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Reagon, B.J. 1983 "Coalition Politics: Turning the Century." Barbara Smith (ed.), Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New York: Kitchen Table Press: 356-368.

Wallis, B. (ed.) 1990 Democracy: A Project by Group Material. Seattle: Bay Press: 8.

Wikholm, A. 1999 Words: A Glossary of the Words Unique to Modern Gay History. Retrieved April 29, 2005, from


(1.) Queer has been used derogatorily for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and has, over the last decade, been adopted as an identity by many members of these communities to deconstruct and dismantle its aspersive power. Although queer does not necessarily mean gay, many gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual people, as well as heterosexuals whose sexuality does not fit into the cultural standard of monogamous heterosexual marriage, have adopted the label "queer" as an act of resistance, since it indicates being outside dominant sexual norms and expectations. Queer theory has been built around many of these ideas, with resistance acting as a central component for queer identities (Hall, 2003; Wikholm, 1999).

(2.) Transmen, FTMs, and bois are individuals who may have been assigned a female gender at birth and socialized accordingly, but whose identity and gender expression become masculinized. This may or may not include taking testosterone to assist the development of male secondary sex characteristics or having surgery to alter the body to appear more masculine. Many people clearly distinguish between identifying as a transman or as a boi, and each is its own masculine gender identity. FIrM has been widely used, but can be seen as offensive for a person of trans experience, and transman is more appropriate (Gender Identity Project, 2006). As ideas about the multiplicity of gender identities continue to develop, individual identities are expanding. Gender queer is a term some use to resist established gender norms and to challenge the traditional gender binary. I say this to give the reader who may be unfamiliar with these terms some understanding of what is being discussed, but do not wish to imply that it is at all simple. See the work of Judith Halberstam, Kate Bornstein, and Leslie Feinberg for more analysis of gender identity specifically in transgender individuals. Not much has been written on the identity boi, but a mainstream article was featured in New York Magazine in 2004 (Levy, 2004).

(3.) The ritual breaking of the fourth wall to address the audience directly is generally attributed to Bertolt Brecht's epic theater; however, Brecht's exploration of this method was based on his research of the alienation effect in Chinese theater (Brecht, 1992:136; Brockett, 1991: 523). The alienation effect has been used onstage and in cinema as an intentional jolt for the viewer, reminding them that they are watching something unreal and to allow for more objective analysis of what they are watching.

AMY JO GODDARD (e-mail:, MA, is a writer/playwright, performing and visual artist, activist, and professional sexuality educator/trainer.
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Author:Goddard, Amy Jo
Publication:Social Justice
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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