°“Queens! Queens!” was the call-and-response cry heard a multitude of times from the Helen Wayne Rauh Theater in Purnell last Thursday night. Drama Queens!, organized by Wendy Arons, professor of dramatic literature, and Kristina Straub, professor in the Department of English, through the Center for Arts and Society here at Carnegie Mellon, was a gathering of six world-renowned performance artists. Beautifully emceed by Sara Lyons, a directing masters student, the show was a series of twenty minute segments in which each artist performed whatever they wanted to — from a future funeral, to a Boston sports bar, to a 17th century nun.
Erin Markey, a performance artist, comedian, writer, and composer based out of New York, was the first of the Drama Queens to perform. Markey entered the stage in daisy dukes, tweety bird leggings, and a shirt covered in drawings of designer purses. She told us that she had always wanted to sing a very specific song in front of a huge crowd with a full orchestra behind her and passed around a clipboard with a ‘legally binding’ document for all of us to sign that would require all of us to plan her funeral.
We had a dress rehearsal of her future funeral, including such highlights as a volunteered ‘friend of the dead’ overcoming Markey’s rigor mortis to prop her up and puppet her jaw to mouth along with a practice orchestra and her pre-recorded vocals. Once we had finished practicing, Markey sang her beloved song, a truly moving club jam that told the story of a baby named Secret who was very tragically born without labia. Markey’s dry, absurdist humor was the perfect way to start an evening of challenging conventions.
Holly Hughes, the second act, is a writer and performer who currently teaches at the University of Michigan. Hughes is know for her plentiful portfolio of work, as well as being one of the NEA Four, a group of four performance artists who were denied funding by the National Endowment for the Arts in the 90’s for ‘obscenity’ of subject matter.
Hughes spent her twenty minutes talking about her time with the Women’s One World (WOW) Café, a feminist theatre space in New York City that was a central part of the mid-80’s avant garde theater and performance art scene in the East Village. Hughes talked about her experience as an — as she says — ‘accidental’ founding member of WOW. Hughes spun a colorful and articulate story of her part in the culture of queer, feminist art. Punctuated with photographs and flyers from the original years of WOW, Hughes’ talk gave an intimately personal look into the history of counter-cultural performance art and celebrated the success of a pivotal group in the queer, feminist movement.
The third queen to perform, Desiree Burch, is a London-based writer, actress, artist, and comedian. For this event, Burch performed a section of her full-length solo show Tar Baby, a ‘carnival of capitalism and race — where no one’s a winner but everyone’s still playing!’ This segment of Tar Baby focused on two anecdotes adapted from Burch’s life.
The first of these was an audition for an NYU student film where the audition table full of hipsters asked her to perform a single line with just about every euphemism they could think of until she realized they wanted her to perform it ‘more black’. Burch then performed that line — a simple ‘Hold the elevator!’ — in an uncomfortably hilarious stereotype of every one-dimensional black character to ever grace a film screen.
The second anecdote was about Bruch’s experience growing up as the only black girl in her suburban California town, and the anger and frustration that led her to create a racist caricature of herself. Burch’s explanation of the fact that her greatest moments of power and popularity came when performing this minstrel show version of herself, and how much she hated herself for no being able to let it go was touching and thought-provoking in a way that bordered on prompting guilt. Bruch’s performance was incredibly challenging, especially for an audience unused to such explicit talks about race, but was very well handed.
Deb Margolin, a playwright, actor, and founding member for Split Britches Theatre Company came fourth in the evening’s structure. Margolin is currently an Associate Professor at Yale University, and has authored ten full-length solo performances, one of which she began to perform for us at that night.
After giving her watch to an audience member and telling them to stop her when her time was up, Margolin performed the beginning of her play 8 Stops. The play, as Margolin puts it, is a comedy about the ways in which we answer each other’s narratives, and ‘the grief of endless compassion’. She talks about a young boy she met on a bus, her son’s obsession with the possibility of an endless death, and her battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
In twenty minutes, Margolin made her audience laugh, groan, and verge on crying. Her erratic energy gave a possibly dark subject the layer of levity and humor it needed to keep the audience engaged over an hour into the show, and her understanding of her story lent her the gravity needed to tackle a heavy subject without seeming frivolous.
Becca Blackwell is a trans actor, performer, and writer living in New York City, and was the fifth performer that night. Like much of Blackwell’s work, their solo show They, Themself and Schmerm exploded our societal ideas of personhood and our relationships to our physical bodies. Blackwell’s stand-up styled performance began with a few stories about their experience growing up, and then shifted to a longer story about one of their more absurd experiences as an adult at the ‘least likely to hurt us looking’ sports bar in Boston. Blackwell joked about their first foray into differences between men and women’s bathrooms and the etiquette (or lack thereof) required in each.
Blackwell’s performance was a riotous, high-energy smashing of the gender binary. A solid presence on stage, Blackwell brought a physicality to their performance that recreated mess, bizarre, and strange situations in a hilarious way.
The sixth and final performer, Carmelita Tropicana, has been performing in New York’s arts scene since the 1980s. When she walked on stage the first thing to come out of her mouth was a rapid-fire back-and-forth between English and Spanish telling us about her plan to ‘channel the spirit’ of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a poetess nun from 17th century Mexico. Dressed in the ever-so-traditional garb of 17th century nuns (black and white latex) Carmelita Tropicana read two of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s poems — ‘Inés, cuando te riñen por bellaca’ (‘Inez, When Someone Tells You You’re A Bitch’) and ‘Con el dolor de la mortal herida’ (‘Love Opens a Mortal Wound’).
Carmelita Tropicana high-energy poetry readings were the perfect way to end the night. She was a captivating presence on stage, and held the audience’s attention even when she was speaking in a language not everyone understood.
Drama Queens! was a truly once in a lifetime event that we were luck to have on campus. All six of these artist had never preformed together, and likely won’t ever again, and though each of them had only twenty minutes, they all said something thought-provoking and unique in a true experience of a show.