So to be fair, I’m not really a drag queen. But I pretended to be one for a while.
Last spring I had the pleasure of playing the fantabulous character of Angel Dumott Schunard in Starcatcher’s production of the hit musical, RENT, right here in Jerusalem.
As time goes by, I realize more and more just how impactful those few months were for me. Becoming Angel, one of Broadway’s most beloved characters, wasn’t just something I did on stage. Over the course of rehearsals and performances, Angel was the vehicle through which I left my comfort zone and experienced the world through the eyes of someone very different from myself.
I didn’t know so much about drag prior to accepting this role. True, I grew up with three older sisters who would put me in dresses until an age I’m probably better off not mentioning, and it’s also true that I cried when they all got their ears pierced, which forced my mom to get me stick-on earrings. But apart from this childhood phase, I’ve led a fairly standard heterosexual life. I had always just assumed that drag was another kind of homosexual or transgender expression. But this is not the case.
Being a drag queen doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Dressing in drag is a medium of performance art that is available to even heterosexual artists. Rather than reflecting on the individual, drag performances often deliver strong social and cultural critiques that question the way we think of gender and traditional gender roles.
At the time I played Angel, I was also in school full time. I’d show up to class on Sundays, exhausted from the Saturday night show, back killing from my 5-inch stiletto dancing, mascara still stuck to my eyelashes and my bright pink and purple nails clashing majestically with my dark green lumber-jack thermal. Professors would get distracted for a second when I’d raise my hand to ask a question and people on buses would stare at my nails against the hand-bar. I didn’t mind the stares or the double-takes, but I thought many of the comments were pretty rude. “What’s on your fingers?” “Why would you do that to your nails?!” “What are you, gay?!”
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Rent, Angel dances A LOT throughout the show. Having only the heart of a dancer, but not the experience, I needed to practice with the choreographer for hours on end. At some point during the rehearsal process, I was told I had gotten the stripper dance moves down pat, but was still “moving like a guy.” I learned how posture and body language are central elements to our understanding and expression of gender. Unlike men, women rarely strike symmetrical poses. “Turn three-quarters to the left, drop one shoulder, bend your knee and tilt your head to the side. Now make it look natural and comfortable. That’s more like it.”
So much of everyday life’s routine, which I usually don’t think twice about, must be strategically planned when dressing like a woman. “Cross your legs! You can’t sit however you want when wearing that miniskirt.” I had to ask my roommate to open cans of tuna for me so as to not chip my expensive nail polish. When wearing heels, everyone walking with me needed to SLOW DOWN. And “Hell no, we’re not walking down that bumpy alleyway.” Clothing and makeup became full-time-consuming ordeals that dictated a persistent regimen of shaving, showering, applying copious amounts of skin cream to my abused face and, for no apparent reason, made me purse my lips every time I looked at myself in the mirror.
We did a photo shoot for the show in the center of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon. I was dressed in drag and passers-by stopped to watch me pose in front of the Nachlaot graffiti. The most attention I got was from older men who appeared to be well into their sixties. A couple of them stuck around for a while and asked to be in pictures with me. This one man couldn’t stop laughing: “Is it a girl or a boy?” He kept running his hand down my back and even grabbed my leg in one of the pictures. I played along, amused, never breaking character. I think by most standards, much of what happened could be considered sexual harassment if not borderline molestation. But since I didn’t grow up as a girl, I was fairly insensitive to the inappropriate attention I received that day.
Men asked me out. A lot. Sometimes they were nice and innocent, sometimes they weren’t. I had never realized just how aggressive and creepy men can be. It was pretty eye opening to be on the other side of those interactions for the first time. I became far more self aware of the way I approach and ask women out on dates.
Part of playing Angel involved falling in love with my character’s boyfriend, Collins. Every night of rehearsal my acting partner and I would become increasingly comfortable with each other, and ended up adding in more kisses as the show’s run went on. Not only did I not mind kissing a guy, it didn’t feel any different from kissing a girl. I realized that there is a unique beauty to a kiss. It is the only act of physical intimacy where gender roles do not come into play. Unlike hugs or intercourse, where men and women have distinct complementary positions, kisses don’t lend to different roles based on gender.
And this basically reflects what is so great about Angel: his/her gender complexity. At times in the show, Angel is as girl as it gets, in her heels and blonde wigs, singing the high harmonies in all the duets. At other times, Angel takes on a more traditionally masculine role — being a street drummer, killing a dog, breaking down a locked door, and being the provider for her loved one. Angel was both a boy-scout AND a brownie (“until some brat got scared”) and replies to haters by saying: “I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be and more of a woman than you’ll ever get.” Precisely.
I can’t help thinking about a class I took on gender theory, which at one point compared the “progressive” thought of Judith Butler (“women aren’t born, they’re made”) to other thinkers who believe there IS something inborn to one’s gender identity. I think of all the things Angel has taught me, the most important lesson is that I don’t know what makes a woman. Or a man for that matter. And I think I prefer it that way. People could benefit from being more free and open to experience life and love outside of the constraints of their gender stereotypes. We have to allow ourselves, at times, to feel and express in ways that might not necessarily fit into traditional categorization. Great things happen when we step outside our bubble and embrace the complexity of life. That’s what Angel taught me.