BEEF may not be the first all-drag king showcase ever, but the new monthly showcase brought to you by the Brooklyn-based drag collective Switch n’ Play is the first repeating drag king show that New York City’s seen in a long, long time.
Tuesday night at Bushwick’s Bizarre Bar, the audience was mostly made of women (couples, tables of singles, and friends of the performers), all whooping and screaming on command. “BEEF STICK! Can you all say ‘beef stick’?” Lee VaLone, aka Lela Graham, acting as both MC and performer for the night, shouted to the audience.
The energy was palpable and my little corner of the room, all of us with mouths agape, was totally blown away. Throughout each of the song-and-dance numbers, an impassioned bit involving spray glitter, and a variety of dick gags, we laughed, we screamed, and discussed how we honestly didn’t think drag could be like this.
Speaking on the phone the morning after, Lela recalled having a similar reaction when she first encountered a Switch n’ Play performance. “I didn’t know what to expect, it blew my mind,” she explained. “So I started going to all their shows.”
The reaction is apparently a common one. “In the ‘90s there was a very big drag king scene in New York, but because of crackdowns on nightclubs it just sort of fizzled out,” Lela explained. But drag queens have seen a surge in popularity in recent years do to the mainstream appeal of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and a visible, accessible, and exciting local scene (as evidenced by next month’s Bushwig festival). But Lela argues that drag king performances offer something even more stimulating.
“I feel that what drag kings are doing now is much more visually and conceptually interesting than what the queens are doing,” Lela explained. Drag king performances are relatively few and far between, but drag queens, she argues, are becoming almost commonplace.
“Because of the popularity of queens, you can go to any bar or any gay bar in the city, in Brooklyn, or in Queens and they’re going to have a drag queen night,” she argued. “And that queen, although I’m sure she’s a beautiful, sparkly diamond, may or may not look like another drag queen, and may or may not be performing some of the same songs. It’s still very interesting, it’s still very respectable, but it’s starting to repeat.”
Drag kings, on the other hand, don’t have a great deal of precedent. “Drag kings haven’t had a platform in so long that it’s still new and exciting and keeps everyone interested,” Lela pointed out.
I first caught up with Lee VaLone after the show. He was ecstatic and out-of-breath after the show, accepting the compliments in stride and explained: “We’re just trying to get people to think differently about drag.”
I found out that Lela is a nanny by day and, actually, she doesn’t have much performance experience at all, save for taking dance classes as a kid and playing in her high school band. “I’ve always been a very energetic performative person just in my every day life,” she clarified. “And when you teach pre-school and you have twenty-five two-year olds you have to keep engaged and happy, you might as well be a theater performer.”
In fact most of the performers at Switch n’ Play have careers that have nothing to do with theater or even the arts, save for one classically trained opera singer who teaches. “I’m a childcare worker. We have two scientists. One person is going to med school. We have one person who works in TV production,” Lela explained. “And we have a professor… none of us work in entertainment full-time. It’s cute. We’re adorable.”
But that doesn’t mean they’re any less committed. Switch n’ Play has been around since 2006 and counts both drag kings and drag queens as members, as well as males, females, and everyone in between and outside of those gender binaries. “We average five to six shows a month,” Lela explained. “We all bust ass.” Since January she’s choreographed 15 numbers while continuing to work full-time. Bizarre Bar approached the group and, as Lela said, “offered us the space.”
While sexuality doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with drag, Lela identifies as gender queer and is married to a man. “I’ve always known that I’m queer, I’m not a huge fan of the word bisexual,” she explained. “I’ve always known that I don’t identify as a very feminine person, but I definitely don’t identify as an extremely masculine person either. I’ve always been in the middle of the gender spectrum.”
But when Lela transforms into Lee, it’s about both performance and doing something she thinks contributes to the conversation about gender. “Personally it’s a way to explore gender in a playful way,” she said. “It’s really fun to explore masculinity with a humorous side and a narrative side.”
Her character Lee VaLone, “a completely harmless creeper,” is kind of an oddball and wants to experiment with all kinds of facial hair. She tapped Jack Black for personality traits and both David Bowie and Robert Daltrey of The Who for stage presence. “I like to think that my character owns a used car lot and he’s an honest guy, but he looks a little shady,” Lela explained. “He’s very sweet, well-intentioned but kind of goofy.”
Lee presented himself through a series of different looks and attitudes on stage. In between numbers he’d strut around in red boy shorts stretched to their maximum potential by the presence of an enormous fake dong. When it came time to perform with his partner Vigor Mortis, who is trans male, Lee emerged in a matching aerobics-inspired costume complete with mesh leotard and rainbow sweatbands. They elicited wild applause when they shook their booties in sync to Devo’s “Whip It.”
But it was Lee’s solo performance to Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” that stole the show. Tears welled up in his eyes as he clutched a comically large bouquet and moved from adoration to lovelorn to completely distraught, and began ripping the flowers up on stage. As seemingly millions of petals rained down on stage, the audience went kind of berserk.
Lee’s performances were so on-point, I was surprised to learn she’s relatively new to the game, having joined Switch n’ Play back in January of this year after several months of solo drag efforts. Lela said that a few years ago, she was first inspired to do drag by RuPaul’s Drag Race. “I thought it was so interesting that these guys could put on a dress and become this character,” she recalled. “The idea I could do that was incredible, but these were all male drag queens. I thought that’s really cool, but I can’t do that.”
She changed her mind after witnessing a Switch n’ Play drag king show that inspired her to sign up for “How to be a drag king” workshops offered by local drag king Goldie Peacock. Everything snowballed from there.
Some of the other standouts performers were Reggi Regina (a bear of a guy decked-out in cowboy gear) who sang a country ditty, “I Like Beer” and the co-host, a suspenders-clad king named K. James, who bore a strong resemblance to J.D. Samson and made a very convincing Freddy Mercury during a Queen mashup.
One thing that BEEF really impressed on me was the communal aspect of the performances. There was a sense that everyone was on the same team. Whereas drag queen shows seem to be more about throwing shade and fierce, beauty pageant-like competition, there were a ton of two- and three-person numbers as well as the all-group opening and closing bits.
If drag queens are solo-flying divas, then drag kings are part of a tight-knit boy band composed entirely of Justin Timberlakes.
“A lot of drag kings perform in groups– there’s an element of forcing someone to take your work seriously when you have a lot of people,” Lela explained.
Strangely — at the start of the show, anyway — I sensed that something was missing here. And it wasn’t just an element of fabulousness that seeps out of every pore of drag queens. It’s hard to put your finger on why some drag kings succeed as more convincing “males.” Is it because “male” and “masculinity”– besides a few superficial characteristics like strong, aggressive, and facial hair– is the default and therefore lacks nuance? After all, the hook for the show is “a night of manful performance,” which in itself is self-consciously absurd. I mean, really, what the hell does “manful” even mean?
What the drag queens intentionally lacking in glitz and glamour they made up for in farce and parody — but still, performing as a man presents a unique challenge.
“Drag is, in my definition, the performance of gender and our culture doesn’t view masculinity as something that should be performed. It’s something that just is. Masculinity is seen as default in our culture,” Lela explained. “It’s not seen as having dynamic aspects and it’s not seen as something that can be glamorous or exciting.”
The fact that masculinity is understood as neutral makes performing the gender a truly difficult thing to do as well as a deeply interesting feat to witness. “When you look at a drag queen what they’re doing is basically performing femininity, and in our culture femininity is already massively objectified. Sex and femininity are even used to sell hamburgers,” Lela argued.
It’s not surprising that Lela, as well as other members of the Switch n’ Play group, has encountered hostility and doubt as to whether drag kings can even be entertaining.
“I don’t want to speak to anyone else’s experiences, but for me, most of my ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’ experiences have come from drag queens,” Lela recounted, though qualifying that most of these incidents took place in Manhattan, not Brooklyn. “A lot of people just don’t get why we’d want to do this, why we’d want to explore masculinity in this way. But that just goes back to the idea that you can’t perform masculinity because it’s default.”
Lela admitted that besides the drag performers at Switch n’ Play, she doesn’t interact much with the drag queen community. “I’ve chosen not to interact strongly with the queen community— it’s not fear— but knowing that what I do will not be taken seriously, and what I do as a performer will not be viewed the same as their [work],” she explained. (She did mention she’s worked alongside Sasha Velour, who Lela describes as “one of the most amazing, kind, and creative individuals I’ve ever met.”)
Admittedly, at first the performance of male does seem a bit odd. “They’re not the greatest dancers,” my friend commented. However, once your eyes begin to adjust to the lighting, so to speak, you start to pick up on what’s being said here. “But that’s what makes them more convincing as straight men,” my friend concluded.
BEEF wasn’t exactly about worshipping masculinity. Instead, there was more than a hint these performers were taking down the patriarchy a notch by picking at the stupidities of men, their arrogance, clumsiness, and lack of grace.
But there’s evidence — in Bushwick, at least — that the queen and king communities are forging stronger ties. Switch n’ Play will again be performing alongside the drag queen heavyweights (some, literally speaking) at Bushwig (which is fast approaching, by the way: save the date for September 11 through 13.) This will be Lela (and Lee’s) first time at Bushwig as both a spectator and a performer. “Drag kings are really coming back,” Lela explained.
Next up at BEEF’s September performance, expect new bits and numbers as well as fresh costumes. Oh, and of course watch out for something called “Boylesque,” burlesque with dudes. “Something really interesting happens with burlesque when you switch the performer from a sexy femme person to an equally sexy masculine person,” Lela said. “When you swap those type of bodies out it really messes with people.”