THE EVOLUTION OF DRAG

AN ART FORM OF SELF-DISCOVERY AND EXPRESSIONISM

 

Written by: Kamva Gwana 

Instagram/Twitter: @kamvag_

 

In the year 2021 it simply takes uttering a few phrases from the iconic RuPaul’s Drag Race to spark the fiercest of debates on which queen has the best moves, the best fashions and, of course the lip-syncing technique to assassinate all the other girlies. The spotlight is on drag culture, thanks to international streaming deals that have propelled the artform to mainstream entertainment platforms and networks. This opportunity to reveal to society the amount of artistic value, grit, innovation and beauty in the processes of drag has allowed not only the performers to begin to be valued in the light they deserve, but it has also given the young femme presenting child, regardless of gender or sexuality, the opportunity to see themselves loudly and proudly. 

 

In researching for this piece, we had the opportunity to speak to some of the movers and shakers of Drag Culture in South Africa today. Their diversity, backgrounds and styles of entertaining while so wide somehow all led to one converging conclusion—Drag has always been in the business of evolving societies, and even more importantly evolving these queens’ self-reflection, identities and outlets of expression. 

 

The evolution of drag in South Africa can be seen through the platforms and spaces that the art form is breaking into. The artform historically has been placed in the underground world of basement nightclubs and showtimes in the wee hours of the morning. While these constraints were transformed and embraced by queer culture, we now see a breakthrough in the visibility of drag artistry on renowned stages across the globe. Here at home, the world-renowned Market Theatre followed this call to platform a 3-night installment of a Drag Show in partnership with LGBTQIAP+ advocacy foundation, the Thami Dish Foundation. 

 

We sat down (virtually of course) with producer & director of The House of Pink vol 1 Lebohang Toko, to discuss what it meant to produce, direct and feature a drag show at this iconic venue. Toko says the show was conceptualised to “educate individuals that don’t know what a drag show is”, encompassing the elements of lip-syncing, live stage costume reveals and comedic elements. The show perfectly balanced educating, entertaining and weaving in activism for LGBTQIAP+ representation and visibility. He says the timing of the show was “impeccable as it affirms to queer folk that they belong and need no one’s permission to exist” 

 

Lebohang, known on stage as the powerful Miss Roj, believes that “we are already in the future of drag”. A future of seeing the art form beyond the stereotypes often used to reduce these performers to simply “men in dresses”. He is referring to the androgynous high-performance act included in his show performed by Donovan Yaards for example, which boldly captured the audience to close the show and define clearly where Drag Culture is headed. 

 

It is through performers like Donovan that we are able to see that the evolution of drag is not only in the spaces it is now accessing but in repositioning identity representation in the art form. Speaking to Donovan Yaards, the first question that struck us is, “Why keep your name?” As many (if not all) queens we’ve come across have built a persona to perform their drag artistry through. 

 

Donovan tells us, “These are the mannerisms I’ve always carried. It would’ve felt like straying away from who I have always been if I would recreate a character for stage”. They recall with us carrying the “awkwardness and discomfort” growing up androgynously as a young queer POC child and how finally shifting that discomfort into their expressive outlet led them down this journey of drag performance. Donovan is meticulous in portraying their lived experiences in their performance. Their musical set-list captures the feminine voices that directed them on how feminine people were expected to present in society. Their choice to keep their natural hair on stage is a defiant act to subtly portray their ethnicity as a person of colour in being worthy of Extravaganza status. “The long blonde wigs are not the only way to prove ourselves, I want my brownness to reflect in my performance” they say. It is clear through these young queens that drag culture is evolving to reveal identity in a much broader perspective than ever before. 

 

A hurdle in the evolution of South Africa’s Drag Culture has been its inclusivity and representation of racial groups in the country. At its core, this art form is expensive. The lashes, the ball gowns, the inches-for-days all run up a bill that often leaves many queens stuck in progressing their performance and talent. Sally, a fan-favourite in the Joburg scene tells us, “The industry is access-driven. The socio-economic realities of many queens leaves them cast aside. It is worse in some spaces than others. There is amazing inclusion in spaces such as the Cape Town scene but in some areas, we still see a majority white bracket”. She believes that this inaccess is quickly changing however, “the visibility of POC superstars such as Doja Cat and their access to world stages is shifting what and who has access even in drag representation.” Sally is a fierce advocate of fusing her corporate untucked world with her sex-kitten alter-ego in drag. She believes that breaking down the stigma to keep these worlds separate will allow her and other queens the economic opportunities to compete to the level they desire without a fear of rejection in heteronormative spaces. 

 

The secrets of the tuck, the chin stubble or disguising the broad shoulder and bigger feet has been standard practice in the drag community since conception. This has spilled over into extraordinarily high standards of beauty in terms of gender roles and body positivity within the community. While many queens continue to narrate their femininity through these standards there is a movement brewing from within that has been highly embracive of what some queens call, “unrestricted femininity”. 

 

Fantasy a gender-queer performer based in Johannesburg is one of these queens. She believes the global shift in accepting drag has “grounded many queens to find new forms of expressing themselves”. She is inspired by the power of feminine seductive energy which has empowered many women through mediums such as fashion, dance and selling an allusive fantasy. Her performance serves “body oddy oddy” capturing audiences in what she refers to as the “fantasy”. This cross-cultural expansion of drag culture moves the industry beyond the ball gowns and comedic talent of queens and allows them to embrace their bodies outside of the socially written rules on who is allowed to perform seductively in the portrayal of femininity. Fantasy is destined for the world as she correctly manifests for herself. She is a queen who boldly defines body positivity within the drag community and refuses to let society “other” her presentation. 

 

The evolution of drag is all encompassing it seems, not only are we as audiences to expect more and more boundary pushing from these artists on the stage. We can firmly predict that this art form will continue to drive pop culture and society towards expressionism unrestricted by gender and sexuality binaries for generations to come. 

 

 

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