A lesson in drag at Guthrie Theater

From L to R: Cameron Folmar (Tracy), Arturo Soria (Rexy), and Jayson Speters (Casey) prepare for the stage. // Photo by Dan Norman

From L to R: Tracy (Cameron Folmar), Rexy (Arturo Soria), and Casey (Jayson Speters) prepare for the stage. // Photo by Dan Norman

It takes more than putting on a dress and squeezing into nylons and high heels to be a true drag queen. You have to know the history of it, the community of it, the art of it. You have to know who you are and who you’re hoping to become. You have to commit to being part of a larger family—a larger message—heart, soul, mind, and, (certainly) body. Most importantly, you’ve got to have balls—at least figuratively speaking.

That’s the core message of “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” which opened at Guthrie Theater July 20 and plays through August 26. The plot centers around Casey (played by Jayson Speters), a very straight, very boyish Elvis impersonator at a club in small town Florida. He’s enthusiastic and wildly optimistic, spending the last of his and his wife’s rent money on a new sequin jumpsuit and looking only far enough into the future to imagine his rise to fame, even as everyone around him sees that that’s unlikely at best.

His dreams are dashed when the club owner swaps out Casey’s Elvis act for a two-queen drag show. Fate steps in when one of the queens proves too drunk to perform, forcing Casey to step into not only a new role, but a new life.

On its surface, “McBride” is a boisterous, glittering rollick of a time. Confetti covers the theater by the end of the two-hour show, and somewhere along the way the normally staid Guthrie audience transforms into a clapping, dancing, singing crowd of people who may or may not know what exactly they just experienced.

Costume designer Patrick Holt says he “went a little crazy in the holiday montage” part of the show. Featured here are Tracy (Cameron Folmar) and Casey (Jayson Speters) celebrating America to the fullest. // Photo by Dan Norman

If that were all it was—a song and a dance and a peek into drag culture through the eyes of a straight white male—“McBride” would fall flat. Moreover, it would likely nudge past the line of entertaining and become borderline (if not fully) offensive to those for whom drag is not just a side job or creative outlet, but an identity, comfort zone, livelihood, and family.

Fortunately, it’s that side of drag that “McBride” highlights and successfully communicates. “McBride” costume designer and internationally known drag queen Patrick Holt (aka Tempest DuJour) says that the show is less about the fact that Casey is a straight man doing drag, and more about what Casey learns about himself and those around him in the process. “Sexuality doesn’t matter to me; it’s the commitment to the art,” Holt says. “You need to know who came before you and why, and show me you’re willing to commit to this art form. […] You need to find your voice and your brand.”

Holt has been doing drag seriously for about 12 years, including a brief stint on season seven of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” He’s the head of the costume design department at the University of Arizona’s School of Theatre, Film & Television and also freelances as a costume designer and performs as Tempest DuJour whenever and wherever possible.

While Holt started doing drag for reasons more catty than cultural—“I was the guy in the back of the show saying, ‘I could do better than that,’” he laughs—eventually he discovered something much more impactful within the artform. “There’s a culture to drag; it’s not just putting on a dress. There’s a place for everyone in drag,” he says. “That’s one of the great things about it: drag is a family—it offers family. It also offers performance, yeah, and it’s nice to have people applaud for you, but more importantly it’s a place to feel safe and not judged. Within the drag community, there’s a lot of discussion about what is legitimate or not. That’s bullshit. It’s for everyone.”

Well, almost everyone: “There’s a line in the play that I love,” Holt says. “It’s when Rexy [one of the drag queens] says, ‘Drag’s a lot of things, but it’s not for sissies.’”

“McBride” director and Guthrie Theater associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza agrees. “You have to be honest in drag. You’re exposing a lot of yourself; it’s incredibly vulnerable,” he says. And that—discovering one’s true self—is the key to the whole show. “The ultimate conflict for Casey, beyond understanding queer history and how drag fits into the lineage of gay history and its deeply political nature, is when his wife Jo says to him, ‘You need to know who you are to yourself, your wife, and your friends,’” Meanza explains.

At one point late in the show, Rexy lays into Casey for thinking of drag as little more than something akin to a role in a musical, explaining with no lack of directness that drag was—and is—her saving grace as a gay boy growing up in a conservative small town. “That’s me,” Rexy says at the end of her speech. “Who the fuck are you?”

Director Jeffrey Meanza says the creative team edited the script to add a number for Rexy (played by Arturo Soria). “I was adamant that Rexy have that moment. It is so important for understanding who Rexy is.” // Photo by Dan Norman

Meanza did drag for six months when he was in his 20s, playing Cleopatra in “Cleopatra! The Musical.” While Meanza had done plenty of musical theater before that, he says drag was a completely different experience. “I wasn’t a very good drag queen,” he admits. “But it was good exposure to camp and camp performance, and to understanding my body in a different way. As a performer who had done musical theater but not drag, I became fascinated with the art form itself and the political nature of it.”

As for what made his role as drag-queen Cleopatra so different from other roles, Meanza says it was a combination of things. “The performative quality required for drag is so heightened. You’re figuring out who your drag persona is within the context of a play—there were a lot of moments within the piece where I had to make a choice about: ‘Who is this Cleopatra drag queen? What does it mean? What is that persona?’ It was just different than working on something more traditional within a set of circumstances in a play.”

This experience became one of many tools Meanza used to cast “McBride” and help each of the actors find his drag identity. Holt was even more of a teacher to the cast, aiding them in everything from how to “put on their faces” to how to walk in heels, and answering any and all questions they had along the way. “I was a mentor and a costume designer; I was really lucky,” Holt says. “The first time I spoke with the cast, there were a lot of questions about drag and my experience. There are so many levels of drag and styles, and this show isn’t Vegas or Los Angeles drag; it’s small town Florida drag. I helped figure out what the limits and parameters of that were to make it feel authentic.”

By the time rehearsals wrapped and the show opened, the cast had bonded deeply over their shared deep-dives into the world of drag. “The cast has messaged me and written me lovely letters about how much they’ve been changed by the whole thing,” Holt says. “That’s what makes this worthwhile. It’s amazing. It’s the whole family thing that drag offers—that theater offers.”

Being part of that family extends beyond the stage and into the audience, too, as they go with Casey on his journey from being a one-dimensional Elvis impersonator to a thoughtful, genuine, empathetic man who now has two separate but deeply connected identities. As Meanza puts it, “The play transcends the trappings of, ‘Oh, drag is just a bunch of gay people,’ to revealing to the audience that it’s all about being true to who you are.”

Through Casey, we as the audience are invited to broaden our understanding not only of what drag is, but what it represents. Acceptance, respect, inclusivity, identity: these are not topics easily discussed, let alone embodied and empathetically offered to our fellow human. And while a show like “McBride” doesn’t solve all the issues of bigotry and close-mindedness that plague society, it at least opens the door to a new perspective and a deeper conversation. Whether audience members choose to sit back and enjoy the applaudable performances and feel-good vibes of the two-hour show or go a step further and allow the messages to strike a more vulnerable chord is up to them. The invitation is there for the accepting.

Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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