A naïve perception of drag would be that it’s an illusion. That drag is all about becoming a woman with the help of a push-up and a wig, à la Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. Or that it’s about playing sexy dress up, cut to John Leguizamo in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Or it’s all “Cover Girl” strutting like longtime queen and recent television personality RuPaul who preaches the camp on cable to suburban audiences worldwide.
But to describe drag as a sexy cable television illusion is to gloss over an impressive amount of contouring, making for one broke face. Drag performance is an illusion, but on some kind of powerful steroid/estrogen/crack cocktail. A good drag performance lovingly slaps you from illusion to performance to reality with no need to tell you where you’ve been or where you’re landing next.
No one understands this dance of confusion more than Vancouver’s own Baddest Bitch Peach Cobblah and the Queen of East Van Islode N. Barron a.k.a. Dave Deveau and Cameron Mackenzie, respectively, presenting their third instalment of Tucked & Plucked at this year’s PuSh Festival. The real-life married couple, sometimes onstage duo and business partners at ZeeZee Theatre Company might not know exactly how to discern the lines between life and drag.
Described as one part Jerry Springer, one part Rosie O’Donnell Show, their production Tucked & Plucked reflects on Vancouver’s drag history as only drag queens could, with a fair amount of glitz. The show combines onstage drag performance and sit-down interviews with Vancouver’s most formative queens, combining drag drama with firsthand accounts of Vancouver’s own drag history.
This year, the show is live from Performance Works on Granville Island as part of Club PuSh, an informal get-to-know-you theatre room. “The space is a cabaret space, there is a bar right in the room, you can get up and go get a drink and please go get me one,” Mackenzie says and perhaps Isolode then pleads.
Deveau recalls the first two performances, “I like to think of them as instalments because people who saw the first Tucked & Plucked and the second instalment can certainly speak to the tremendous differences between them due to us learning about different aspects of drag history through people we interviewed and also through the room itself. Any room has an impact on how a drag performance functions, so I think the PuSh festival will be bigger and better than ever.”
The history of Vancouver drag is one hell of a wig to untangle. Bypassing all the drag that’s gone on in theatre since before Shakespeare was tucking in his breeches, Vancouver’s own lineage can get confounded and confusingly… royal. His Most Imperial Sovereign Majesty, The Empress of Canada, the LGBT leader Ted Northe founded the Canadian Court System, an organization that elects an empress at each annual ball, in 1964 in Vancouver effectively putting the “International” in the International Imperial Court System, one of the world’s largest and first gay organizations.
“We’re looking specifically at the history of drag in Vancouver, and then we have to hone that down into even more specifics. So we specifically look at the time period 1964-73, to start with. It’s in this time period when homosexuality gets decriminalized. It’s in that period that this organization (Monarchy of Canada) starts. And it’s in that period that the seed for what Vancouver’s current drag climate was planted,” Mackenzie explains.
In the mid-1960s, Vancouver’s gay and drag scene was constantly testing the waters, sticking a stocking out into the volatile waters of police raids and possibility of incarceration in order to motion to those starving for a community. Cold War-era legislation, at one time concerned with the Soviet Union, was implemented in the post-war era to tackle what was considered to be the growing homosexual threat. The law required any person to be wearing at least three items of their own gender’s clothing, “So the solution was a sock in each tit and your own boy underwear on,” Cameron cheekily announces.
And the clubs that presented these drag performances were under surveillance as well. “You couldn’t advertise that you were a gay club,” Mackenzie explains. “But the best way to advertise you were a gay club was sticking a man in a dress onstage, and any straight guy walking in would go, ‘Thank you, cheque please’ and turn around and walk out. That’s how you made these unofficial gay clubs. So that’s where the roots of these shows started coming in. Some of the clubs would do enormous full drag productions.” Deveau elaborates, “Gilbert Sullivan stuff and operetta stuff. And then you get into all of these crazy layers of a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man. A drag queen playing a male character with a moustache, but still in face.”
By 1971, infighting was rampant between the clubs, as club owners and promoters were fighting for the longest lines and the best performers. “That is where he (Ted Northe) said, ‘Enough, everybody lets get together, every bar put forward a queen and we will have this big ball and we will decide who is the queen of all of the bars.’” That year the first Coronation Ball was held at the Commodore Ballroom. Mackenzie comments on what must have been the almost palpable excitement and anxiety that night, “the energy of, ‘Is anyone going to show up? Are there going to be picketers? Oh my God, we are seeing each other for the first time. We are seeing each other as a community, and it’s not a dark bar, it’s the fucking Commodore!’”
Tucked & Plucked not only uncovers the astounding and sometimes painful history of drag and queer rights in Vancouver, the show in itself affirms the drag queen as one of the brightest and loudest rallying points in the queer community. Deveau explains, “Because a drag queen is putting on a show and has a microphone people pay attention to what she has to say more than they would if just I stood on a stage with a microphone.” Mackenzie interjects, “Plaid is not effective.”
Leave your plaid at home this year when Peach Cobblah and Isolde N. Barron take the stage to perform the most glamorous history lesson you’ve ever experienced. “Drag without the immediacy of an audience is just a sad man in a dress,” says Deveau.
“Or a happy man in a dress,” laughs Mackenzie.
Tucked & Plucked: Vancouver’s Drag Herstory Live Onstage is appearing at the PuSh Festival on January 24 as part of Club PuSh at Performance Works (1218 Cartwright Street). For more information visit www.pushfestival.ca
By Alison Sinkewicz