I was probably around 8 years old at the time back home in Puerto Rico. I liked school. It was fun to be around other kids and learn new things. By that time, I was already fond of art, since my grandmother was a pretty well-known politically charged oil painter in the island, and my parents took me to an art class for kids on Saturday mornings. I had also played the part of a “jibarito” (a native farmer) in a kindergarten dance presentation, but other than that, I hadn’t really been exposed to Theatre.
Our class teacher let us know that next Friday we were going to the Teatro Tapia in Old San Juan to see the children’s musical Rock’O’Landia. On that day, we took a big school bus to the theater, got there, and lined up in single file to get into the building. It was so beautiful. The red cushioned seats all in rows, the ornate designs of the proscenium and balcony. The drama of it all!
We take our seats, they dim the lights, we all scream of course, and the giant main curtain magically rises, revealing a massive tree with shiny golden apples. As I type these words, I can still vividly see in my mind the glittery texture of the apples, as well as the fairytale characters that sang and danced all over that wooden stage. It was like a live action cartoon episode, but way better. There were 7 non-gender specific rock singing goats and a princess belting a pop ballad, I even remember the catchy melodies and lyrics. Then their version of the Big Bad Wolf popped up on stage. He was extremely campy, face painted, strutting around like a mix of David Bowie and Mick Jagger, but Puerto Rican. If this is what Theatre was, then sign me up. I was completely enthralled by what was happening in front of me, we all were. We laughed, tried to sing along, clapped, screamed some more, and above all, we had fun. When I got home, I asked my mom to get me the album (yup, in vinyl) so I could learn all the songs. They all had a positive message of self-love, teamwork, kindness towards others, and an invitation to be your true self. I consider this to be the event that sparked my interest in having a career in the Arts.
Theatre has been an essential part of human culture since Greek times, possibly earlier. People seek an escape from their everyday lives, be it our jobs, our emotional state, other people in our lives, ourselves. We can go see a play, and transport our minds to another realm and reality, resulting in a healing experience human beings need and crave. Drag is unquestionably a form of Theatre that should be celebrated and respected as such. Theatre is Drag. Drag is Theatre.
Recently, our country has been exposed as sorely polarized regarding the topic of Drag and its impact on children and the general public. Nationwide threats and attacks to the Queer and Trans communities have been on the rise, jeopardizing our safety and mere existence. The word grooming has been thrown around in connection to Drag story time and live presentations, which made me immediately search for the definition of the word in order to grasp what they are talking about. “Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit, and abuse them. Children and young people who are groomed can be sexually abused, exploited, or trafficked. Anybody can be a groomer, no matter their age, gender, or race.”
Drag and theatrical artists are not intending to brainwash children into wearing makeup or putting on a pair of heels. We are simply encouraging the new generation of kids to have the freedom to explore their identity through emotions, with no boundaries or restrictions. Arts and culture enrich human lives by celebrating individuality, self-expression, and social connections.
We have all seen the viral memes pointing out how Americans have been thoroughly entertained by Drag in TV and film, but now it’s a problem. The stage has also served as a vessel for Queer, Trans, and Drag stories to reach audiences all over the world. These important works define a generation and must continue to exist. I have compiled a list of some iconic Queer moments, shows, and narratives in Theatre that have moved and shaped generations of Dramatic Arts lovers.
It is well documented that during Elizabethan times, the Theatrical texts were only to be performed by men, leaving male presenting actors of the time to perform plays, like most of Shakespeare’s, in Drag. These men (usually adolescents because of their less developed features deeming them more convincing as females) were revered for their work on stage.
Countertenors and castrati
Opera is another genre that is no stranger to Drag and gender bending in their productions. Countertenors are cis gender males who have the ability to sing in a high Soprano range, typically achieved by cis females. Composers like Handel and Monteverdi, have an extensive catalog featuring countertenor features. To the other extreme, castrati, or men who have been neutered at a young age to maintain their higher pitched vocals and sing these difficult pieces. A lot of their performances were linked to the Vatican church, who used them to perform in choral works and early Italian Opera.
Arguably the birth of intentional Drag in Theatre for the purpose of storytelling rooted in gender. It is believed that the term Drag originated during this time, because men would literally drag elaborate long costumes when strutting across the stage.
The European movements, like Commedia dell’arte, influenced Panto greatly in the development of gender bending characters who create tension and comedy in their narrative. All completely socially acceptable and welcomed at the time. Acclaimed works followed, like Peter Pan, that typically featured a cis gender woman in the title role.
The 20th Century
This Vaudevillian times sparked the interest of Americans in Theatre, and with it came over the top comedy, elaborate costumes, magical props, burlesque performers, and yes, you guessed it, Drag. Especially post-World War II, the merging of film and stage was undeniable, a cultural phenomenon that introduced gender crossing pieces like Pacific Overtures, that explored the Japanese art of Kabuki, Victor Victoria, Cabaret, and classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The Queer community is a vital part of this rich and complex art. Film director John Waters revolutionized the industry with bigger than life films featuring famous Drag queen Divine, in movies like Hairspray, which eventually made its way to the Broadway stage. Gay themed La Cage Aux Folles mesmerized audiences and critics, winning 6 Tonys including Best Musical. A plethora of contemporary shows include Queer and Drag characters in their plot, bringing our stories to the light. Some of these shows, which would be illegal to perform in several states if this ban comes into effect, are Rent, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Head Over Heels, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jamie, just to name a few.
It is necessary for the new generation to experience Theatre in all its glory. The beautiful, the uncomfortable, the politically drenched, the visually captivating, the camp, the historical drama, the Drag. I truly believe that part of what shaped me as an actor and a contributing member of society is rooted in my early life experiences with Theatre. Letting my imagination run free, believing that perhaps in the future I could be up there picking golden apples off a majestic tree, while spreading a message of love, acceptance, inclusion, and kindness.