Saturday night I ventured down to Eliot Hall in Jamaica Plain to attend a fundraiser show for All The Kings Men. As a Boston performer in the alterna-sexy scene, I like supporting anyone who's willing to try out some new kind of performance. Okay, drag isn't "new." Women dressing up in male drag isn't at all new. Nothing about this show was really new--I'd seen most of the numbers before. But the reason why it strikes me as such is actually kind of complex.
When I lived and worked in the much more mainstream-sexy scene in L.A., performers who did comedic routines, and especially comedic routines that involved comments on gender, were not as respected as those who could do reasonably well-enacted plagiarisms of the Pussy Cat Dolls' music videos. It was somehow more important for dancers to attempt to live up to the hetero-normative gender ideals than to question them, play with them, or, God forbid, defy them. This ultimately got exhausting for me, even as I participated by dancing in shows that glorified the ultra-feminine. What's exhausting is just the lack of diversity in that scene.
Hence, my sense of the Kings Men as being "new." In a sort of historic reality, they are accessing many years of gender discourse, especially the very fun queer theory subfield of gender performance. But for someone who has seen a shitload of dancers and drag queens and performance art and sketch comedy and DIY burlesque, ATKM are a treat.
They aren't perfect--most of them can dance, most of them can act. A few of their sketches are a little cluttered. But when they're on, when they've hit something topical and perfect and uncomfortable and odd, and when their energy is high, they're an absolute delight. They did an incredible version of "SexyBack" that had moments of simple spoofing Hollywood video-dance, moments of actual sexiness, moments of seat-squirming chemistry between performers, and moments of just great unison choreography.
One of my favorites is "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," where two Men are dressed in jeans and T-shirts, obsessively combing their hair. The song is a gay anthem, yes, but these two dudes are totally not gay. At least, not at first. During the course of the song their attraction builds, and by the end everyone is cheering at their onstage kiss and adorable chase-my-ass exit. Women, dressed as closeted gay men, who then out themselves to fall in love. That ATKM can demonstrate the affectations of every sex/gender permutation--and it's true that a stereotypical feminine girl moves her body differently than a stereotypical flaming gay man--is not only impressive, it's hilarious.
They call themselves "Drag-based" performance, which is a great turn of phrase. One of their performers (almost?) never appears in drag--she's got long curly locks and plays the femme/female whenever one is needed. Their finale is a lip-synched "Thriller," which not only showcases their strongest performer (as Michael, of course) but gets all of them, as asexual zombies, dancing the absolutely MOST unsexified dance that ever made it big time on TV. Sure, there's pelvic thrusting, but it's Michael style--no real object, no real implied penis, and the "women zombies" in the original video do it too. The only one in obvious drag in that number is the one who plays Jackson, and his embodiment is perfect--nuanced with Jackson's very idiosyncratic mix of gendered movements--now macho, now effeminate, now something robotic and without genitalia.
So I like ATKM because they're good, and I like them because whether they mean to or not, they change the nature of the dialogue surrounding gender and peformance by reminding their audience of the incredibly varied, even infinite ways to enact/show/wear/embody sexuality, without its being tied up in male/male, male/female, female/female categories. You have no idea who's straight, gay, bi, trans, or some other more complicated, unlabeled sexual being, while you're watching. And it doesn't matter. You are allowed to want or not want them all.
This isn't just about the ultimate acceptance of the diversity of human sexuality, it's about getting everyone to take a closer look at their own costume, every day.