Three men and a woman showed the library is about more than just books when they transformed themselves into another gender for the Durham County Library’s fourth annual drag show.
“I do all kinds of humanities programs,” said Jenny Levine, director of humanities and adult programs for the library. “This is a performance, and it’s a huge part of the Durham community now. And it raises awareness for the library.”
Drag queen Stormie Daie served as the host of the free event at the Durham Arts Council, kicking things off in a Santa-style dress, bright green wig and high-heel platform black boots that almost came up to her knees. Nearly 100 people filled the theater.
Next, Naomi Dix lip-synced to an Ariana Grande song in a pink leotard with fuzzy sleeves, pink high heels and a blonde wig. She led the audience in clapping along to the rhythm as she went up into the theater to interact with audience members.
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The event’s only drag king, Spray J, was next, coming out in a gold suit, gold sneakers and a captain’s cap, with a painted on pencil-thin mustache to lip-sync to “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars. Spray J said after the show that his look is reminiscent of Prince’s.
“I love music and I love to perform,” Spray J said after the show, “and I’ve always been interested in thinking about and playing with gender. So it’s a nice way to bring those all together.”
Daie changed costumes during J’s performance, coming back out in a yellow-green dress with silver platform high heels, a look she joked was “Christmas meets St. Patrick’s Day circa 1972.”
Next up was Vivian Vaughn, who wore a black leotard with white trim and a black, white and silver tail.
Then Dix came back out in a black dress and an auburn wig with a yellow bow and performed to “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown.
“You can go back work tomorrow morning,” Daie joked, “and tell everybody you saw these pretty men dressed up as women, and they all sounded like Barry White,” the late singer known for his deep voice.
J also returned to the stage, wearing a top hat and tails. He took off his coat, tie and cummerbund as he performed to “Beans and Cornbread” by Louis Jordan.
Daie was the evening’s final performer, donning an ankle-length green sequin dress and lip-syncing to “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey.
‘Being who you are’
After the show, the performers hung around in the lobby to take pictures with audience members.
Tracy Hamilton, who’s now 48, said she had been attending drag shows since she was a teenager in New Jersey and had a friend who would dress up as Patti Labelle. “I just love the artistry of it,” she said. “I love the skill. I love the confidence, being who you are.”
Thomas B. Jones said he liked the sense of family that comes with drag.
“I’m gay,” he said, “and it gives me something to do with people like me,” he said. “There were old people, young people, black people, blue people. The diversity was great. It’s so fun.”
Host Daie said she has been performing in drag for four years, “but I prefer not to calculate too much. That requires me to look at old photos.”
Daie filled in as host at the last minute after her “drag mother,” Vivica C. Coxx, the one who schooled her in the drag scene, fell ill.
“I had a great time,” Daie said. “I’m glad the Durham Arts Council is supporting us.”
Daie and her “drag family” also perform every second Saturday of the month at the Pinhook nightclub in downtown Durham.
The word “drag” comes from the literal drag on a gown as it sweeps across the floor, says Michelle Robinson, an assistant professor of American studies, who spoke at the library’s first drag show three years ago.
In the 1860s, minstrel performer Rollin Howard became famous for female blackface impersonations. At the end of the shows, the performers removed their wigs to reveal their true gender, she says, “restoring order.”
In the early 1900s, Bert Savoy became a huge burlesque star, performing as a red-haired harlot. Mae West borrowed heavily, turning his line “You must come over” into her signature, “Come up and see me sometime.”
The 1950s challenged drag queens. Laws in some cities dictated men’s club attire and police raids rounded up offenders.
By the end of the decade, though, drag had gone Hollywood, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis donning dresses in “Some Like It Hot,” while the ’60s made a star of Divine, in director John Waters’ cult classics “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble” (and as Ricki Lake’s mother Edna Turnblad in the 1988 version of Waters’ “Hairspray.”)
And then came RuPaul, Robinson says, the recording artist, reality show host (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”) and LGBT activist, who has said, ‘You’re born naked, and all the rest is drag.”
But famous or not, because they create their persona, drag queens pose a provocative question, she explains:
“What would the world be like if every individual had the prerogative to determine how the world saw them?”
Staff writer Mark Schultz