The Illinois Humanities Council's 2014 "Now What?" series has played host to spirited discussions in venues across the city with headliners and experts weighing in on array of topics that are shaping U.S. business, culture and politics from the rise and proliferation of social media to equality and the role of democracy in public education.
On Sept. 3, the fourth and penultimate conversation filled The Empty Bottle bar in Ukrainian Village to capacity. Focused upon drag performance and its impact upon perceptions of gender alongside the artistic disciplines of theatre and music, Illinois Humanities Council ( IHC ) Executive Director Angel Ysaguirre posed and fielded questions from an enthusiastic audience to two drag artistsJustin Honard and Daniel Alexander Jones. Both appeared as themselves rather than as their characters.
Honardwho began his performance days in theaterrecalled always gravitating to girls' clothes "because they are fun and prettier" and so felt the call to become a drag queen during a 22nd-birthday visit to the San Francisco event "Trannyshack"which is currently in the process of being renamed. He described his character of Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 ( a name based on a potent, lemon-scented strain of marijuana ) as an alien from the planet Glamtron who crash-landed on earth.
These days, she "whores" around the planet social climbing in the gay community, making music videos and not quite winning season five of RuPaul's Drag Race while swallowing up the required amount of Twitter followers to repair her ship. An unfortunate incident with a single ice-cube led to Thunderfuck recently donating 120 one-dollar bills to the ALS association. "I don't know where that came from" Honard admitted in describing how he got the idea for the character. "It was channeled. I was reading about Daniel's work as Jomama and how [she] takes the passenger seat and takes over."
That takeover began for Jones at the age of 25, when he was living in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. He discovered Patrick's Cabaretan experimental performance space in the city that specifically encourages work from artists of color, as well as those who are LGBTQ or have disabilities. According to Jones, the cabaret's founder Patrick Scully "opened his doors to anybody who wanted to try something." Thus, Jones created a performance piece that was inspired by his impassioned love of the legendary television series "Soul Train."
His character of Jomama Jones "came out of the ether," he said. "She was very concerned with herself and the story that emerged was that she was receiving a lifetime achievement award from Don Cornelius." Jomama declined the award refusing to allow Cornelius to put her in a "career graveyard."
Jones did not perform as Jomama for the next two years.
After a miserable break-up and with his career as a playwright and performance artist at a standstill, depression had set in when Jones said he heard Jomama's voice in his head. "She was like 'it's my turn, give me the reins'," Jones recalled. "She saved my life."
Jomama is described as a former teen R&B music star who fell from grace when the record company asked her to straighten her hair. That incident plus disagreement with the policies of Ronald Reagan caused her self-imposed exile to Switzerland where she spent her days shoe shopping with Tina Turner and raising goats. She eventually returned to the United Stated to record the album "Radiate." In 2011alongside backup singers The Sweet Peachesher live concert opened at the Soho Repertory Theatre in New York. The New York Times hailed it as "hard not to surrender to this sequin-encrusted earth mother's soulful embrace."
Ysaguirre attempted to determine the relationship between the drag character and performer. "Justin is pretty measured, zen and calm," Honard replied. "I think the Alaska thing is a release valve. We all have that inside of usunbridled chaos and madness. You can really turn on the levels and let it go."
In doing so, Honard wants his character to inspire both laughter and happiness from her audience. "I want people to feel like it's OK to be weird, to not be afraid of that and to celebrate it and to feel less alone in the world," he said.
Jomama refers to Daniel simply as "her poor cousin." On the other hand, Daniel has said that Jomama comes from a distinguished lineage of artists from the '70s and '80s such as Diana Ross and Minnie Riperton that today is a vanishing breed. "They represented a certain kind of blackness that I don't see much now," he said. "It was eroded and you don't see the diversity of representation of Black women that you ironically did then. Black music at that time didn't just function as entertainment, it was nourishment for a community to reflect upon itself. How can we reclaim the fact that beauty comes in a lot of shapes, sizes and textures?"
A member of the audience asked how both characters related to the trans* and post gender-movement. After mulling that over for a moment, Horton replied that Thunderfuck identifies herself as an alien woman with a penis. "She doesn't fit into a gender normal classification," he said. "Does that make her a trans* person? She's, like, gender-variant."
"I feel like my trans* friends have totally blown my mind open," Jones said, "and challenged me to go to a level of digging up the roots of my own assumptions of gender."
Honard said he believes RuPaul's Drag Race has widened public perceptions of drag. "A lot more people know what drag is," he stated. "It's a performance thing you're doing on the stage. I think it makes people feel more able to express themselves however they want to."
During the recent contentious debate regarding offensive terminology used in RuPaul's program, Thunderfuck expressed herself with a video that appeared to show noted trans* commentator Parker Molloy being assassinated. Horton eventually apologized and removed it. Off stage, he acknowledged to Windy City Times that the video was a reactionary decision. "It was stupid, harmful and it was wrong on my part," he said.
Horton added that there is a common ground between drag artists and the trans* community that could spur ongoing conversation. "A lot of the trans* people I'm friends with are also performers," he said. "Gender is performance. We have a lot more in common than we think and if anybody wants to talk about that with me I'm here to listen and I'm here to talk because I don't want us to be fighting. I think that we should all work together to make the world a better place."
When Ysaguirre raised the opinion of some that drag reinforces female stereotypes an audience member commented that women aren't given the "in your face" platform a lot of drag queens enjoy.
Jones replied that he was raised by lesbian feminist artists who would not accept the banal theatrical roles usually being written for female actors. "These women who raised me up in theatre said 'I want to tell my story'," Jones recalled. "Nobody gave me this platform. I made this platform. I made it with blood sweat and tears. So make your platform. Nobody needs to give you damned permission. Take the stage, because it's yours."
The discussion was followed by drag and drag inspired performances curated by the underground art group Salonathon with music by Baathhouse and Big Dipper.
For more information about the Illinois Humanities Council, visit www.prairie.org/ .