Rally the Troupes drag show comes to Mills College

on September 20, 2011

A man dressed in jeans and a t-shirt kneels on the ground, his hands held at an awkward angle by the chains that bind him to a drag king who is standing behind him wearing a sharp suit. Like a marionette, he is forced to bring his trembling hands to his face and smoke. The scene unfolds next to a 4-foot cardboard replica of a cigarette, as Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe” blares from the speakers.

In another scene, four drag queens wearing animal masks tear them off defiantly as the Lady Gaga lyrics, “Baby, I was born this way,” play in the background.

Burlesque dancer La Chica Boom performs at the Rally the Troupes show at Mills College.

In another, a drag queen dressed in a business suit stands on the edge of the stage and lets large pieces of paper slip to the ground, bearing words like “pink slip” and “credit card bill” as Depression-era images play on a projector screen.

The audience cheers, laughs, gasps, and as the show, Rally the Troupes VII, continues, “gender” gets harder and harder to define.

The performers, who have been doing this show in San Francisco for the last seven years, brought their show to an Oakland venue for the first time on Friday night: a large concert hall at Mills College. Each Rally the Troupes show is a compilation of drag and burlesque routines, designed to bring social justice issues to the forefront. With loud, over-the-top dance performances and social commentary, the acts touch upon issues of gender, politics and identity. Not all the performers are dressed in drag, but all are there to convey a message.

For performer and co-producer Krista Smith, the performance “is not just to celebrate difference, but also to look at exploring justice and equality,” she said. “It can be really hard to talk about racism, sexism, but music gives you a way to do that.”

Rally the Troupes began seven years ago when a group of performers, disillusioned with the American government’s war on terror, decided to say something about it. The result was an anti-war performance staged in a bar to N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye”—in comedic fashion, it showed young boys being recruited by the military and remembered Ainsley Hill, who goes by the stage name Drew Montana, one of the first performers and producers. “It was our call to rally our progressive troops,” said Smith.

After that first performance, Drew Montana’s crew, the Transformers, decided to take on politically motivated performances on a bigger scale. They applied for a grant from The San Francisco Queer Arts Festival and, drawing from performers in the community, came up with a longer set list of similar acts.

As the show gained popularity and began to be recognized for tackling serious issues, others joined in. Keshet Crew, a group of Jewish performers who identify themselves as “anti-Zionist trannies,” protest what they characterize as the Isreali occupation of Palestine through much of their work. At Friday night’s show, the group members walked out with their hands tied and mouths taped shut, then proceeded to “free” themselves and throw the logos of Israeli businesses down a trash bin with an Israeli flag on its side.

Rally for the Troupes co-producer Meredith Fenton, aka Star 69, performs a dance number on global warming.

Landa Lakes, a drag queen and a member of the Chickasaw tribe, uses the performance to explore what it means to be a Native American transsexual. Her crew, the Brush Arbor Gurls, consists of four Native American drag queens dressed in tribal garb, who dance and chant in a traditional manner while a projector displays historical facts. They weave together a story showing that tribal culture was not inherently opposed to transsexuals and that people only began hiding these identities in response to the “shame” that others associated with them.  

Many of the Rally the Troupes performers have lived in Oakland for years and said they had wanted to bring the show home for a while. After a random run-in with Smith at the Mills College Positive Sex Fair in March, Colleen Kimsey, the show’s student organizer, began talking about taking the show to Mills. Too young to be allowed inside a bar to watch the show, 19-year-old Kimsey had asked Smith to bring the show to people her age. “And with those words, terrible and wonderful things were started,” Kimsey said, beaming.

The producers seized the opportunity to bring the show to younger audiences, said Smith. “Artists are people who envision a perfect world,” she said, adding that she felt it was important that more people see the group’s vision.

For most of the performers in Rally the Troupes VII, including Smith—who also goes by the stage name Kentucky Fried Woman—bringing forth issues of social justice through their art is extremely important. “I hope people go out in the streets and march and rally after seeing the show,” she said.

The show usually has a broad agenda, and this year was no different; among the issues explored were racism, classism, cultural appropriation, sexism, global warming, being fat positive and being a lesbian. To Smith, this diversity means that “people see themselves reflected back on stage,” she said.

“And its fun,” continued Smith. “It’s just an over the top way of sneaking in political commentary when nobody’s looking.”

Lil Miss Hot Mess, the suit-wearing drag queen who let bills fall to the ground, ended her performance by throwing away money—a commentary on the crippling financial situation that most families have found themselves in after the recession.

Scout B Naughty (left) and friend perform a number about the hazards of smoking.

The act in which Scout B. Naughty, the smartly-dressed drag king, forced the other person to smoke was a blistering attack on the way the tobacco industry has forced the average American to become dependent on its product.

But even within the liberal audiences they encounter, members of the crew say they have had to combat stereotypes. “People think drag is just one gender dressing up as another gender,” said Drew Montana. “It’s so much more than that. It can be about men exploring different masculinities, for instance.”

Smith said she has found it hard to battle the stereotypical expectations audiences have of drag. Most people walk in expecting a raucous, campy, fun show with no underlying messages, she said. “People sometimes dismiss how passionately I feel about a certain topic. They think it’s not a big deal, that I don’t know how to have fun. But these are issues that are important to me,” she said.

Throughout the show, the atmosphere in the hall was upbeat: hooting, clapping, and laughter regularly punctuated the performances. As the crowd was exiting the hall, attendee Frances Asiedu said she had never seen a show quite like this one. “I wasn’t expecting there to be political undertones,” she said, “but it was interesting.”

Students milled about the place, some exiting toward their cars and dorms, others staying back to discuss in hushed or excited tones the show they had just seen. Kimsey was beet-red with excitement; it was the first drag show she attended, she said, and she had organized it—she couldn’t believe she had pulled off such a feat. “I feel like I just licked a unicorn,” she said. “And the unicorn liked it!”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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