It’s 10:30 on a Thursday night at The Jazzhaus on Massachusetts street, and the drag show is about to begin. The host, Ms. Amanda Love, is introduced as patrons file into the bar. Wearing a bedazzled pink dress, a black wig and extravagant makeup, Love takes the stage and begins performing with high leg kicks in heels while strutting down the aisles and mingling with the crowd. Cracking jokes and rallying the crowd, Love sets the stage for what has become a beloved weekly event for both the performers and crowd for over two years.
Drag performances have entered the mainstream in recent years, including in Lawrence. A culture of opportunities has developed for LGBTQ+ members to express themselves through drag performance at a place that accepts them for who they are. The culture created at The Jazzhaus has drawn University of Kansas students – and not just to watch. Full-time students have taken advantage of open shows offered on the first Thursday of each month to perform their own interpretations of drag as an art. The Jazzhaus hosts drag shows every Thursday night.
The Jazzhaus shows are not RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality television show where performers compete against one another. At The Jazzhaus, there’s no competition. It’s more about performing in a welcoming environment. But what does performing in drag actually mean?
A brief history of drag
Drag queens are most commonly men who entertain audiences dressed in women’s clothing and wear dramatic makeup. Modern drag performances usually include clips of songs that the performer lip syncs to while dancing and interacting with the crowd. But men performing as women as an art dates back to Shakespeare.
In early theater women were not permitted to act, so men would dress and act the woman’s part in plays. Most famously Shakespeare’s plays involved men donning dresses and performing the female roles. It wasn’t called drag then, but the art form grew over time to mean more than just men performing women’s roles.
In the 1960s drag as entertainment and an art form interwove itself into the LGBTQ+ community during a decade that included riots at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York where patrons and performers fought against police during a raid. The Stonewall riots were considered the turning point for gay rights in America. Today, drag is typically performed by gay cisgender men, but it has expanded to include more groups of people.
Nathan Stitt, who performs as Ms. Amanda Love, organizes all the drag shows at The Jazzhaus and performs regularly as well. It’s his full-time job. He worked at the University before quitting to pursue performing full time. The result has been the only regular drag show in Lawrence for the last two years. Stitt, 31, just wanted a place in Lawrence where he could perform. But Thursday nights at The Jazzhaus have become much more for both him and the LGBTQ+ community, where he says he has become a leader.
His acceptance of all prospective performers attracted students too. Stitt sought performers to fill his weekly shows, and undergraduate students at the University saw opportunities. Stitt hosts open shows once a month. Anyone can sign up to perform, and it’s relatively low pressure. It’s a learning experience; nobody expects anybody to be perfect.
When Cody Murray, a University senior from Hutchinson, opens the door to his apartment, he is already halfway done with his makeup. Remnants of old costumes and different colored wigs are scattered around the living room. Upstairs, the mirror and dresser are littered with various makeup palettes. Tonight’s look? Pebbles from the Flintstones. He’s getting ready for a performance in Kansas City’s Drag Survivor, a weekly theme-show competition. Tonight’s theme is Saturday morning cartoons.
Murray first performed in drag at an open show at The Jazzhaus when he was a freshman.
“On days I perform I kind of take over the apartment,” he says. Luckily his roommate doesn’t mind, and she often helps him get ready and goes to see him perform.
Performing at The Jazzhaus led him to explore performing in places like Wichita and Kansas City. He credits The Jazzhaus and Stitt for allowing him to perform and seek more opportunities.
There are no gay bars in Lawrence and, Murray says, few opportunities for queer students to gather on campus. What Stitt has created and The Jazzhaus offers on Thursday nights is unique to the city, Murray says: off campus, 18 and over and completely accepting of both performers and patrons. The number one rule Ms. Amanda Love tells the crowd before the show: “Don’t be an asshole.”
The acceptance Stitt promotes at The Jazzhaus allows for more people to feel comfortable attending and performing in shows. For Benjamin Wagner, a senior from Wichita, it means even more. Wagner is transgender, but started performing before he came out.
“I wasn’t out of the closet as transgender yet, so it seemed like a good way for me to explore masculinity and have people see me as a man,” Wagner says.
Wagner now performs as a drag king, a less common role in drag shows, by dressing and doing his makeup to appear more as masculine. He says it increased his confidence in himself and allowed him to experiment with gender boundaries as a performer. Wagner wanted to perform, and through performing he learned more about himself.
“There are not a lot of other places to perform and she [Ms. Amanda Love] is very welcoming,” Wagner says. “It’s really cool having her as an advocate for students in the drag world.”
Stephen Fuss, a senior from Merriam, originally started performing to teach audiences about other types of music. Drag performers typically use popular songs that are recognizable to the audience. In one performance, Fuss uses Finnish opera and the stage to act out the story of the song. Fuss is non-binary, and the shows help Fuss express and explore Fuss’s feminine nature.
“I’ve always known I was super feminine, and Viola, who’s my drag persona, is an embodiment of everything feminine for me,” Fuss says. “I can take some of the stuff she does and apply it to me currently.”
Part of discovering oneself through drag is creating the drag name, and drag queens love puns. Murray becomes Ms. Eda Bull (Pronounced edi-ble). That was recommended by a Facebook commenter. Fuss’s drag name is a hodgepodge of things from Fuss’s life. Viola Faith Carter. Viola, because Fuss plays the violin. Faith, for a name tag that Fuss found at a summer camp, and Carter because that’s the street Fuss grew up on. Wagner’s drag king persona is more a political statement. He performs as Dyke Pence.
“I also do a number where I dress up as Mike Pence and do Son of a Preacher Man and then halfway through I tear off my pants and I’ve got fishnets underneath,” Wagner says. “It’s always fun to see people’s reactions to that.”
Every performer has their own personas. Some try to be sexy, some funny and others serious. That’s part of the purpose of drag. It’s interpretive.
“We do drag to kind of show everyone you can be who you want to be,” Stitt says.
The result for Stitt has been almost a grassroots revolution of the drag scene in Lawrence with weekly shows featuring a wide variety of performers all performing for different reasons.
“It allows people to feel comfortable and it allows people who see it to not blink twice about it,” Stitt says.