Author: Patrick Salvani
Sometimes reality fuckin’ sucks and we don’t get a chance to dream. But tonight, people who you’ve never seen on a stage before – some are those wallflowers you never hear speak, some who never got a chance to imagine themselves in drag, or those who only imagined themselves in drag – are taking the stage. 12 weeks through the Dragulator and now it’s your chance to see them for who they are. They are Superstars and I couldn’t be more proud. So tonight is OUR night to take the spotlight. We’re dreaming our own Halloween, and oh yah it’s gonna be sweet!
— Opening introduction of Requiem for a Dream – The Halloween Drag Musical, 2013
The Drag Musical is the biggest queer and trans Black and youth of colour performance program and showcase in Toronto, in Ontario, and perhaps in Canada, if not the universe. Since its beginnings, more than 1500 LGBT youth have experienced it and have had their lives changed as a result. It was birthed out of my love for the Queer and Trans People of Colour (QTPOC) community and began as a solidarity initiative of Asian Arts Freedom School (AAFS), a school where Asian youth could explore their history and radicalize their future through writing, multimedia and performance. Since then, the Drag Musical has continued to take us in directions we never dreamed of.
In 2009, I was facilitating an AAFS writing cycle along with Yaya Yao and, through our outreach efforts, we saw a shift in participant demographics – from university-educated second generation children of the diaspora to immigrants whose first language was not English. We also saw an increase of queer, trans, and gender non-conforming Asians coming to the space, even though AAFS was not created specifically for queer people, with sometimes thirty participants attending weekly. In order to create more accessible programming, a lot of our “writing” activities included theatre, movement, meditations, illustrations, and dance. So, we were in essence the worst writing facilitators ever.
Another moment that sparked the Drag Musical was when I was attending a QTPOC show at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Bearing witness to people of colour sharing their personal stories through performance and art felt to me like a hug from family – comforting, powerful, and at times emotionally challenging. This apparently was not the case for everyone; I remember seeing a large group of LGBT Black and Latino immigrants and refugees from a local community program get up and leave mid show. I learned later that they weren’t connecting to the performances because they found them too abstract, and their use of political language too inaccessible.
Connecting those dots made me see an opportunity for our queer community to grow. As performers, we are often told by theatre professionals and fellow artists not to care about the audience when we perform so it doesn’t interfere with our art, both on stage and off stage during the creation process. The audience owes us, not the other way around, because we put our stories and work out there. But for shows that are created by and for the queer community, this relationship is far more complex and I have always considered it to be reciprocal.
Soon, together with Yaya Yao, who was unimaginably creative, a true inspiration and a warrior, the Drag Musical was conceptualized. At that time, we weren’t politicized the way that we are now and didn’t have the words to articulate the radical politics behind it. We didn’t have any idea what the Drag Musical would become but we knew it would be something special. One of our intentions was to build solidarity with communities of colour other than Asian ones for the first time in AAFS history. We approached AAFS Co-Founder and Artistic Director Gein Wong with our idea, and she responded with excitement; we were grateful for her belief in us. She worked exceptionally hard to garner funding through grants, and together we organized fundraising initiatives including, of course, parties. Soon enough, we had raised enough money for the Drag Musical to come to life.
Like to perform?
Interested in exploring song, movement, and theatre?
Curious about playing with the lines between “feminine” and “masculine”?
— Excerpt from the Drag Musical Call for Applications, 2009
The Drag Musical has been a community building initiative since the beginning – we wanted to welcome new people who haven’t had access to the queer and trans of colour community and anti-oppression language. And to practice that, we had to understand that language can be simultaneously empowering and unwelcoming. We had to proactively remove the barriers that keep people from participating. This included using accessible language in the call out of the program and we continue to emphasize that till this day.
If AAFS was to make a sincere effort to build solidarity beyond Asian communities, we had to make some changes in our design and process. We needed to first recognize that inviting people to ‘find freedom together’ out of mere passion or beliefs wasn’t enough. We knew that we had to pay people to take part because community building and art making is work and should not go unpaid. As such, the Drag Musical became the first AAFS program that paid participants. Secondly, we knew that we needed to reach people where they were, that they wouldn’t simply find us just because we existed. We made an effort to connect with and recruit youth who had less access to paid programs like ours. We did outreach outside of the downtown areas, including Scarborough, North York, and Mississauga, visited youth groups and community centres, and provided workshops at Gay Straight Alliances and various conferences that were on anti-racism, about youth and newcomers, and ethnic-culturally specific. We forged partnerships across communities including one with The 519, from which we received not only in-kind donations of space and supplies, but also outreach support from an organization that was located in the core of the gay village, which facilitated our direct outreach to LGBT street involved youth and newcomers. Thirdly, we clarified our political vision: a priority of our work became to combat systemic violence against Black and Indigenous peoples here on Turtle Island, as well as globally. Central to the Drag Musical is the belief that it is imperative for us to center the voices of queer, trans and gender nonconforming people, as well as searching for the stories that will set us free from our inheritances of cultural and gendered violence. The Drag Musical was a space for youth to explore their gender and and feel more comfortable in their bodies. Many youth expressed that the Drag Musical provided a supportive space for them to explore their trans identity. Throughout the history of the Drag Musical, there has always been paid positions for Black and trans leadership. As of summer 2017, the current Directors are Franny Moreno, a Latinx trans women, and Kamika Peters who identifies as Black femme.
The Drag Musical is imbued with the strength and lessons of our ancestors and elders. Throughout the seven years of the Musical, the first workshop has always been about getting to know one another and how we got here. From Freedom Schools, to Sylvia Rivera, the Harlem Ball Scene, Colour me Dragg, and AAFS, participants got an interactive and performative radical drag history lesson. For the inaugural Drag Musical we hired our first Drag Mentor, Chase Tam, the Co-founder of Colour Me Dragg, a drag and burlesque show of queer and trans performers of colour that was started in 2007, and Song Mentor, LAL, comprised of Rosina Kazi and Nicholas Murr. In the following years we worked with Ill Nana DiverseCity Dance Company, and past participants Franny Moreno and Afi Browne, who was a participant in Cycle 1 of the Drag Musical in 2010 and the founder of Krafty Queers, as our Drag and Movement Mentors. This became how we formed our team; we began prioritizing hiring past participants to be Co-Directors of the Program – Heidi Cho for Cycle 2 and 3, Nadine Forde for Cycle 4, and Kamika Peters and Franny Moreno for Cycle 6. Each participant/alumnus carries the principles of community building that are at the heart of the program, and the history of the Drag Musical itself.
The way the program works is that, over three months, each participant develops a drag persona in a space that invites and supports them to explore and explode constructs of gender. Together the participants share home cooked food while trying on makeup, practicing their runway skills and sharing the stories that made them who they are today. By facilitating the telling and witnessing of stories and experiences that have been silenced, and creating a Drag Musical together, the program becomes a transformative experience. The process creates a familial space – a home – where participants share tears and laughter, struggles and fears.
“As a queer Palestinian Muslim with many reasons to be anxious, being part of the Drag Musical represented both a risk and a challenge to me. But what I thought would be a terrifying process turned out to be one of the most empowering experiences of my life.
Patrick and Nadine embodied the type of inspiring mentorship and empowering facilitation that I wish more youth could encounter. They nurtured a space that was both safe and exciting to challenge yourself, be fabulous, silly, creative, vulnerable and powerful – ultimately producing an incredible collective expression of our learning and knowledge. To me, this is a rare if not remarkable achievement. I am eternally grateful for the creative, personal, and spiritual growth, and the gift of a queer family I have been given through this amazing program.”
— Participant Testimonial for Eat Pray Love – The FU Drag Musical, 2014
The collective showcase at the end of the program is a meeting place where everyone in the queer of colour community as well as the participants’ grandmas attend. It is also a place where we see unfamiliar faces. Each LGBTQ youth of colour group in the Greater Toronto Area is personally invited and receives line by-pass benefit, reserved seating, and free entrance. The Drag Musical has never been about fame or making more money than making ends meet; it is about building community, making queer politics accessible, fun, sustainability and making sure everyone gets paid in the process. The Drag Musical also prides itself in how it promotes the participants in their personas through various social media outlets, providing ample opportunity for the public to collectively engage in everyone’s stories.
“There are various people of colour events the same time and night as the Drag Musical. I am choosing not to surrender into systems that position us against one another. This ain’t no game. Yes, there are lessons for all of us to learn, and like people of colour who have historically, presently and in the future will come together, we’ll keep on building. I believe in community and with all these amazing POC events happening at the same time, THIS is amazing!! I couldn’t be more proud and filled with love and hope.
Whatever event people choose to go to, I know you won’t be disappointed. So let the night of Wednesday, June 27th be a continued celebration of the amazing people of colour organizers and events that Toronto has to offer!!”
— Opening introduction of Freaks and Geeks – The Drag Musical, 2012
Community building is hard work and we have forged ahead imperfectly. As the Drag Musical enters its seventh year in 2017, we continue to stay committed to making the space accessible and centered around queer, trans, and racialized people’s lives. As a community organizer, you need to be “tough.” Criticism from queer community can feel like people are unappreciative or unaware of the amount of work that is needed to build community. I have seen organizers become defensive, angry or stop organizing completely because they cannot handle those critiques. Accepting youth whose politics might not be as developed or articulated into the Drag Musical program has enabled us to see all our experiences as valid. We recognize that there are always important lessons to learn from people even if they have never organized a community event. In 2016, with the support of Gein Wong, the Drag Musical joined Krafty Queers. Hungry Hungry Hippos (2016) was the first Drag Musical to have full ASL interpretation. Both interpreters were POC and one of them was a deaf interpreter. The cost was nearly $800, which included rehearsal, and targeted outreach to the Deaf community. We were fortunate to have garnered the funds to pay for it and nearly twenty Deaf community members came to the Drag Musical for the first time. The show was sold out, and had full catering for the 200 people in attendance. Inspired by the seven years of experience of running the Drag Musical since 2010, I have developed other mentorship programs such as Supporting Our Youth’s FLAME, Krafty Queers’ ASL classes and arts workshops which have all adapted the Drag Musical values of creating a familial space.
“The Drag Musical has and will always be about family and excellence. Building community isn’t easy. Giving and receiving mentorship is not for the cowardly. Thinking and living outside of the box, and being true to ourselves, celebrating it on stage for the first time and making sure everyone else enjoys it – is a huge fuckin feat. Like if you corrupt, or if you are mediocre, or a loser, you can own and celebrate it. We all deserve to be seen as whole. World Peace.”
— Opening Introduction of Hungry Hungry Hippos – The Drag Musical, 2016
The Drag Musical continues to build while always striving to do better. In 2017/2018, we look forward to the new Goth Drag Musical. This iteration will be a celebration of all queer emos and all the stories told through black dress couture. Community building is an ongoing practice and it’s a lot of work. At times it feels like a thankless job. But my hunger for community motivates me to continue cultivating this space that was needed by myself when I was a queer youth of colour, and I am committed to offering mentorship to queer and trans youth of colour through the transformative and revolutionary experience that is the Drag Musical.