Mills women became men on a balmy night in the Student Union, when five volunteers donned facial hair and new names during an interactive exercise on assuming a masculine identity.
The exercise was part of “Drag King,” an event held on Oct. 4 by Queer Melanin, the campus club for queer women of color. The two-hour workshop was led by Mattie Richardson, a former visiting professor of Ethnic Studies, and fellow performer Nia Hamilton. The two are members of Nappy Grooves, an all-black drag king performance group.
According to Richardson, drag kings are women representing various “gender identities” through song, dance and skits. Unlike drag queens who are men “performing femininities onstage,” drag kings can perform both male and female roles. “It’s a much more expansive gender performance instead of an illusion,” she said. “We’re showing various characterizations of gender [to serve] as the starting points for conversation.”
Hamilton said such performances are necessary as the view of both straight and queer women continues to be under-represented in the arts. “I just went to a drag queen show yesterday where a woman was used just as a sexy pawn,” she said. “It’s important to me that women have a very strong presence.”
Hamilton, Richardson and three other Bay Area residents formed Nappy Grooves two years ago out of a desire to give black drag kings an opportunity to perform. Richardson was previously a member of the Disposable Boy Toys, a predominantly white drag king troupe, and said she grew tired of only being invited to perform skits on affirmative action.
Patricia Contreras-Flores, a senior and co-leader of Queer Melanin, said she decided to host Nappy Grooves while talking to Richardson over the summer.
Kalikia Dugger, a senior and fellow member of Queer Melanin, attended one of Richardson’s classes while she was at Mills. She supported the visit because Richardson addresses topics “that people should be aware of.”
After introducing themselves, Richardson showed a video of a dance number by Nappy Grooves “to provide a sense of the detail we give to each gender performance.” Hamilton said they incorporated elements of African dance into the piece to honor various African deities. Both Hamilton and Richardson expressed great interest in African religion, which initiated a discussion about African beliefs and gender perceptions. Audience members were also curious about how Nappy Grooves compared to other drag king troupes and the source of their ideas.
Stephanie McLeod, a junior and member of Queer Melanin, asked if they performed “butch” and “femme” roles or masculine and feminine characterizations of lesbian women. Hamilton said she primarily performs femme roles but is working on a piece based on Gladys Bentley, a butch Blues singer from the Harlem Renaissance. Richardson performed a butch skit in August during a gay pride event in New York City.
The question and answer session was followed by a crash course in becoming a drag king. Richardson and Hamilton provided tutorials on applying facial hair and assuming a masculine stride while physically evolving into Bill Dagger and Tyrone Peaches, their respective male characters. Richardson described Dagger as a womanizer who is closeted about his attraction to men, while Hamilton depicted Peaches as a questioning jock. Both said their characters reflect gender personalities or stereotypes within the African-American community. Richardson said her particular interest is “making commentary on black masculinities by placing them at odds with each other.”
Angel Perry, a senior, Dugger and McLeod transformed into Angelo, Khalil’ Prince and Jamaica. They donned goatees and mustaches from the facial hair provided and practiced leaning back while walking. Contreras-Flores cut off some of her own hair for her goatee and had her chest bound to increase the believability of her male character.
Dugger integrated high heels into her male personality. “I am comfortable with my femininity and wasn’t prepared to totally abandon it,” she said. “Knowing that my choice [was] validated was really empowering.”
Hamilton and Richardson concluded the event with a lip-synching skit to Al Green’s “Here I Am.” The skit featured Hamilton as Randy Trade, an effeminate gay nerd who successfully seduces Peaches during a tutoring session. The performance was well-received by both the audience and curious onlookers from Cafe Suzie. Students cheered from their seats, while Tea Shop employees danced behind them. Contreras-Flores felt the skit was the best part of the evening and enjoyed “having the Tea Shop crew drawn, literally, to the music.”
Anjali Purkayastha, a junior, enjoyed the entire event. “It makes me want drag dance to happen more,” she said.
McLeod appreciated the positive vibe of the speakers. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said. “Seeing black female drag kings being comfortable with themselves and their sexuality was amazing.”
Dugger and Contreras-Flores believed the small turn-out provided an intimate setting. “Having eight people throughout the night was perfect and allowed for a much more intimate discussion,” she said.
Contreras-Flores agreed and would love for Queer Melanin to host the event again. “It was all very encouraging,” she said. “[We’re] definitely planning on doing another drag king workshop and possibly[…]a benefit drag performance night sometime this semester.”