By Scott Nisley
The place could have passed for a nightclub if it weren’t for the candy-colored balloons.
They were arranged in little bouquets in the center of each table, like flickering candlelight in a comedy joint, or the fresh-cut flowers at a high school prom. There were about two dozen round tables in all, scattered around the darkened room among the hidden faces of the crowd.
At the far end of the room was a stage, elevated about a foot and a half off the ground, with a runway extending out towards the audience. And above that, a string of balloons arranged in a semi-circle: The shape of a rainbow, with all the colors of the visible spectrum.
A pair of speakers was positioned at either end of the stage, each blasting enough bass that you could feel it thump in your chest like a kick drum. And the ceiling was alive with dancing lights, each one crisscrossing with the jitters in every direction. It was like a scene out of Saturday Night Fever, or a shadow of the forgotten discotheques and dance halls that sprung up all over in New York in the late 1970s.
But this was no disco. It was the Essex Room last Wednesday night. RU Pride was hosting a drag show.
It was all part of the organization’s annual Pride Week, a weeklong series of events and activities designed to give a voice to issues surrounding Rutgers-Newark’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer community or LGBTQ community.
The night featured performances by professional drag queens, who had specifically been brought in for the occasion—names like Divinity Bangs, Erica Knowles, Miss Godiva, and Tyra A. Ross. Ross acted as MC, introducing her fellow performers, as well as interacting with the crowd. If there was any kind of uptight air in the room, she loosened it up.
“Come on now! Get in the spirit of things,” Ross said. “It’s after nine o’clock, you don’t have to worry about what anybody else thinks of you, because hey! Look who’s hosting…”
When the performers hit the stage, they almost transcended — some taking on the sultry sass of a Vegas showgirl and others embodying the wild antics of pop star: Strutting, swaying, whipping their hair, and gyrating with all the frenzy of someone lost on a binge of red wine and Benzedrine. One even leapt off the stage, landing in splits at the foot of the runway. How she did it in heels, this reporter will never know.
You could have wandered into all of the underground punk shows in all the leaky basements in New Jersey — all of the whiskey bars and neighborhood pubs in the state, and never see an audience anywhere even half as enthusiastic and supportive as the one in the Essex Room on Wednesday night. Like something out of a dream, you could hardly believe that it was really happening and that a crowd would react that way.
There were some heartfelt moments as well. Ross opened up about her own life and the adversity she’d encountered — the struggles she saw friends deal with. Ross encouraged everyone in the crowd to believe in themselves — and to know that there would always be someone who’d be there to love them no matter what.
“I lost so many people in my life over the past twenty something years,” Ross said. “If you don’t realize that somebody loves you, if you don’t feel like somebody loves you, I’m telling you, I do.”
Ross was among the older crowd in the room that night. And clearly, after all she’d seen in her life, she had maintained an upbeat attitude through it all.
“You know what life is?” Ross said. “Life is a series of daring adventures set from a solid foundation. So go out there and get that! Take risks. And not with sex — use condoms. Don’t trust nobody, anybody.”
For some people the world of drag culture is so far removed from their own experience that they struggle to find a way to possibly relate to it. After the show was over, Ross offered an explanation as to why a man would feel compelled to dress like a woman in the first place — an uneasy question that often lingers in the minds of people in mainstream America.
“It’s about expression,” Ross said. “And this comes from inside. Why would a guy turn around and decide to go play football? Because he feels it; because he wants it. Why would a guy decide to become a girl? It’s not a decision. It’s something that’s in them from the beginning. But it takes courage and bravery for a man to say ‘I’m going to get onstage in women’s clothes — embody the art form of being a woman and be brave enough to emulate the woman.”
Ashley Everett, the President of RU Pride, was pleased with the show and the turnout, and hoped that future events would help educate people who might otherwise dismiss members of the drag scene, from a lack of understanding.
“I’m proud that people had fun,” Everett said. “I’m proud that maybe they can take away a little bit of tolerance knowing that they came to this event — maybe somebody that may not have been as tolerant of our community can walk away from this experience feeling a little more positive.”
Ross took some time explaining the origins of drag, from its early history in the thespian theater, to its place today in the modern world.
“Drag is about a man putting on women’s clothes and performing as a woman, because women were not allowed to perform in the theater,” Ross said. “So when men did that they considered it drag, like you’re putting yourself back together. But now anyone can be a drag queen. Because to be a drag queen it’s about being over the top, with make-up, with hair, with nails, with the garments, with everything. Drag is like encompassing another persona that is for stage and fun.”
While drag often exists on the fringes of society, living just beneath the radar of mainstream popular culture, it is alive and well — but often gets misunderstood. Everett’s advice to someone on the outside: Try to learn and bridge the gap between what you understand and what you don’t.
“You should accept, you should love, you should try to learn from people,” Everett said. “I think when it comes to people, you should at least try to get that opportunity — get that education to learn.”