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After Controversy, Disability Drag Show Brings Down the House

“Project [1]: Crossed Lines” demonstrated that performers are changing stereotypes about art and disability.

Curtain call at the Disability Drag Show, put on by DisArt, in its relocated performance space, the Wealthy Theatre, after some of its participants were banned by the landlord of the original venue. All images by the author for Hyperallergic.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — When it comes to reporting on the controversy surrounding the Disability Drag Show, there are many angles to consider regarding the legalities and politics of the event. Originally slated as part of opening weekend programming in the Critical Infrastructure installation at ArtPrize’s inaugural Project [1] launch, property owner and Republican Congressional candidate Peter Meijer volunteered the Tanglefoot Building as one of the three sites to host five works commissioned by ArtPrize. This move was part of a larger effort to shift the annual open-call competition to a biennial format, with smaller-scale, higher-impact interventions to be curated in the off years.

In addition to large-scale, crowd-sourced fiber works by Amanda Browder (who also covered four sky bridges downtown and the entire recreation center at the MLK Park site), Tanglefoot hosts a temporary architectural intervention by collaborative design team Paul Amenta and Ted Lott, who worked closely with former collaborators, DisArt, to design and program a performance space that centralized questions of access for disabled audience members and performers alike. However, this vision hit a snag mid-August, when Meijer pulled permission to perform from members of a UK-based performance troupe called Drag Syndrome. The group is internationally recognized for their drag work featuring performers with Down Syndrome and was invited by DisArt to be part of opening weekend and perform. Meijer cited concerns about the capacity of these performers to give informed consent, but was also perhaps responding to pressure brought to bear on the situation by conservative internet groups protesting the content of the show.

Members of Drag Syndrome: Justin Bond (left), Horrora Shebang (center), and Gaia Callas (right), during a community discussion panel about the venue controversy surrounding their scheduled appearance at ArtPrize.

This question of equity for disabled performers and access to space were thrown into sharp relief when, as reported last week, Meijer abruptly withdrew permission for the troupe to appear on his private property, its role as an ArtPrize venue notwithstanding.  The troupe has performed at a number of art-related institutions, including the Tate Modern and Royal Festival Hall in the UK. As debate heated up around the banned performers, the scramble on the part of DisArt to find a new venue for the show, and the ACLU’s announcement to file a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against Meijer, controversy around Drag Syndrome threatened to eclipse Project [1]’s opening weekend entirely.

The original performance site, Critical Infrastructure, designed by Paul Amenta and Ted Lott for Project [1], during a frank artist talk that addressed many of the underlying issues, directly preceding the relocated show at the Wealthy Theatre.
The press tour included full days of visiting the other sited works and performances — including a set of two performance-rooftop structures by Heather Hart; a largish metal sculpture work by Olalekan Jeyifous; and an interactive light-and-sound-based intervention across the downtown Blue Bridge by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The program also included numerous artists talks and discussion panels on aspects of the festival and its controversial programming upset. After hearing more people talk about and around the issue of the Disability Drag Show than have ever provided a preamble to any work of art or performance I’ve ever undertaken to view, there was nothing left to do but settle in at the pinch-hitting alley venue, the Wealthy Theatre, and see if the substance lived up to the hype. To do so, I had to cross a very polite picket line of perhaps a dozen protesters bearing no unifying organizational markers, but ostensibly led by a man on bucket quoting Bible verses over a megaphone, holding handmade signs and trying to hand out religious pamphlets. In spite of the vitriol and outrage surrounding the appearance of Drag Syndrome, the assembled protestors were fairly minimal and non-preventative to the theater-going experience, and basically matched one-for-one by a coterie of Grand Rapids bike cops on hand to keep the peace.

Protestors outside the Wealthy Theatre before the show.

Here in the performance space, political and legal issues give way to a different set of considerations — about the ethics, aesthetics, and method of critique when it comes to art by people who are disabled. Critique of art that hinges on identity work is already a fraught experience in these outrage-prone times, where analysis of the work can be misconstrued as an indictment of the underlying identity; with questions of differing ability, one must grapple with the metrics for evaluation, and whether the work stands on its own merits or is exemplary merely in its genre-breaking. Luckily, I didn’t have to grapple too hard, because the Disability Drag Show created its own standard ambiance of joy and acceptance, including a first act featuring performers besides Drag Syndrome — and because it brought the house down.

Grand Rapids drag artist Lady Noir.

Opening acts included an Australian drag queen named Brit, who waited until her second number, set to “Girl With One Eye” by Florence + the Machine, for an eponymous reveal under a bejeweled eyepatch. Local acts included Lady Noir, who spoke about her bipolar condition during a community discussion panel following the Project [1] opening day press conference, and Siren, who presented with no visible or stated disability, but had an exceptionally sparkly beard and closed out the first act by stripping down to a nude bodysuit, then stripping that one off to reveal a skeleton body suit. With the crowd thoroughly primed, it was time for Drag Syndrome to take the stage.

The three core performers, drag king Justin Bond, and queens Horrora Shebang and Gaia Callas, each had their own solo numbers, but also performed in combination with one another. Bond was the most proficient dancer of crew, affecting a B-boy style, and when his wig came off along with the hat he removed in the first number, he never missed a beat, throwing his short blue-dyed hair around and continuing his choreography. Shebang had a Beyoncé-inspired feathered blond wig and mantle of swinging pearls that added to the dynamism of her every shimmy and shake. Callas was the most audience-centric, exhorting the crowd to get on their feet and clap along every time she was onstage — a charge which they enthusiastically took up at each opportunity.

While the first act performers affected a costume change, each performing two wholly distinct numbers with their own themes and choreography, Drag Syndrome created a kind of rotating performance that featured its three core members alone or in combination — as well as guest appearances by two new honorary members, Grand Rapids locals with Down Syndrome who were so inspired by the appearance of these artists that they asked and were invited to join the show. While I’m sure opponents of the performance would see this as the very kind of social contagion they fear, from my perspective, it speaks to the real and present need being met by this kind of visibility for disabled performers. By the time Bond took the stage for back-to-back numbers towards the end of the second act, I no longer registered disability as a factor in the performance at all.

Horrora Shebang performs at the Disability Drag Show.

To touch for a moment on the arguments about consent and exploitation that seemed to form the core of pushback against the performance, and Meijer’s decision to ban just these three performers (rather than the entire Disability Drag Show): there is absolutely no sense of coercion, or misunderstanding on the part of the performers about what they were there to do. One could argue, I suppose, that a packed theater cheering and on its feet acts as a kind of social reinforcement of the onstage activities — but I think that’s a kind of social pressure that is equally affirmative to basically all performers, regardless of their physical or cognitive capacity. I don’t believe that the protesters who raised hue and cry about exploitation in this context would have the same feelings about a different kind of event geared toward special needs individuals. For example, the Special Olympics has many participants with Down Syndrome, and they do not argue that it is exploitative, nor that it is a perversion of sacred ideas of masculinity (as was argued about drag and the feminine). Arguments about the morality of allowing performers with Down Syndrome to willingly engage in drag culture is ultimately a thin cover for discomfort and rage at the idea of disabled bodies with agency, sexuality, and in proud self-expression.

In a group number, Shebangs, Bond, and Callas were joined by two GR locals with Down Syndrome (left and right of Bond, center), who asked to join the performance after being inspired by the community discussion.

Brit’s performances helped tee up an idea that Drag Syndrome rammed home: this is not performance in spite of disability, this is performance as a celebration of the body and condition in which it exists. No performer stripped to a degree that isn’t perfectly acceptable on a public beach or public television, or comported themselves in a way that would have been inappropriate on a dance floor. They were merely themselves, in a way that might pose a challenge to reductive mainstream ideas about disabled bodies, needs, and personalities.

It was a thoroughly fun, energizing, upbeat, and affirmative performance, and all stakeholders carried themselves gracefully through a conflict that elevated it to the national press stage, leaving room for a positive and entertaining experience that stood on its own. Would it have been such a big deal without the controversy? Perhaps not. Would it have still been a colorful and rollicking good time, engendering a kind of unanimous positivity in the crowd? You bet.

Australian drag performer Brit came out wearing a jeweled eyepatch, before removing it to reveal a missing eye, during her first act showstopper.
Siren performs in the first act of the Disability Drag Show.

Ultimately, though, the controversy did a lot to raise questions of who and what art is for — perhaps more astutely than ArtPrize’s other populist model, which tends to center around competition and overstimulation. When there is less to look at, we must take the time to really sit with these structures and experiences, still as houses or joyful as a parade, and ask what it means to live with art, to welcome it in, to let it touch our lives and affect our understanding.

Project [1]: Crossed Lines by ArtPrize continues with works on public display, and with a slate of multi-venue programming, through October 27. This programming includes a second presentation by DisArt, Voices, which will take place at the Tanglefoot venue on September 28.

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