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SAVED YOU A SPOT: Queer Performance and Inclusivity in Miami

Pioneer Winter

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Scenes from Ensalada de Fruta. All images credited to Lourdes Luis.

The broad spectrum of queer performance is both liberating in its ability to be so many things to so many people, and terrifying for someone who needs boundaries, definitions—a caste system to dichotomize and critique. You can see queer performance through OMFG at The Hangar, Counter Corner at the Corner Bar, Out in the Tropics Festival at the Colony Theater, by individual choreographers and theater directors at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, Electric Sheep at Score, and it continues to grow. From Juleisy y Karla and their drag children in the House of Kunt to Octavio Campos and his international dance theatre collaborations, it is hard to discuss queer performance in Miami without missing something…so apologies in advance.

Across the board, the safest value system to mitigate both of these is to place intention, rawness, expression, and risk at the forefront. “Queer performance plays to the strengths of the performer; it’s unexpected,” says drag artist Queef Latina. “It is out of the norm and unafraid, an experiment,” says Gabriela Fernández, of the Olympia Theater. “It is gender-bending and evocative,” says Kareem Tabsch, filmmaker and co-founder of O Cinema. According to self-described ‘Madeline Albright of Transvestites’ and ‘Elder Stateswoman of Drag’ Tommy Strangie (also known as Shelley Novak), it is “a state of mind” that can include fringe artists and camp, where “the queer hand pushes the comfortable or safe art in order to further it.” Agender-identifying model and designer Chaplin Tyler says that queer performance is the “embodiment of everything all at once” and, according to performer-director and creative instigator Octavio Campos, it is “something at the edge, unknown, strange, and can’t be explained quickly.” Of note: none of these clarities necessarily have to do with who or how you’re fucking. Queer/Fem-identifying clown artist and sometimes-drag king, Cara Dodge, acknowledges that “you support who you want to fuck,” so this may rationalize the disparity in women-identifying queer artists in Miami, but to take this further would dishonor the inclusivity of queer desire.

To be clear (and not), queer is anything that is not overtly heterosexual, heteronormative, or cisgendered. For the purpose of this article, queer does not automatically imply “gay” or “lesbian,” rather an othering of some common modality. It can be a social, political, cultural, and aesthetic style and sensibility based on deliberate and self-acknowledged theatricality and expression. Self-aware representation, and even magnification, like drag, includes notions of exaggerated gestures of one form by another— not to assimilate and absorb its uniqueness, but to mimic and magnify that which makes it different in the first place. This is exactly what audiences witnessed in the inaugural queer night of Ensalada de Fruta, where they “chop[ped] up some spoken word, fresh drag and accompan[ied] it with comedy, burlesque and juggling . . . Nothing was off limits—from hair raising political statements, deep racial discussions, to a full-on queer wedding with a twist.”

Tabsch remembers being at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and using the term “queer film”—he was asked not to by thenboard members. In order to truly embrace the canopy of queer, LGBT does not satisfy it all. Part of local change, Tabsch says, includes embracing the reclamation of the term “queer” and its meaning for inclusive, othered identities.

Ensalada de Fruta (Fruit Salad) was co-hosted by drag artist Queef Latina and Olympia Theater’s Fernández. It was held on September 21st, an auspicious date, because it fell outside of the the month of Hispanic LGBTQ Pride or Orgullo, establishing a new perspective by reframing Orgullo through the artists showcased and the audiences reached.

At the start of Ensalada de Fruta, performer Chaplin Tyler jokingly ended their show opener with, “Gender isn’t real and the world we live in is a lie.” The audience laughed in a half-knowing sort of way, leaving the ensuing acts to qualify this statement. From the virtuosic magician (“It takes balls to juggle”) to the self-implicating Reading Queer alumnus Y’señia Mina, whose poetry dedicated to her mother brought the audience to tears (“The monitor responds for you as your heart declines”), we got closer to our own unconcealment of a queer Miami performance identity.

A question came to mind: What is “distance” between the performer and the performed? While the performer may or may not be portraying a somatically human character, desires are based upon the here, now, and the assumption of what could be potentially. And there was indeed potential that evening. Gio Profera (also known as the cultural organizer and drag artist Juleisy of Juleisy y Karla— 2016’s Miami New Times Masterminds) said this about the distance between performer and being one’s self: “Being yourself is an art. The effort and beating your face, and the intention” is what turns the self outward, making it performative and emblematic.

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Profera’s perspective echoes Queef Latina’s, who celebrates the appropriating of the word queer from its past derogatory usage. The dismantling and satirizing of oppression were main points drawn from Ensalada de Fruta. It was a poignant evening of embodied survival. It promoted affinity as more important than physical or social closeness, and we could plainly see how the machismo oppression of Latinx people is not separate from the “straight-acting” and “masc4masc” platitudes rampant in social media and sex apps. In Con Migo Ando (I Go with Myself), queer/pansexual and allied body artist Angel Lauren Garcia addresses how this distinction dissolves when we take these issues and place them in a more traditional setting, like what Queef Latina and Fernández hoped for by using Olympia Theater as a platform. Including Garcia, several artists acknowledged the importance of even sharing a dressing room in the traditional sense, where inter-cultural, -generational, -disciplinary boundaries blurred into the phenomenon of simply being there. In her performance, Garcia systematically shaves most of her body, revealing tattoos and smooth skin. A simultaneous soundscore reveals text and guajira music that underscores the deeply personal nature of the work, with painful lines like, “pimpled, sore, ashamed of myself”—coarse hair is neither feminine nor acceptable, but neither are razor bumps. This references feelings post-intercourse, where you’re ashamed of your body hair, then ashamed for caring in the first place.

One of the performers with whom Garcia shared the dressing room was the aforementioned Tommy Strangie, who read from his memoirs I’ll Shave Tomorrow as the stubbled, Boston-born Shelley Novak. You can catch Shelley Novak hosting bingo at The Standard and working the door at Score. Strangie is sometimes far too busy performing to shave: “As long as I give them a big, strong eyebrow, a mole, and a lip, they have the expression.” The Shelley Novak Awards—now in its 24th year— has blessed the evolution of local drag and provided a much-needed opportunity to share gratitude among many working queens. Strangie was performing in a climate of fear during the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic; his seat of queer power has to do with our response to tragedy. He began in his childhood, mimicking divas like Barbara Streisand, Cher, Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, Betty Davis, and Shelley Winters. The no-shit-taken spirit of these strong women enforced Strangie’s queer perspective growing up, and he’s since grown into a comedic powerhouse, mentoring the new generation of performers.

Though more traditional drag has remained somewhat stuck in the honoring, rehashing, and impersonating of the stereotyped female form, performers in the queer Miami performance scene can’t even. They might be “putting looks for free,” but they are not interested in pleasing the mass market, explains Queef Latina. This is why Olympia Theater’s production value is so important. Where else can a performer—most times without formal performance training, other than will and instinct—be inspired and motivated to grow?

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And while queens over the years have invoked the spirit of women, what about women-identifying queer performers? Dodge points out that drag is not always gender reversal. She finds it important for audiences to be given space to feel uncomfortable, question their discomfort, and come to terms with it. Dodge has worked with Ft. Lauderdale-based director Tabatha Mudra, founder of Drag It Out, through OUTlet. Based upon these interactions and the state of queer performance for women-identifying artists in Miami, Dodge believes that the community is still building. One way she is adding to this growth is through a commitment to perform at every Counter Corner (organized by performance artist Sleeper), which had its two-year anniversary in November 2016, as well as low-key events to empower women to create.

The point of Ensalada de Fruta was not to make money, but coins are needed. While traditional performance comes with a price list or expectation of compensation, queer performance in Miami is still working with the currency of exposure. Cultural valorizing of the queer—a valorizing of the sexually ambiguous, and of that which transgresses rigid boundaries of gender—still benefits from a value system. Although sexual and gender ambiguity are not new in popular culture, gender-bending is now far more participatory and closer to everyday life. Is that why drink tickets are the best that we can do right now? In an art form that questions the system, is a system needed? Is a proscenium stage needed? To respond to the latter, yes—the Olympia Theater acted as a container, a safe space for raw material that welcomes a mass market. Octavio Campos proposed QUIL (Queer Union for Independent Learning) to the Knight Foundation, which would enforce artist fees and help with honing performance craft. “Can I put ‘queer performer’ on my taxes and get a tax break?” asks Campos. He continues that queer performance just needs to happen in Miami and that lack of funding is a general dilemma—an every-place issue.

Is there a here/now in Miami’s queer performance? Or is there always more emphasis on the then/there? Gio Profera says to wait ten years—to just keep making more space, more inclusive shows. This echoes the possibility of Miami’s becoming more open, more universal, a sentiment addressed by performance veterans Strangie and Campos. These beautiful contradictions are often lumped into a single category: queer—the absoluteness of freedom and removing of preconceived ideology around macho and fem, butch and fairy, a non-label—the only thing agreed upon is that it is Miami, it is growing (speed is relative), and attention should be paid.

Pioneer Winter is a Miami-based choreographer and director of the experimental performance group Pioneer Winter Collective.

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