In “Floodlines,” a site-specific theater piece that took Jaclyn Pryor seven years to create, a Jewish funeral cortege travels through the streets of Austin, Texas. Each car sports a small Jewish star. The audience members, who have assumed the role of mourners in the cars, watch various enactments that take place on the streets. Later in the two-mile ride, the same actors are seen performing similar though slightly different scenarios — for example, a woman who had been pushing a stroller at the beginning of the performance is now being pushed in a wheelchair. A central theme is the nature of memory and its role in the collective Jewish psyche. But perhaps the most striking aspect of this gliding installation is the fact that Pryor is leading the cortege in drag. She plays an elderly hasidic man clad in black suit, a large broad-brimmed black hat, and tzitzit.
“Unlike other drag acts, there’s no wink, nudge, or reveal here — ‘Hey, I’m playing a man, but really I’m a woman,’” said Pryor, a scholar in theater and queer studies, who is currently doing a fellowship at a not-for-profit artist residency program in Oregon.
For Pryor, exploring Jewish themes in her work is second nature. Not too long ago, she joined a Lubavitch congregation. At the same time, she identifies as “gender queer,” and says that sporting men’s garb feels perfectly natural. Dressing in drag goes all the way back to childhood. “I coveted my brother’s bar mitzvah suit,” she recalled.
Drag king performances — gentile as well as Jewish — take various forms. Some, like Pryor’s, are long and heady; others are short parodies (with varying degrees of affection and derision) of male rock stars or generic men in all their macho buffoonery; still others are comic and sometimes not-so-comic skits that dramatize power dynamics between the genders.
Performing in drag may also serve as a personal opportunity to explore an alternative gender identity, a stepping-stone to becoming transmale offstage. (A transmale is one who identifies as male, regardless of whether or not he has undergone surgical and/or hormonal intervention.) More often than not, the performance is a confirmation of the artist’s already articulated gender identity.
Though drag king shows can be seen at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender events, experimental night spots, and mainstream clubs and festivals, they are less visible than those of drag queens. Some suggest that drag king performances — not including those that take place in Purim spiels — have only entered the mainstream during the last two decades because of the progress made by the feminist movement, as well as the development of medical technologies that support female to male transitions
Writer-performer Deb Margolin, an associate professor of theater at Yale University, says there are far more drag king performers than we realize, but that women are generally less visible than men. As far back as the ’80s, she was playing an Orthodox male rabbi with the lesbian group Split Britches, though Margolin was (and is) heterosexual. She says she joined the gender-bending collective because it was plain old fun, giving her the space to explore a theater devoid of boundaries, while allowing her to expose — and embody — the psyche of men who have hurt her.
“Orthodox Judaism discriminated against me as a woman, not allowing me, for example, to take part in a minyan,” she said. “I have a lot to offer and that hurt my feelings. By playing the rabbi I was making a critical comment, but in the end it was also an act of reclamation.”
Margolin is a bit of an anomaly, not only as a heterosexual who has performed in drag, but also as a feminist who now finds herself forced to reorganize her thinking in the face of how some drag kings —formerly butch or dyke lesbians — are now transmales.
Many identify as “gender queer.” While “lesbian” typically may describe a woman who is attracted to other women, “gender queer” includes the former, but also embraces those who do not necessarily define themselves or their lovers as women or men.