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Exhibit opening marks Chicago's history of diversity in drag
by Kelsey Hoff
2018-11-21

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The Gerber/Hart Library and Archives collaborated with The Jackhammer Complex on a drag performance to accompany the opening of a new exhibit, "The City that Werqs: A History of Chicago's Drag Revolutionaries" on Nov. 10. Gerber/Hart has been promoting the exhibit on Instagram with #TillieTuesday, sharing pictures of Tillie "The Dirty Old Lady" and sneak peeks at magazines, newspapers and ephemera from their collections.

James Conley, project manager and curator for The City that Werqs—along with curators Kurt Heinrich, Jennifer Dentel, Chase Ollis and Kevvie Vida—interviewed Chicago drag performers to create a "Drag Diary" and conducted historical research to find images and articles from various publications.

Some of the most radical "Revolutionaries" in the exhibit performed in the 1960s and '70s, such as Wanda Lust, who traveled with a VD testing van promoting sexual health conversations and giving out free condoms. Toots Lorraine and Miss Tillie, both active in the '60s and '70s, have two of the richest collections centered around a specific performer. The Miss Continental pageant, founded in the '80s and still running at the Baton Show Lounge, is perhaps Chicago's most significant contribution to American drag. The Vixen represents one of today's drag revolutionaries; she incorporated activism for Black queens into her routine in response to retaliation after one of her performances in Boystown.

Conley pointed out that this exhibit features a wealth of images compared to the previous one, "Gay is Good: Homophile Activism before Stonewall," which included a lot of text. Costumes from Toots Lorraine and contemporary queen Jojo Baby will be on display along with artwork by Chicago artist Chad Sell, popular with RuPaul's Drag Race queens, and vinyl records used by Chicago performers. Some of the oldest pieces come from the turn of the 20th century, including Thomas Edison's 1901 film The Old Maid Having her Picture Taken, an example of female impersonation, and articles on the annual First Ward Ball with images from the 1907 and 1908 years. Conley notes that while these older visual pieces are rare glimpses of early drag performance, we don't know how the performers would have considered their gender performance or identity because the terminology for how we understand drag had not yet been developed.

Throughout Chicago's history, drag has remained a site of integration and diversity. Articles from the 1920s cover parties that brought queens together with bootleggers, anarchists, communists, mobsters and other outcasts. During this time, drag was not so much its own separate entity, but part of the city's prohibition underground. Chicago drag shows saw attendees of different races mingling through the '50s and '60s while they remained segregated almost everywhere else.

While these artifacts form a chronology of events, the team had to dig a bit deeper to craft a narrative authentic to today's drag culture. The interviewees were able to put Chicago drag into a national context based on their experiences performing in group shows and traveling to perform in other cities.

The team found that many Chicago performers repeated some variation of the sentiment that "In Chicago, you can find any kind of drag you can imagine almost any night of the week." Without a predominant "scene," Chicago offers more than a traditional understanding of diversity in its drag culture, expanding to diversity in style and innovation. Conley points out that three different performers doing lip synch could present it in completely different ways, from extravagant, non-traditional outfits to high glamour, comedy, avant-garde and everything in between. The longstanding community in the Boystown and Lakeview neighborhoods has expanded to venues in Andersonville and Rogers Park, and parties on the West and South sides bring together a more geographically diverse mix of performers with different tastes.

The exhibit opening began with a welcome from Gerber/Hart Board President John D'Emilio. Historian Owen Keehnen spoke about four drag performers whom he studied for two forthcoming books: Roby Landers, Miss Tillie, Wanda Lust and the Bearded Lady, all included in the exhibit. Keehnen shared stories about significant and shocking moments in Chicago's drag history, quoted revolutionary queens and described some of their most famous outfits. He stressed that Gerber/Hart's collections were instrumental to his works. The team of curators shared their roles in creating the exhibit and personal stories about how drag and studying drag history has influenced them.

Drag-show performers included Coco Sho-Nell, Saltine, Rosemary Maybe, Dago T and host C'est Kevvie, who was part of the exhibit research team. They performed a variety of drag styles, branching out from traditional lip synching to comedy ( Saltine ), political satire ( Coco Sho-Nell ), and performance art ( Rosemary Maybe ). Drag King Dago T paired up with Rosemary Maybe to perform "I've Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher as Gomez and Morticia Addams. The entire audience sang along to the final number led by C'est Kevvie, "Like a Prayer" by Madonna, and the other performers joined her in an encore.

The exhibit is on display at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, 6500 N. Clark St. See GerberHart.org .


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