“We Are All Born Naked and the Rest is Drag” in Tony Kushner’s "Angels in America"
Drag Race meets the Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Katya Zamolodchikova, colloquially known as Katya, is a fabulous drag queen and RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars II runner up, declares in a “reading is fundamental” challenge: “Miss Fame, you are such a talented makeup artist. I have never met anybody who’s able to shove their own head so far up their own ass without smudging their eyeliner” (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”). Now, in this specific reading, Miss Fame did laugh, finding humor in Katya’s comment, however, that is not always the case. The technique “reading,” performed in this anecdote by Katya, is the art of ritual insult, used by drag queens in RuPaul’s drag race, however, it also dates back to the ‘80s, which is shown in films like Paris is Burning. “Reading” is one form of empowerment for queer individuals and drag performers, allowing them to speak their minds quickly and confidently. In Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, we see the characters Belize and Prior using techniques like “reading” as well as their interpretation of drag. Throughout the play, they are able to overcome hardships and tragedies. Drag empowers the queer individuals in Angels in America, pointing to the ways all sexual identities are wrapped in performance, this is true of both Prior and Belize in the play, though most powerfully illustrated by Belize as a queer individual of color.
Angels in America is a two-part play about “national themes” written by American playwright, Tony Kushner. The two plays won many awards including a Tony award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Making its Broadway debut in 1993, the two plays follow Prior and his friends and acquaintances which include angels, Roy Cohn, ex-drag queens, and the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, as they navigate the tragedy of HIV/AIDS and the oppression of queer people. Belize, the ex-drag queen, although he does not have AIDS, is a nurse who works closely with the rampant disease, and is close friends with Prior, the main character, who does have AIDS. This play is epic in scope, but the focus will be on Prior and Belize’s queer identities and gender performances, as well as analyze how drag can function as an outlet or coping mechanism during stressful moments.
In order to begin to understand the world of drag, it may be useful to learn some of its histories. Drag is a form of entertainment where the performer is dressed up, perhaps as the opposite gender during the performance. It was originally a tradition performed by gay men, typically in bars and clubs, and these individuals call themselves “drag queens” or just the simple “queens.” Bennet and West explain in their article “‘United We Stand Divided We Fall’: AIDS, Armorettes, and the Tactical Repertoires of Drag,” that when drag is placed in its historical context, it is only then that it can be identified as an activity used to form and maintain queer identities and activism (Bennet). This proves to be true when Belize and Prior are attending their ex-drag friend’s funeral. Belize loves that everyone in attendance is in drag, and it's only appropriate as the deceased was a “Great Glitter Queen,” but Prior thinks it is “tacky” and that the “twenty professional Sicilian mourners were a bit much” (Kushner Part 2, 41). Prior also goes on to say that this is a dream come true for the “real world” for another “faggot” to die from AIDS (42). While Prior might be right, the individuals who care deeply about the man who has passed dress in drag as a form of activism and love. Choosing to wear the traditional funeral black, as Prior did, would be choosing the erasure of the queer identities and gender performance, which is why Belize is correct when he says the funeral is divine.
The concept of performing a different gender on stage sounds like a twentieth-century concept; however, Yair Lipshitz, author of “The Jacob Cycle in Angels in America: Re-Performing Scripture Queerly,” argues that it dates back even further, back to biblical times. Lipshitz examines the bible story of Jacob disguising himself as his brother Esau to earn his father’s blessing. He claims that although the story is not an explicit act of drag, it is an analogy for individuals hiding their sexuality. By covering themselves in animal skin, they are given this newfound masculinity allowing them to appear heterosexual. Lipshitz goes on to say, that because Jacob’s natural gender performance is more feminine, when he dresses with the animal skin to appear more masculine, it was a type of cross-dressing. Meaning he went to his father in drag (Lipshitz). This is an interesting analysis because it does not show what would typically be pictured as drag, however, it does show that Jacob’s gender performance is more feminine than that of his brothers, and instead of dressing as the ordinary “drag queen,” he dresses as more masculine to please his father, and with that is considered for the blessing that was originally going to be awarded to the more masculine Esau.
All of this suggests that drag is only for queer people, but in RuPaul’s song “Born Naked,” it says, “we are all born naked/ and the rest is drag” (RuPaul). This lyric is an example of the idea that everyone’s gender is a performance, even the genders on the binary. Society has taught the world that a boy should look masculine, “wear the pants in the family,” and enjoy hobbies like woodworking, fishing, and sports. While a girl is expected to wear delicate clothing and style their hair nice, girls should like cooking, crafting, and boys. However, femininity, masculinity, and androgyny can mean and look different to everyone. There can be a boy who wears dresses and likes to watch sports, and there can be a girl who likes to dress more masculine and wear makeup. The opportunities are actually endless because whatever you choose is your gender performance.
All of this is interesting to consider when reading about Prior at his friend’s funeral wearing black to contradict the individuals who chose to dress in drag. According to Lipshitz and Rupaul, Prior is in drag. Further analysis of Prior’s outfit would also suggest he is in drag. Kushner describes, “Prior is dressed oddly: a great long black coat and a huge, fringed, matching scarf, draped to a hoodlike effect. His appearance is disconcerting, menacing and vaguely redolent of the Biblical” (Kushner Part 2, 41). At first read, this doesn’t seem like a drag performance, but it appears he is wearing a nun’s habit. This is interesting because he could have dressed as a monk, the nun’s male counterpart which is more colorful, but he chose the more feminine version to fit his gender expression. There is another scene where Prior is dreaming that he is in drag and he appears to be mourning himself because of his disease. He says, “I look like a corpse. A corpsette. Oh, my queen; you know you’ve hit rock-bottom when even drag is a drag” (Kushner Part 1, 31). As readers continue, Harper appears in his dream and makes a comment about how he can’t wear makeup because he is a man, and Prior explains, “I was in the middle of applying the face, trying to make myself feel better-- I swiped the new fall colors at the Clinique counter at Macy’s.” Harper is shocked that Prior stole the makeup, but he retorts, “I was out of cash; it was an emotional emergency” (31)! This is an important moment in the play because Prior is getting dressed in drag because he believes it is the only thing that could make him feel better. Calling it an “emotional emergency” gives an idea of how much Prior actually values drag as a form of empowerment.
Gender performance is a crucial part of the documentary Paris is Burning. The documentary explores the New York City drag queen’s “house” culture, which provides a secure community to queer individuals who may have been socially outcasted. Each house competes in “balls” to prove themselves. The documentary also elaborates on the racism and poverty of the individuals involved. One of the first things viewers may notice in the documentary is the warehouse filled with flamboyantly dressed queer and transgender individuals and people of color. The warehouse is where the balls are held. People go to the balls to prove that they can do what straight people do, perhaps better, and live in the straight world fantasy. Pepper LaBeija, the mother to the individuals of the house of LaBeija, takes care of her “children” or the new queens that have joined her house. When Belize is with Prior in his hospital room, he is conversing and offering to help as much as he can much like a mother would have done in Paris is Burning. Belize even offers Prior some Western medicine that he calls voodoo cream. Prior seems suspicious towards the cream, but Belize claims it’s just beeswax, perfume, and Jergen’s lotion (Kushner Part 1, 59).
As if gender performance was not enough to worry about, LaBeija mentions that drag during this time was also a battle against racism. In an individual interview with LaBeija, he states, “this is white America. Any other nationality that is not of the white set knows this and accepts this until the day they die. That is everybody’s dream and ambition as a minority, to live and look as well as a white person” (Livingston). LaBeija is emphasizing the blatant racism in America and its effect on people of color. While it is known that racism is a huge problem in America, it’s worth pointing out that racism towards queer people of color is even worse. Louis telling Belize that “America doesn’t have a race problem” is outrageous, and likely even more infuriating for Belize. However, Louis going on to say that Belize hates him because he is Jewish is even worse (Kushner Part 1, 94). Louis is a white, cisgender male, and does not have AIDS, in other words, if people do not know he’s gay, then they may assume he’s straight. Which to Belize, a visibly queer, black man, would appear to be an easy life.
The drag in Paris is Burning is interesting because the more “natural” and straight you look the more credit you will get, and the closer you will be to winning. This concept is called “realness,” an individual in the documentary describes this concept as “going back into the closet.” This could be an incredibly taxing experience, especially if you have worked hard to come out. However, these individuals embrace it in order to win and live that “straight fantasy” they long for. Along with realness, these individuals compete by throwing shade with techniques like reading and voguing, which is described in the documentary as cutting your opponent with a knife through the art of quick, sharp dance moves (Livingston). Throughout the plays, Belize makes statements towards people that would be considered as readings of the individuals. When Belize and Louis are discussing the race problem in America, in which Louis is making racist comments, Belize says, “But I know you, Louis, and I know the guilt fueling this peculiar tirade is obviously already swollen bigger than your hemorrhoids” (Kushner Part 1, 92). This comment trips up Louis, causing him to defend himself, and eventually, he implicitly admits to having hemorrhoids. This is a funny moment in the play, but it is shade thrown at Louis.
As it has been argued, Belize’s fluidity displayed in his gender performance may allow liberation from the surrounding tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, as well as the discrimination against his African-American and queer identity. As readers consider the points made, they may also consider the following: perhaps as a reader, you have been inspired to explore your own gender. Maybe, readers don’t change anything about their gender expression but take a look at their performance to understand better what they are portraying to others. As RuPaul sings, “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Another thing readers may consider is looking to Belize’s drag, as well as the individuals who participated in Paris is Burning, and consider the many factors of gender: clothing, hair, pronouns, and so on. On the other hand, perhaps readers consider how they speak to minorities and how their words might be considered discriminatory. Do not be Louis who could not grasp that Belize was offended by his words. And if the reader decides to start performing drag, they may consider learning the art of reading like Katya and Miss Fame.
Bennet, Jeffrey and Isaac West. ““United We Stand, Divided We Fall”: AIDs, Armorettes, and the Tactical Repertoires of Drag”. Southern Communication Journal, Vol. 74(3), 2009, p.300-13.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993. Print.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994. Print.
Lipshitz, Yair. “The Jacob Cycle in Angels in America: Re-Performing Scripture Queerly”. Journal of Jewish Literary History, Vol. 32(2), Spring, 2012, p. 203(36).
Paris is Burning. Directed by Jennie Livingston, Academy Entertainment Off White Productions, 1990.
Schacht, Steven. “Paris is Burning: How Society’s Stratification Systems Make Drag Queens of Us All”. Race, Gender & Class, Vol. 7(1), Jan. 2000, p. 147.
Rendell, Joanne. “Drag Acts: Performativity, Subversion and the AIDS Poetry of Rafael Campo and Mark Doty.” Critical Survey, vol. 14, no. 2, 2002, pp. 89–100. JSTOR.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race | Reading is Fundamental | Season 7.” YouTube, uploaded by Logo, 28 April 2015, 1:13-1:23, https://youtu.be/w0nNbs8ldGY
RuPaul feat. Clairy Browne. “Born Naked.” Born Naked, RuCo, 2014. Spotify.