Sasha Velour’s monthly Nightgowns show has always felt like a temporary home. We attended our first Nightgowns only a year ago during DragCon NYC 2017 and we felt so embraced that my best friend and I made the eight hour drive from Canada as many times as we could throughout the year. We were never fortunate enough to see earlier iterations of the show at smaller venues before its popularity took off, but we’ve been going long enough to know just how special the Nightgowns at Terminal 5 on Friday, September 28th was.
When we walked into Terminal 5 to help set up, I was taken aback by the magnitude of seats and standing room, as well as the size of the stage. I’ve been to my fair share of impressive drag shows in the years we’ve been running Drag Coven and we’ve seen productions in large theatres before, but this time I reeled at how a singular show with a cast full of truly diverse performers, only some of whom have a television platform behind their names, could fill that kind of large, prestigious concert venue. As I helped backstage, I thought about how this show went from a little bar in Brooklyn where guests sat cross legged on the floor to filling multiple, sizable balconies. I felt motivated before anyone had even hit the stage.
If I thought the most inspiring element of the show was in the space it filled, I was in for a treat when the numbers started. I’ve been fortunate to meet most of the night’s performers before, but I’m never shocked to find myself falling more in love with the Nightgowns resident cast every time we see them. You see, besides casting a group of wildly talented artists, the House of Velour have also managed to build a community of intelligent, interesting, and extremely friendly individuals who are thoroughly enjoyable to be around. As if that weren’t enough, they added guests who rounded things out into a fully formulated group of history-making drag legends and young queer artists whose work is evolving the contemporary scene. This combination of personalities and styles made the show somehow entertaining, educational, motivational, and just plain fun all at once.
Show host and producer Sasha Velour kicked off the setlist with one of her signature light projection numbers. I filmed from the balcony, where I sat with Sasha’s father, a professor who chatted away to me about our respective thesis research, the power of language in queer communities, and how drag and art vary from city to city throughout North America. As the music started, Papa Velour (as drag fans have affectionately nicknamed him) watched in rapt attention. To the tune of “This Woman’s Work” by Maxwell, Velour performed a lip-sync in which she appeared to interact with a giant sentient being made of foil shock blankets before engaging with a perfectly sized projection version of herself that emerged from the very point on stage where she actually stood. The audience roared as she appeared to split in two and mirror her own actions in time to the music, the two Sashas presenting an elegant and very bald pair.
As is the custom at each Nightgowns, Velour followed her opening performance with an impassioned speech. If I’m honest, listening to Sasha speak about the power of queerness and community might actually be my favourite part of the production each time I attend. It floors me to observe how the audience, which always ranges widely in age and identity, reacts to her words, intermittently falling silent or screaming and cheering, depending on Sasha’s volume or energy level. She holds every bit of their attention in the palm of her hand, but she respects it and gives them her all without self indulgence. From her stool at the front corner of the stage, where she sits to watch the performances along with the crowd, Velour delivered a succinct and empowering monologue about respect, community, and the ability of intersectional queer art to bring power to individuals and oppressed groups while centering their experiences and amplifying their voices.
Although the roots of Velour’s speeches are often educational, I’ve never heard one sound preachy. Instead, she makes powerful statements about inclusivity that are laced with a touch of intelligent wit so that the audience thinks and laughs at once. That night was no exception. First, Velour joked that her cast would honour all the famous musical acts who have played on the Terminal 5 stage before them “…by lip-syncing to bootleg files of their music”. Then she got philosophical, stating over a cacophony of cheers that-
“Drag is full of contradictions down to its very roots. We dismantle things even as we fetishize them. We put them on a pedestal just to strip them of their power. Drag does that to a little thing called gender. We champion and recycle all the binary clichés, ultimately weakening the hold that that same binary cliché has over our lives”.
With her speech finished and her audience already hoarse from screaming, Velour sashayed towards her hosting corner donning a breathtakingly colourful floral coat so long and glamorous she could barely get onto her seat. Luckily, her very kind and ever-ready stylist Nancy The Girl was there in a flash to help her avoid slipping on the coat’s length or crushing any of the delicate flowers. Velour introduced the first act; core cast member Neon Calypso of Boston, Massachusetts. Neon is a firecracker performer whose fast paced moves and impressive range of tricks take my full attention to film but whose magnificent talent is worth concentrating for. Often set to a combination of POC-made music and political or socially reflective slam poetry, Neon’s lip-syncs are as solid as the colourful hair that stays pinned to perfection on her head no matter how many flying split leaps, death drops, or hair whips she does. With her name projected tall on the backdrop above her, Neon wowed the crowd dancing to a mix of MikeQ and Jay Karan’s “Let It All Out” and Technotronic’s “Pump Up The Jam”. She sent us all into near hysteria when she jumped clear off the edge of the stage and landed in the splits at the front row’s feet… not once, but twice.
While the crowd caught their breath, Sasha introduced Untitled, another resident of the Nightgowns cast and an acclaimed performance and gallery artist in Brooklyn, New York. Untitled is renowned for their conceptual numbers using varied materials and media in creatively visual, thought provoking ways. This particular night was yet another shining example of their abilities. While REM’s “Losing My Religion” played, Untitled emerged lip-syncing passionately and dressed in white briefs with a matching white collar, a nude mesh top, and neutrally coloured, slightly abstract makeup that emulated artist Francis Bacon’s paintings of George Dyer. As the music crescendoed, Untitled moved to the wings, stepped smoothly into a new garment, and began creating shadow shapes on the back wall, moving their hands in the spotlight. On the beat, they crossed the stage to reveal a series of sheets on dowels extending the length of the stage behind them, attached to their back like a sail. They intermittently wrapped and untangled themselves from it until the music faded and the crowd filled all silence.
Velour moved on to introduce newly tenured Nightgowns resident, trans rights activist, and 2012 winner of the Miss Continental drag pageant Sasha Colby. Originally from Hawaii, Colby now lives and works in LA as a dancer and model. She is notorious for her smooth movements and breathtaking hair flips, practically flowing across the stage with stunning ease. On this night, she donned a form fitting leotard with beaded fringe and thigh high leather boots, using her own hair as a prop during a routine to Moloko’s “Sing It Back”. The audience screamed their praises all throughout, screeching anew with every leg extension, head whip, and parting of perfumed hair. As Colby left the stage with a cheeky wave and a smirk in response to the crowd’s thunderous appreciation, Sasha Velour joked that Colby’s number made her want to give up her own signature bald look and grow luscious locks too.
Velour then spoke of one last familiar face from Nightgowns, praising Vander Von Odd’s win on season one of the Boulet Brothers’ hit web series Dragula, as well as their work in filmmaking. Vander is known for their darkly conceptual numbers, more than one of which has made me either squirm in an exhilarating combination of discomfort and delight or openly sob behind my camera. This time, Vander performed to Brian Justin Crum’s arrangement of Radiohead’s “Creep”. Beneath a projection of common queer slurs and insults, Vander stood in a short, black gown, elegantly waved grey hair, and a set of black, twisted horns. Slowly, they disrobed to reveal the words “Love Me” on one arm and “Fuck Me” on the other, each painted to look bloody and scratched into the skin. With the rise of the music, Van Odd pulled the gown off entirely, sliding their horns and hair off the back of their head to stand naked, bald, and vulnerably beautiful in the spotlight. At one point, Van Odd’s music suddenly cut to silence (because even the highest calibre drag show is no stranger to technical difficulties). Professional as ever, they froze momentarily until the music’s return and began seamlessly lip-syncing again where it picked up, as though nothing unusual had occurred. The crowd’s response was a mix of awed applause, screams, and muffled sniffles.
Before intermission, Velour introduced regular Nightgowns emcee and Switch n’ Play drag collective member Miss Malice and Nightgowns stagehand and acclaimed burlesque performer Zoe Ziegfeld to speak about a raffle. Rather than simply encouraging the crowd to bid for their own profit, Malice and Ziegfeld explained that the purpose of buying tickets was to balance out the fact that the venue wasn’t conducive to tipping performers, which is an integral tenet of drag show culture. Without losing the crowd’s attention (since each has a sparkling personality and stage presence), Malice and Ziegfeld praised the benefits of tipping economy for independently working artists as they outlined how audience members might participate.
Much to the crowd’s excitement, Velour then surprised us with a group number featuring not only Nightgowns resident cast members Sasha Colby, Neon Calypso, Untitled, and Vander Von Odd, but also both Miss Malice and Zoe Ziegfeld (still with her headpiece on, as though someone might call on her for immediate assistance at any moment), youth leadership program developer and Brooklyn drag queen Lady Quesa’Dilla, and Sasha Velour herself (freed of the beautiful but cumbersome coat). Group numbers occasionally grace the Nightgowns stage but they’re not a staple, so the audience was ecstatic to see such a combination of performers at once. Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” floated from the speakers as the performers sat on a row of stools in the dark, singing lines individually or together each time a tightly framed spotlight hit their face. This created a visual effect that mimicked the beat and quite literally gave each artist their moment to shine.
During the intermission (and much to my amusement), Papa Velour told his companions and I about how Sasha used to put on full production shows for family members in the living room, complete with costume and set changes, as early as the age of three. Then, at Miss Malice’s introduction, Velour emerged wearing a new, stunningly beaded red gown by Diego Montoya and black spiked headpiece reminiscent of a mohawk, bringing the audience back to their seats for the second half of the show in style.
Speaking with clear admiration, Velour introduced Justin Vivian Bond, a Tony nominated trans genre artist, Obie and Bessie award winner, and Broadway performer who has long been a staple in the New York City cabaret scene. Bond performed two songs with a live band, delighting the crowd with a series of theatrical dance movements as they first crooned David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul”, followed by another Bowie tune, “Rock n’ Roll Suicide”. Between the two, Bond introduced their band members and joked that, at their age, the act of falling to the floor mid-performance isn’t called a “death drop” but rather a “slow death drip”. The audience stood to applaud at the end of Bond’s set while they bid us farewell, black sequins ablaze under the spotlight.
Emerging once more (she stood in the wings for Bond’s performance rather than in the corner because watching them live was what she called “a spiritual experience”), Velour introduced a talented pair of drag kings. Lamenting the way kings are often sorely undervalued in drag and praising these two for “healing our community”, she gave us K James and Vigor Mortis, both also members of Switch n’ Play. Dressed in robes, James and Mortis auditioned against each other for a spot with The Chippendales. Part lip-synced dialogue and part dance number, the performance had the audience slapping our knees with laughter, particularly when the kings whipped off their robes and matching sequined button-downs to frolic topless to the tune of Loverboy’s “Working For The Weekend”. When James won the position, he and Mortis expressed their dismay at having to part ways to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” until RuPaul’s voice told them “Shantay you both stay”, much to the crowd’s delight.
Next on the roster was the night’s first international guest. Velour described non-binary performance artist Victoria Sin’s work, remembering them fondly from Nightgowns London earlier this year. Sin’s number lived up to their reputation for using drag to challenge binaries and oppose negative attitudes towards femme identity. Over the instrumental musings of Stanley Black’s “You’re The Top”, Sin presented a stunning exaggeration of glamorous femininity, as though they might attend a ball. Instead, they approached a table and pulled off the cloth to reveal all the fixings of a cheese sandwich. With a nearly laissez faire attitude, Sin showed the crowd each ingredient and actually made a sandwich, stopping with a slight flourish to show the audience each step, as if to say “Yes. I’ve actually done it. I’ve unwrapped the cheese slice. You’re welcome”. Parody of gendered stereotypes were clear, but in a brilliantly casual way that let the audience marvel at every simple movement, hollering when Sin presented someone in the front row with the completed sandwich at the end.
After confirming with the lucky audience member that Sin’s sandwich tasted good, Sasha Velour introduced fellow RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Shea Coulee. She recalled how unusual an experience filming reality TV is, remarking how lucky she was to find a supportive friend in Coulee amidst the chaos of life on set. Coulee was only in the city for events outside of RuPaul’s DragCon and not attending the convention itself, so fans screamed the house down when she took her place centre stage. To the tune of Janelle Monet’s “Screwed”, Shea Coulee embodied what my mind pictures when POC folks use the term “Black Girl Magic”. Her black, white, and rhinestoned catsuit with fishnet accents fit just right and her hair bounced as she danced for us in a way that was both impressive and effortless looking.
From there, Velour introduced us better to Lady Quesa’Dilla, who had been in the group number and now returned herself. With a Masters degree in performance studies from Tisch School of The Arts, Quesa was the perfect person to deliver young drag fans a queer history reading. She did so with gusto, first making kind hearted jokes about her friendship with Velour before and after Drag Race and then thanking members of the Nightgowns team for their unwavering support during past hardship. She urged us to uplift each other in dark times as well as good ones. Finally, Quesa read a poem written by Jimmy Camicia for fellow Hot Peaches drag group member and queer history icon Marsha P. Johnson. The monologue tells the story of the Stonewall riots in New York City through Johnson’s voice. Quesa’s tone and conviction were so captivating that I caught myself letting my video camera drift slightly as she hooked my full attention right from “Can you spare some change for a dying queen?”
In stark contrast to the historical lesson we’d received from Lady Quesa’Dilla, the next performer’s number was both silly and heartwarming at once. Telling us of her role as daytime high school teacher and producer of a weekend traveling drag show for children, Velour introduced us to UK drag queen Donna Trump (promising us she bears “No relation to the American con artist”). I’d already seen the main attraction in Trump’s outfit backstage, but I was thrilled to hear the audience gasp in delight when she turned around to reveal a full prosthetic hippopotamus snout, expertly applied to her own face and painted bright pink. “I Hope I Get It” from the musical Chorus Line began as Trump was cut from an audition, receiving harsh criticism for her looks. The ballerina hippo rallied her spirits, though, wowing the audience by actually opening her rubber mouth. Trump lip-synced incredibly realistically below a projection of a handwritten note about self love. She danced joyfully to a mix of popular songs including “Hunger” by Florence + The Machine and the Hungry, Hungry Hippos theme song, causing flurries of giggles in the crowd as she twerked and twirled.
Velour saved the finale spot of the show for perhaps the most iconic performer on cast. She described Lypsinka’s club, festival, Broadway, and fashion achievements with reverence, naming her as a “…true personal hero”. Accompanied by K James and Vigor Mortis, Lypsinka was greeted by an audience that was already on their feet before she’d even hit her mark. As the kings stood still, Lypsinka treated us to a cabaret style rendition of Dolores Grey’s “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”, chucking each of them under the chin playfully and pulling her red ruffled skirt off to reveal a sleek fringed dress. The number was reminiscent of her 1992 performance on Thierry Mugler’s runway at LA Fashion Week. The song hit its last note and the kings exited as Lypsinka rolled seamlessly into her notorious ringing telephone mix, just as she’d originally performed it during television spots like her 1993 appearance on The Joan Rivers Show. I marveled at the skill and patience involved in making such a number in a time before computer programs, cutting sounds together using records and a tape recorder. The audience listened raptly between each ring, laughing at the references they recognized or, in the case of some younger fans, just enjoying the way the sound bytes flowed. The line “Barbara, please!” as heard in the film Mommie Dearest was particularly popular. As the mix built to its finale, Velour handed Lypsinka a mock Oscar with which she performed an acceptance bit that got people on their feet cheering.
Curtain call brought each team member out to be showered in praise, smiling and waving as they hugged each other. Some of the artists recognized people they knew in the crowd, scampering to the edge of the stage to hold their hands and thank them for coming. As the audience cleared and the performers returned to their dressing rooms, I walked with Papa Velour backstage to give them our congratulations on a successful show. We entered the main hallway to find a crowd near the end so we held back, thinking perhaps there was a post-show meeting. We quickly learned, thanks to whispers traveling back down the hallway on the lips of excited team members, that Janet Jackson had attended and was greeting Sasha and her cast. We didn’t see the singer ourselves; Papa Velour and I stood out of the way, discussing how impressed we were that a show with small local origins had turned into a notable production with such draw that the likes of Janet Jackson would be interested in seeing it.
I say this with honesty and not because the people I’ve described here are friends and idols; each and every Nightgowns I’ve attended has been phenomenal. Besides entertaining me, this show gives me a sense of belonging in an industry that, despite my love for it, doesn’t always allow femme identified queer people to feel genuinely comfortable and accepted. After this rendition of the show, however, I didn’t just leave with my usual post-Nightgowns sense of empowerment and belonging. Instead, I found the experience of documenting drag legends in the making performing alongside actual pop culture icons, particularly for such a large and adoring audience, to be nothing short of fulfilling. I hope the talented people on stage felt a similar sense of fulfillment, as well as the love I watched the crowd shower them in. That admiration is well deserved.