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Before there was “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and drag brunch in Wynwood, there was Shakespeare.
Women were not allowed to perform on stage in England until 1660, which meant that men in wigs and dresses would depict female characters in Shakespeare’s most iconic plays. In modern theater, a strong tradition of drag on stage remains, from Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” to Mrs. Trunchbull in “Matilda” to Angel in “Rent.”
Drag, particularly in the presence of children, is the latest target in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ onslaught against what he calls “woke ideology.” As the state government reprimands businesses and venues that have hosted drag shows where children were present, South Florida performance arts groups have watched with unease.
Conservative politicians’ increasingly inflammatory rhetoric and legislation targeting the LGBTQ community may have a chilling effect. Members of South Florida’s theater scene question what the implications may be for performances that include LGBTQ characters, actors in drag or themes that the state government may find offensive. Drag artists wonder if venues that have hosted their shows in the past may now view them as a liability. And some worry that theater may be the next battleground in DeSantis’ culture war.
“I feel as if that is a strong potential,” said Stuart Meltzer, the artistic director for Zoetic Stage, a Miami-based theater company. “Most of us are just waiting to see what happens.”
The Miami Herald reached out to several performing arts groups and venues for this report. One theater organization, which has LGBTQ cast members, declined to speak on the record out of fear of retaliation. Meltzer said that some in the local theater scene have reservations about sharing their concerns with the press, himself included.
“People are scared,” Meltzer said. “And that shows you everything that you need to know about what’s really going on.”
Is drag a liability?
The DeSantis administration’s legal battles against venues that host drag shows began in August when it filed a complaint against R House, a popular Wynwood restaurant known for its weekend drag brunches, and threatened to rescind its liquor license.
The state took issue with a video of a drag performer wearing pasties and a g-string walking around the restaurant with a small girl. The performer said the girl’s parents asked her to walk with her because it was her birthday. The state’s complaint alleges that the restaurant exposed minors to “sexually explicit” conduct that “corrupts the public morals and outrages the sense of public decency.” The restaurant refuted those claims.
The governor’s administration has also threatened to remove the liquor licenses of two other venues, the Hyatt Regency Miami and the Plaza Live theater in Orlando, for hosting “A Drag Queen Christmas,” a holiday-themed drag show that features contestants from reality competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Again, the state complained that there were children in the audience exposed to sexually explicit conduct, though investigators reported there were no “lewd” acts at the Orlando show.
DeSantis, who is expected to run for president and has garnered national attention for his “anti-woke” agenda, has said the goal is to financially hurt venues that allow children to see drag.
When asked if the state would pursue similar complaints against theater or concerts that include LGBTQ characters or drag artists, spokesperson Jeremy Redfern said he was “not sure what these questions have to do with exposing children to sexually explicit content.”
“Sexually explicit content is not appropriate to display to children and doing so violates Florida law,” Redfern said in an email. “Governor DeSantis stands up for the innocence of children in the classroom and throughout Florida.”
In Central Florida, drag queen and nonprofit founder Jason DeShazo said anti-drag bills and rhetoric have lead to threats of violence and pressure to cancel his family-friendly events.
DeShazo, known as Momma Ashley Rose in drag, runs Rose Dynasty Foundation, a nonprofit that hosts all-ages events like drag queen story hours and provides a safe space for LGBTQ youth and their families in Polk County. Unlike most drag artists, Momma is “100% family friendly” and never includes explicit content, not even curse words in pop songs.
Just three years ago, DeShazo said he had never dealt with protesters or controversy. But as recently as December, neo-Nazis protested outside one of his fundraising events. DeShazo and the nonprofit receive constant threats of violence and have struggled to find venues to host events without canceling.
“It’s the laws and the lies that are coming out of not only political atmospheres but certain media outlets that are instilling this fear,” DeShazo said. “It’s pushing and driving hate.”
Coming to a theater (and arena) near you
Whether DeSantis likes it or not, drag has cemented itself into mainstream pop culture. And touring productions that feature drag are coming to South Florida.
Pop icon Madonna, a vocal LGBTQ ally, is bringing her world tour to the Miami-Dade Arena with special guest, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner and comedian Bob the Drag Queen. Madonna recently announced the addition of more tour dates, including a stop in Tennessee to protest the state’s “drag ban” law. The arena declined to comment for this story.
Jinkx Monsoon, another “Drag Race” winner and Broadway actor, is bringing her live music act to The Coral Springs Center for the Arts this summer. As of publication, Monsoon’s show is the only upcoming performance on The Center’s website that is listed with the following advisory: “Please note this event is ages 18+ only.” The Center declined to comment.
Next spring, “Mrs. Doubtfire: The Musical,” a musical based on the beloved Robin Williams comedy of the same name, comes to The Broward Center for the Performing Arts. In the show, the main character is a father who loses custody of his children and disguises himself in drag as a Scottish nanny to spend time with them. The production is recommended for children 8 years old and up, according to the Broadway Across America website. The Broward Center and Broadway Across America, the company that tours Broadway shows across the country, did not respond to requests for comment.
In theater seasons past, the Broward Center and The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, have hosted musical productions with actors in drag, like “Kinky Boots.”
Drag even makes a brief appearance in “My Fair Lady,” which opened at the Arsht Center last week. During a boisterous musical number, Eliza Doolittle’s father is dancing with a large group during a fun night out before his wedding. Two dancers appear cross dressed, a woman dressed as a groom and a man dressed as a bride.
In a statement, Arsht Center president and CEO Johann Zietsman said the venue “is always monitoring legislation” that may affect its operations and that its current and planned programming is “within the bounds of the proposed legislation.”
“It is our understanding that the current definition of adult entertainment, and the tests applied, are such that our programming is not within the spectrum affected by the bill,” Zietsman said. “Our commitment is always to support creative expression and serve our community in a way that has artistic value and is well-informed, appropriate for the audience and within the confines of the law.”
Giancarlo Rodaz, the associate artistic director at Miami-based theater nonprofit Area Stage Company, said much of the political discourse and legislation surrounding drag performances are silly “political stunts.”
The theater group, which often produces family-friendly plays and musicals, has featured actors in drag in the past, like the villain Miss Hannigan in its production of “Annie.” That’s not going to change, Rodaz said. The group’s upcoming production of “The Little Mermaid” will star an actor in drag as Ursula, the sea witch who was originally based on ’80s drag queen Divine.
“We very purposely enjoy the drag aspects that make the show entertaining,” he said. “There’s a very free, fun quality to drag performances that apply to theater really well.”
Though there aren’t any current Florida laws that would impact Area Stage’s work, Rodaz said legislation like Tennessee’s controversial “drag ban” law are an infringement on freedom of speech. While he agrees that there are some drag shows that are too explicit for children, he noted that drag is not inherently sexual. If Florida ever passed a similar law, Area Stage would “just keep doing what we’re doing,” he said.
“You’re telling stories about all different kinds of people, all kinds of backgrounds, and you need the freedom to do that,” Rodaz said. “That’s what the arts are. That’s the whole purpose of them.”
‘I’m ready for a fight’
The last three years have been hard for South Florida’s theater community. Some theater groups that receive state funding are concerned about the future.
Since the pandemic, plays and musicals are 50 percent more expensive to produce and audience numbers are a fraction of what they used to be, Meltzer estimated. Small theater groups that rely heavily on state or local funding are now fearful of angering politicians, he said.
“How we deal with marketing in a typical time wouldn’t be a problem, but now you have the threat of losing money, which is absolutely ludicrous,” Meltzer said. “Frankly, I feel it goes against freedom of artistic expression and freedom of speech.”
Michel Hausmann, the co-founder and artistic director of Miami New Drama, said the governor’s antics have created a wave of “self-censorship” among creatives, local officials and the general public.
“There is a culture of fear, of getting in trouble,” Hausmann said. “They try to appease those in power.”
Late last year, Miami-Dade Public Schools refused to allow high school students to see Miami New Drama’s staging of “Anna in the Tropics,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, because of sexual scenes. The decision was later reversed after talks between Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Jose L. Dotres, educators and staff, the theater company and Cruz.
Still, the current political climate reminds Hausmann of his life in Venezuela.
He recalled one instance in 2009 when he was translating and directing a production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a famed Jewish musical. At the time, the Venezuelan government expelled the Israeli ambassador following a conflict between Israel and Gaza. The musical’s orchestra director pulled out of production because he didn’t want to risk losing government funding by participating in a Jewish play. Hugo Chavez created a culture of fear, too, Hausmann said.
Miami New Drama doesn’t plan on shying away from LGBTQ characters or diverse stories, he said. While on the phone, he even contemplated doing a production of “The Birdcage.”
“I want to take them on. In general, arts and theater organizations in America, they haven’t had to face things like that,” he said. “They don’t have the muscles to be able to because we’ve had such a stable democracy. But coming from from a dictatorial country, I’m ready for a fight.”
Bari Newport, the GableStage artistic director, agreed with Hausmann and Rodaz. Her theater group will not compromise its plays.
“As a staunch believer in the first amendment, I can guarantee you that GableStage will never back down from artfully telling a story as we believe it needs to be brought to life, nor will we ever shy away from boldly imagining a character in a certain way — even if it is a family show,” she said in an email.
But not all theater groups have that luxury, especially in Florida high schools.
In Jacksonville, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts canceled students’ production of “Indecent,” a play about censorship. The play, which retells the story of a Jewish play called “God of Vengeance,” features a kiss between two female characters. The school’s decision to cancel the play sparked controversy locally and online.
Madeline Scotti, a 17-year-old senior at Douglas Anderson, said she and her fellow cast mates were devastated and frustrated. In the past, students had performed plays with similar themes, like “Rent” and “Chicago.” And the irony of canceling a play about the dangers of censorship were not lost on them, Scotti said.
“The censorship of this play was the silencing of so many of our friends, of ourselves,” Scotti said. “It was kind of unbelievable that a place of education would want to strip away honest and accurate and beautiful representations of a group of people.”
Since her school’s story made headlines, Scotti said she has heard from students and teachers from across the country dealing with the same cancellations. Hopefully, Scotti said, Florida can steer away from censorship. For now, she’s not so sure.
“I think diversity is, at its heart, just so beautiful,” Scotti said. “By censoring diversity, we lose so much art and passion and light in this world.”
How DeSantis’ Anti-Drag War Is Affecting the Performing Arts in Florida – NBC 6 South Florida
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