Rico swaggers down the aisle of the Art House Theatre in Provincetown, oozing confidence and brazenly flirting with the cheering women who’ve claimed every available seat (plus a few folding chairs at the back) for the sold-out show. Clad in aviator sunglasses and an army-green T-shirt, with a thin, carefully clipped mustache on his upper lip and a cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth, he struts with the bravado of an enormously plumed male bird during mating season.
VIDEO: All The King's Men performs 'N Sync's "Bye Bye Bye" at Pride 2008
When he reaches the stage, he gradually removes pieces of his ensemble. Off come the sunglasses and the mustache, ripped free in one quick tug, and on go a dainty black-lace glove and crimson lipstick. Next, Rico removes his boxer shorts and “package,” in this case a balled-up sock. Underneath his guy undies he’s wearing tight black ladies underwear with tassels. He steps into a pair of matching red stiletto heels.
Rico’s body language slowly but visibly becomes more feminine (less boastful, more graceful) as he dons a nice-girl pigtailed wig and moves fluidly around the stage. Finally, he removes his tank top — and the ace bandages used to bind his . . . breasts? — then dances playfully back up the aisle and out of the theater, the same way he came in, leaving the audience with only a brief glimpse of his final feminine ensemble. In mere moments, Rico transformed before the audience’s eyes, from a macho “man’s man” to a coy, female erotic dancer, thus giving life to stereotypes, both male and female, which the audience happily lapped up.
The fact that “Rico” is actually a woman named Karin Webb only feeds the vacationing crowd’s enthusiasm.
Webb is one of eight members of All the Kings Men, one of the best-known drag-king theater troupes in Boston. If you’re not familiar with them, or their peers in such smaller troupes as Queer Soup Kings and Unsuspecting Females, you may want to start asking for IDs before locking lips in a bar.
VIDEO: Heywood Wakefield performing at IDKE in Vancouver
There is no prototypical woman who chooses to perform in drag. Many are lesbians, though certainly not all of them are. Some are actors, whereas others seek out the thrill of completely transforming their identity, flip-flopping genders as easily as John McCain changes his stance on tax cuts.
“Drag kings are performers,” says Mia Anderson, the founder of Drag Kings, Sluts, and Goddesses, Boston’s original women-in-drag performance group. “It’s not that they want to be men. They see masculinity and femininity as expressions, rather than set-in-stone genders, and they just want to express masculinity.”
Drag kings are also not simply the opposite of drag queens. The definition of drag king is ambiguous, and for a reason that’s well evidenced by Webb’s female-as-male to female-as-female performance. “The international drag-king scene defines a drag king as a person who performs masculinity on the stage,” says Aliza Shapiro, who has both performed in drag shows and hosted them in Boston since 2000. But for many drag kings, the goal is not simply to dress as a man for performance-art purposes as much as it is to visibly blur gender lines.
Shapiro first conceived her drag-performance persona — a 59-year-old man in thick glasses and a polyester suit she named Heywood Wakefield — partly to impress her then-girlfriend, and partly out of her “desire to understand the kind of masculinity of a guy who goes to work every day, and carries a briefcase. What makes that masculine?” she asks. Shapiro speaks of Heywood as though he’s a close friend or family member, noting details of his fictional existence — he has a lesbian daughter, for instance, he’s divorced, and he’s very awkward around women. (In many ways, Heywood is her contrary, but his traits aren’t entirely unfamiliar. As she notes, “I’m awkward around women who hit on me, too.”)
Shapiro performed as Wakefield at the Theater District’s Jacques Cabaret for several years, hosting the club’s Glitterswitch drag-karaoke night, before conceiving TraniWreck, an open-ended clusterfuck of a variety show for drag artists (“We really celebrate the ‘wreck’ part,” she notes), which eventually moved from Jacques to the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain. The next installment takes place this Sunday. Shapiro also produces Wreckage, a yearly drag contest, via her alternative events-hosting project, Truth Serum Productions. (For more info on either event, see truthserum.org.) Ever-present in the city’s drag scene, she also leads drag workshops, and is a guiding force for budding first-time drag kings — like me.
BOUND, PACKED, AND LOADED FOR BARE: As a man, our reporter (shown before and after) hid in a corner and pondered which bathroom to use.
The walk of the cock
In order to totally understand drag kings for this story, I figured I’d need to get a Y chromosome — or at least a pretend one — by dressing in drag myself. I visit Shapiro’s Dorchester apartment on a rainy Sunday evening, hours before the April installment of TraniWreck, to gain some insight. When I arrive, Shapiro, a friend, and her cat are listening to Neil Diamond and making last-minute show preparations. I’ve brought a bag of outfit options for my king: a grungy Kurt Cobain disciple I’ve named Colin, whom I’d dreamed up earlier that day. I show Shapiro an array of flannel shirts and ski hats. She thinks for a moment, and then plucks several items from the pile.