When I stepped into the audition room for Forbidden Planet Production’s “Rent” in August, I didn’t expect to be cast as Angel.
For those of you who don’t know, Angel is a drag queen.
It may have been because I expected to be cast as another character. Or it could have been my fears about performing in a short skirt and black wig in front of jam-packed audiences. Either way, I wasn’t happy.
I’d always thought drag was a way for broken and confused people to masquerade as someone else, or to fill some void within themselves. And I could never dream of understanding what would compel a gay man like myself to dress and act like a woman.
It seemed like far too many hours of hell, applying make up and walking in stilettos, just to have people throw money at you for a night or two on the weekend.
I didn’t get it and I didn’t want to. That is, until I played a character who did.
“Rent” is, at its core, about a group of starving artists in lower Manhattan trying to get by in the 1980s. It’s funny and uplifting, save for the fact that many of the characters, including Angel, are HIV-positive and know that their time to live is limited. Angel’s art, performing in drag and playing percussion, is also his lifestyle.
Now, drag wasn’t a new concept to me. I’ve had many friends, my age and older, who perform in drag. But I never really got it.
After going from spectator to performer, though, and literally walking a mile in Angel's heels, I now understand drag as an art form. Drag is meaningful to many people who put the same effort and creativity into their craft as actors or artists.
Drag is a complicated art, but understanding its importance for people is actually very simple. Drag queens work tirelessly to make the perfect costume, the perfect song mix and the perfect makeup palette. They put their whole selves into the process because for many of them, it isn’t just some hobby or a way to make money.
If you zoom out, you can see how thousands in D.C. and on campus have a burning desire to create something they love to share with their communities. You could see it on 17th Street near Dupont Circle last week for the annual High Heel Race. You could see it in Lisner Auditorium last spring as straight guys embraced drag for Allied in Greek.
I witnessed that effort while preparing for my role. I spoke with drag queens at GW and back at home who gave me tips on everything from how to do my hair to how to hold my shoulders when walking in heels.
Here’s what was lost on me before I was cast in the role of Angel and what I think is lost on many people who don’t have direct experience with drag queens: Drag is a form of creation accessible to anyone, regardless of gender or sexuality.
In fact, my brother – who is straight – was the one in my family who wanted to, and did, play Angel with a drama group in our high school. And I’ve even heard stories of married men who fit the rugged, masculine stereotype living their lives dressed at least partially in women’s clothing.
While we urbanites like to think of ourselves as open and progressive, that doesn’t mean we all embrace drag culture. Many would cringe at the thought of attending a drag show. I once did, too. Sometimes things are only accessible to us when we actually learn what they’re truly about, or immerse ourselves in them.
By the end of “Rent,” I had discovered that I had far more in common with Angel than I thought I did when the process began. We’re both just two young, gay city-dwellers trying to get by. One of us just prefers to do it in a wig and heels.
The writer is a sophomore majoring in international affairs.