When you think of drag queens reading, you think of them tearing people a new one with bitchy observations and finger snapping. But there’s the other kind of reading too—you know, the kind involving an actual book. And that, inspiringly enough, is what’s on the rise, as a new type of clowny children’s entertainment develops in the form of drag stars reading fairy tales. Out loud! The mixture of the familiar and the flamboyant makes things interesting, and the result has proven to be a learning experience for virtually everyone involved, both young and old.
On Thursday evening, the Brooklyn-based drag performer Merrie Cherry did a "Drag Queen Story Hour” before and after the sea lion show at Roar, a Central Park Zoo-held benefit for the Callen-Lorde clinic. Addressing some hypnotized looking kids covered in face paint, Merrie read Introducing Teddy, an illustrated book about gender and friendship, plus And Tango Makers Three, the story of a gay penguin couple who adopt a baby. “Not all boy penguins go with girl penguins,” Merrie explained to the kids, in the course of the reading. “It’s non-binary!”
Merrie has also done the Drag Queen Story Hour in libraries, as has long running drag star Harmonica Sunbeam, who did so at the New York Public Library in Harlem not long ago. Harmonica dressed in a sparkly outfit and white and blue wig, while clutching a sequined purse filled with children’s books. As part of the activities, the kids were encouraged to make crowns for themselves, to make them feel even more royally enchanted.
Created by Michelle Tea and RADAR Productions, Drag Queen Story Hour also happens in schools and bookstores, in NYC, LA and San Francisco, among other cities. The happening gives drag queens a chance to work on sweeter material than they’re used to, while also providing kids with expanded views of gender and entertainment. Harmonica says that a drag queen who’s used to performing in bars knows how to grab the attention of people whose minds might drift (though in this case, it’s not due to alcohol). Adds Harmonica, “I think it's a wonderful experience for kids because every drag queen has their own look and style when presenting to them. Some of the stories we read are popular with the children, so it brings some familiarity to the event. Other stories teach them to be more accepting of things that are different, and in the case that any of them feel different, it may help them to be more secure about it. In addition, since many of the kids come with caregivers, it opens up both parties to some wonderful conversation on the way home.” That’s great. I can’t even think of anything to read about it!
OPENLY LESBIAN DALE SOULES WAS PROMOTED ON OITNB!
Dale Soules has been promoted to series regular on Orange is the New Black, where she memorably plays tattooed inmate Frieda Berlin. I’ve liked the New Jersey-born Dale since seeing her on Broadway in The Magic Show way back in 1974 and many years later in a musical called Hands on a Hard Body, where she was a riveting hard-bitten piece of work. She always delivers, so I was delighted to play two-questions with her.
Hello, Dale. Congrats on your role and your promotion. How does it feel to play such a hardened criminal?
Although I play an incarcerated, heterosexual murderer on TV, in real life I’m a free, homosexual actor for over 50 years, I love playing Frieda Berlin. Hardened criminal? Just because she cut off her husband’s penis with a dull butcher knife and enjoyed it? It’s not for me to judge, but to justify. I feel she had good reasons to remove it.
So did Lorena Bobitt! Have you ever played someone this tough before?
Yes, I think so. Arlene in Marsha Norman’s Getting Out (a prisoner most of her life) and Miyoko Yakimoto, the FizzBang Girl (a dragon lady) in Len Jenkin’s New Jerusalem. She said, “I’m a Shiatsu School dropout, but I know where to press honey.” But they were both in the theater. I knew the characters’ whole journey when I read the script. For OITNB, we find out one episode at a time what our characters will be doing. Like life, it keeps you on your toes and toughens you up. You never know what the new day/episode will bring, and reveal to you about yourself or your character.”
SWEDE DREAMS ARE MADE OF THIS
I was held captive, watching Gunhild Carling at the Metropolitan Room the other night, and loved it. If the old Ed Sullivan Show—the '60s variety program that featured a panoply of novelty acts—was still on, Carling would be a huge star in America. She fully deserves that status anyway. The Swedish fireball is a wacky, aggressive triple threat who plays instruments, sings jazz, and tap dances, also throwing in quirky banter and interaction with her three-piece band. Carling bounced out with a Sonja Henie-like blonde hairdo and a snazzy black dress and impressed as sort of a Swedish Betty Hutton, trilling on classics like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “La Vie En Rose,” as well as original tunes, sprinkling plenty of crowd-pleasing spontaneity into her presentation. “Play some romantic cadences,” she amusingly ordered a musician at one point. (When he did so, then stopped, she ordered, “More! More!”) Another time, Carling asked the audience if we wanted a love song or a funeral song. “Same thing,” quipped someone in the crowd, and she rolled her eyes and did a love song. She also dexterously played multiple trombones at once—she could probably play all three strippers in Gypsy—and also soared on German medieval bagpipes, doing a rather astounding version of “Amazing Grace.” Carling came in third on the Swedish version of Dancing With The Stars, but she claimed it was only because she fell and broke her nose while ballroom dancing and people felt sorry for her. Even more bittersweet is her story of performing for the King of Sweden and saying all the wrong things, while being televised for a mass audience. I’m sure he adored her as much as the Metropolitan Room audience did. Ed Sullivan, come back!
BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY
In other festive musical news, I hear the legendary Jerry Herman (who wrote the score for Hello, Dolly!) might be feted with a big 86th birthday party this summer at someone’s house in Fire Island. My spies say that a rich person offered to donate her house, but only if Bette Midler is guaranteed to be there. Bette’s probably waiting for a sign that she should go.
Meanwhile, Bette didn’t make it to the Drama Desk Awards last night, where she won Outstanding Actress in a Musical, but plenty of other notables did, and I caught up with them at the after party. There was Drew Droege, whom I cavort with on Logo’s Cocktails & Classics, hosted by Michael Urie (who hosted the Drama Desks too). Drew told me he’s set to play the drama teacher on TV’s reboot of Heathers, which includes a black lesbian, a gender-queer person, and various other fascinating folk that should ruffle all the right feathers….I also ran into Daryl Glenn, who did an award winning cabaret show consisting of music from the Robert Altman classic Nashville. Daryl told me he’s planning a new show of songs from Altman’s 1980 Popeye movie, and he’ll perform it with Nellie McKay. (This will be at the Metropolitan Room—if Gunhild Carling isn’t still singing, that is.)…I saw Jason Hayes, who in February did a smash Stonewall Tavern benefit for anti-gun groups, featuring Cate Blanchett in drag, along with a bevy of seasoned drag performers. Jason revealed that he will do similar benefits at the same place, one featuring Anjelica Huston and one with Toni Collette. (Well, Toni already played a female drag queen in Connie and Carla)…And finally, I met a chorus boy who left Cats because “I was sick of the spandex and hair.” He landed in Hello, Dolly! and now moans, “The amount of time my shoulders give out! And my legs give out!” Someone needs a reading from a drag queen, I fear. But hopefully the guy will get his ass to Fire Island for that Jerry Herman party.