Kings of the night: New era of gender dynamics offers drag kings a brighter spotlight
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TORONTO — Spencer Munny paces the beaten wooden floors of the Buddies in Bad Times community theatre as rehearsals for the night's most stunning drag king performance get underway.
It's a grim tale of a tortured music conductor who loses his young female muse before embarking on an intense search to recapture his creativity.
The scene opens with Toronto drag king Quinn embracing the woman before she disappears into the darkness. There are glittery costumes, a hammering death metal score, and seemingly nude bodies painted like musical instruments.
Munny and fellow "Kings and Classics" show organizer Pretty Riikkii love that it defies practically everything audiences expect from a drag king show. They're tired of kings only slapping on a moustache to play dudes in leather jackets or lumberjack plaid.
"The challenge right now is kings are boring," explains Munny, who on stage wears a chin strap and spiked hair with a dash of red colouring.
"Kings are hyper-masculine and that's ugly and toxic. We're fighting to be like, 'This is different! Come and see it and you'll like it!' Showing them a new side of drag."
After years of living in the shadows of flamboyant drag queens and the hit TV series "RuPaul's Drag Race," the producers behind Toronto's Pretty Munny Productions say it's time kings got a fair shake. They're no longer satisfied with bar owners telling them queens are a bigger draw, or hearing gay men grumble about the lack of sparkle in drag king performances.
Their monthly showcase aims to put a dazzling crown on Canada's drag king community.
Male impersonation has a history in popular entertainment that stretches back more than a century. In the early 1900s, female performers like Vesta Tilley and Ella Shields sold out London's music halls by serenading the crowds while dressed in top hats and evening jackets.
Drag kings existed throughout the decades, but a resurgence struck in the 1980s when avant-garde performers like Diane Torr, who was born in Peterborough, Ont., challenged perceptions of gender through live performances and art projects.
While traditionally drag kings involved women stepping into the roles — and clothes — of their male counterparts, today it's not that simple.
Kings can be women dressed as men, they can be transgender, or non-binary, which means they have no gender definition. The boundaries have been lifted like never before — which is why some people call it "gender blurring" instead.
Vancouver performer Rose Butch prefers the ambiguous label "drag thing," which leaps across all the spectrums. After Butch adopted the phrase a few years ago, others started using it on the tight-knit West Coast scene.
Many performers honour the classic approach by binding their chests to minimize the appearance of their breasts, gluing hair on their faces with spirit gum, and "packing" their pants with an artificial bulge to mimic the male anatomy.
Shows put on by Pretty Munny Productions — and hosted by the organizers — have those types of kings, but also others who accentuate their breasts with tassles or pasties. Some performers begin dressed as men before slowly removing layers of clothing to reveal their female body. Transgender performers will sometimes appear in the lineup too.
In other parts of Canada, drag king shows often have a dash of local community flavour.
In Halifax, kings occasionally put an East Coast spin on the night with an Irish drinking song, while Ottawa-based outfit Canada Capital Kings prefers wearing conservative attire like business suits and tool belts.
Montreal's drag kings are more underground with performances turning up on cabaret nights and at local cafes. In Calgary, the kings attract the smaller LGBTQ community by hosting annual Oscars-night shows and other themed events.
Performer Flare, who's been part of the drag king scene in Canada for more than 20 years, says the emerging trend of defying gender expectations is unlike anything he's seen before.
"It's almost this 'magical creature' style of drag — unicorn drag," he says.
What Pretty Munny Productions strives for more than anything is an environment filled with encouragement. While drag queens thrive on their catty personalities and insult comedy, Pretty Riikkii says there isn't room for hostility at their king shows. New performers — known as "princes" — often get an extra boost of affection.
"We've fought so hard for a positive, safer space ... so we try to stray away from negative humour," he says.
"We don't want anyone to feel put on the spot."
The welcoming spirit at "Kings and Classics" is palpable with smiles and laughter aplenty on the dance floor. Strangers engage in friendly conversation and share hugs before the show begins, which isn't always the scene in cliquey big city gay bars.
Dresden Shred, a fan who strives to attend every show, says the vibe is something he never takes for granted.
"It's a place where you belong, even though you're part of the audience," he says.
"A lot of queer spaces like that aren't welcoming for trans people, but (here) you feel like you're with friends. I just feel good."
The vibe has also opened the doors for both co-hosts to bare their own souls.
Munny began a recent show dressed in a hospital gown for a piece called "Waiting Game," about an intensely personal struggle with the possibility of gender reassignment surgery. It left Munny, and some in the audience, in tears.
"I had to do it for the 19-year-old trans kid," Munny says.
"I want to be a shining light for them. I want to do what some trans people did for me."
Joy Serrano, who performs as Mike Hunt-Black, hopes this invigorated energy in the drag king community could be a harbinger of better things to come.
There are some reasons to feel progress is being made on a few fronts.
After objections over Pride Toronto's sparse one hour devoted to drag kings last year, the organizers have tripled their time at this weekend's event.
And in Prince Albert, Sask., the first public drag king performances were hosted this month as part of the city's pride events.
Serrano says it's still not much of a platform, but it is a start.
"It's almost revolutionary," she says. "But it's going to be the hardest battle."
Hear a selection of drag king performance tracks with "A Royal Playlist - Drag Kings Pick Their Favourites" on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/cdnpressarts/playlist/1gACBbFVSNG5H1H7YsPFSl
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