“Ladies and gentlemen and persons of all gender,” began emcee Fara Day, a dramatic black silhouette on the stage. “You’ve seen it last year, you’ve seen it the year before and you’ve seen it the year it snowed in fucking October … the New Haven Striptease!”
Day’s “striptease” was slow and methodical. She removed layer after layer of heavy winter coats, pulled off leather gloves with her teeth and wrestled with yet more sweaters, all building to the big reveal: full-length pants and a tank top.
GenderSMASH, the first show of the season for Yale’s only drag, burlesque and cabaret group, took Sudler Hall by storm on Sunday night with performances that included lip-syncing, dancing, spontaneous musical numbers and even a queer retelling of Rumpelstiltskin that had the audience gasping, laughing and cheering.
Witty, satirical and irreverent, GenderSMASH trampled traditional gender delineations and embraced the messiness of negotiating gender pronouns. The audience hooted and hollered in full support of the hip-hop dancers “Just Bros Being Dudes,” snapped for the Queer Fairy Tale characters, who all lived “fabulously ever after,” and could hardly stop laughing during Charley Whip, Fara Day and Jack Daniels’ rendition of “Lesbian or Hipster?” This number, a musical parody of “Gay or European,” merrily poked fun at stereotypes, fashion sense and the unfathomable distance between Pierson and TD (Day: “I can’t set up my Pierson suitemate in a long-distance relationship!”). I found it spectacularly well written, with rhymes as surprising and well-done as those in any Broadway hit.
And, needless to say, it was impossible to forget Whip’s rainbow feather boa, which they pulled out from the crotch of their pants while lip-syncing to “I’m Sexy and I Know It.”
But GenderSMASH wasn’t just fun and games. Drag queen Lizzie “the Beast” Bennett performed a poignant routine to “Why Bother,” portraying a trans woman facing rejection and isolation because of her identity. Bennett leaped off the stage and into the “Splash Zone,” or the first several rows in the auditorium. She got into audience members’ faces, asking “Why bother? It’s gonna hurt me — It’s gonna kill when you desert me,” and, with the lipstick she had begun the choreography with, slashed a vivid line of red down her arm.
Next, Lady Deathstryke’s rendition of Marilyn Manson’s “Rock is Dead” opened by posing a powerful thought experiment: “You are a trans woman getting ready to go out on the town. You know you will be read as trans, so do you dress demure or sexy? Would you rather be fearful or be feared?”
Lady Deathstryke, dressed in a floor-length leather coat, answered through her performance: Be fearsome. Be sexy. Be really fucking magnetic.
Because at its heart, GenderSMASH is more than just an hour of risqué acts and cross-dressing. Part of Trans/gender Awareness Weeks at Yale, the Bad Romantics’ first performance of the season is very much a commemoration of trans people who face abuse, harassment and murder around the world. “We are up here performing because we are powerful, we are fierce and we love ourselves,” said Whip.
Frank acknowledgment and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and themes in its performances sets GenderSMASH apart from (or above) other shows. Where Rumpelstiltskin was once a fairy tale about defeating the mysterious Other against all odds, Frank Taylor flipped it on its head and turned the name-guessing game into a candid discussion of gender pronouns and how to be a basic human being. Unlike two other shows I watched this weekend, GenderSMASH had hardly a straight romance in sight, and it took this fact, strutted it and sold it. The fact that the performers were drag queens and kings and trans people of Yale made no difference to the audience, who called out compliments and encouragement to the stage all the same.
And, if I may be a little romantic, GenderSMASH’s atmosphere of complete and utter acceptance of anyone within, across or beyond the gender binary system inspired hope that one day the entire world can be like this: supportive, accepting and — if we’re lucky — just as sexy and self-confident.