On a brisk mid-January eve, cabaret standards permeated the walls of New York's legendary Town Hall in a low reedy vibrato, like a gulp of red wine spritzer. The performer was Mx Justin Vivian Bond ("v" is Bond's preferred gender-free pronoun; "Mx" the preferred prefix). The hour-long solo cabaret act preceded an intimate conversation with old Broadway legend Carol Channing. "This song reminds me of love with a goth. It doesn't last long, but it's intense," Bond drawls, before rolling into a therapeutic rendition of The Cure's "Love Song." Seated in the balcony, I remembered how as a young lass, my experience of cabaret shows was limited to vinyl recordings on the basement record player—and inwardly, I thanked the Broadway muses of yesteryear that I had chosen this over another Monday night in Butler Library, and that I would yet again see a performance successfully dismantle the gender binary.
I had begun my research on cabaret weeks earlier, thinking I'd write about drag performers in New York. At the time, I did not know where to begin, other than to say that drag seemed to be more mainstream than in the past. My meager scraps of proof came from the most obvious places: bus-size ads for Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, the popular reality competition RuPaul's Drag Race on Logo TV, the moment James Franco wandered onstage in a pink gown at the Oscars a few years ago. But these days, I'm more careful about how I use the term "drag" because none of the three performers I discuss here are female impersonators.
It is difficult to talk about queer theory without mentioning Judith Butler, who was the first to drop the term "gender performativity" in her book Gender Trouble. In it, she famously tells us that "gender is a construction that one puts on, as one puts on clothes in the morning." That is, polar genders exist only because we perform them. Today, "performativity" is something of a buzzword at Columbia, where Butler currently reigns as a professor of English and Comparative Literature. The term has surfaced not only in the context of gender/queer theory, but also in my courses on film and theater—most recently, in a class on playwright Bertolt Brecht, who made sure his audiences did not become too immersed in the illusion of his plays by reminding them that a show is all an act (e.g. by breaking the fourth wall). Not coincidentally, two of the theater artists in this article have garnered critical praise as actors in recent adaptations of Brecht in New York, appearing in their respective productions as both men and women.
The dismantling of gender norms is taking place onstage in New York City, the heart of mainstream theater. Among those at the forefront of trans performance art are three multitalented New York-based performers: Justin Vivian Bond, Taylor Mac, and Columbia College junior Hari Nef.
Hari Nef: On Campus, On Screen
The opening lines of Hari Nef's college life in revue seem to introduce a very typical once-upon-a-time tale for a Columbia theater major and aspiring performer. "I've been doing theater and performing basically since I was in kindergarten," Nef tells me in an interview. "When I moved to New York I thought I was going to be an actor, and do that." Yet students who know Nef—from theater productions at Barnard, Facebook invitations to events with drag collective Chez Deep, and furtive observance of who's fashionable on campus—have probably guessed that Nef's story from then on has a little more zing to it.
Since freshman year, Nef has acted in a play at Barnard every semester. To give an idea of the heft of this time commitment, Barnard department rehearsals take up to 50 hours per week during at the height of preparation. The first time I saw Nef was in the inaugural production of Lauren Feldman's The Egg-Layers, a modern experimental interpretation of the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, back when I was a prospective student. Needless to say, the performance, and Hari Nef, left a lasting impression.
Two years later, I learned of a parallel plotline in Nef's own world. "I was going out at night with other queer people and playing around with how I was presenting myself there," Nef recalls. By dint of looking cool, Nef received a Facebook message from musician and writer Alexis Blair Penney, an artist from San Francisco's drag scene who was configuring a similar network in New York. Penny wanted Nef to perform at a weekly party at Niagara on the Lower East Side. Not knowing what to expect, Nef agreed. "I showed up to this party in this crazy look, and I did a Shakespeare monologue into my phone."
Each week Nef returned to Niagara to perform; each outfit sent a ripple effect of turned heads; each meeting of like-minded performers led to another. And then came Chez Deep. To this day, Nef belongs to a five-person drag sisterhood on an upward venture in New York's nightlife circuit. In addition to Nef, the group includes Alexis Penney, Sam Banks, Colin Self, and Bailey Stiles—to each performer their own style. A 50-minute Vimeo film documents the group at the Ace Hotel in June of 2013: all skin, fabric, and heels in total flux—a performance that emits a visual contact high.
Though Chez Deep got its start in drag, Nef and crew are currently transitioning to a more mainstream brand of exhibition—one that would take them to New York hotels, museums, and on film. "Drag is all about nightlife, about performing at clubs, and performing in these venues after 10 p.m.," Nef explains. "People have a narrow set of expectations, as well as attention span, for things that you can do onstage." Beyond that, Nef is firm about not wanting to be branded as a female impersonator, after deciding to stop presenting femininity differently onstage versus offstage.
As a solo performer, Nef has mostly appeared in works formed in the minds of other artists (twice at the New Museum last semester, for example). So far, one project bears Nef's own artistic crest: "i am your girlfriend," a 21-minute nonstop lip sync that Nef calls a transfeminine odyssey. The piece premiered at Manhattan's Dixon Place last August, with Nef wearing an elaborate getup styled by friend and designer Prince Franco—an ensemble of Bauer guard plates, red leather gloves, diamond earrings, and a cupola of soft blonde hair.
The piece compiles myriad female monologues from movies, television, theater, and viral videos—from Cate Blanchett in Lord of the Rings, to serial killer Aileen Wuornos before execution, to Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, and so on. The aggregation of the clips speaks to how Nef's femininity has been constructed through the consumption of culture. Though a pastiche—a theatrical medley of high art and trash—element seems more or less evident, Nef admits this was less an aesthetic gesture than a natural by-product of growing up on YouTube. "Those are clips I've been watching for years and years and years," Nef says. "That's how you get inspired."
When it comes to pastiche, Nef is reluctant to take the coincident parallel too far to avoid being viewed as some sort of cultural reference point, a mirror of what's been done instead of a self-made movement. Nef identifies, principally, as an actress. Now that the term is somewhat outdated in mainstream theater and cinema, Nef thinks it can take on a new meaning in an expressly feminine context. "I don't want to be underground. I don't want to be a drag queen in a basement in a club. I want to be very mainstream, but also not change anything."
Of course, any one of us fledgling New Yorkers trying to make it big have probably realized that doing so involves tooting one's own horn with the trill of a thousand belting Bernadettes. To this end, Nef has created a formidable Internet presence on Tumblr (1,193 pages of posts), Twitter (1,595 followers), and Facebook. "It's all just another extension of me shrieking into the universe for justice and visibility," Nef laughs. It seems to be working. Last summer, Nef performed in clubs around various cities in Europe, staying almost exclusively with online friends from Twitter and Tumblr. On top of that, Nef has an online byline as a writer on trans issues for Vice magazine and Original Plumbing , a magazine and website focused toward transgender men. Nef's just getting started.
Taylor Mac: The Ridiculous Traditionalist
Taylor Mac, on the other hand, is no newcomer. No answer to the question "who is Taylor Mac?" could ever be sufficient. In the past 10 years, Mac (whose preferred gender pronoun is judy) has appeared onstage in New York as an American flag, a potted flower, a sea creature, and a party balloon assortment, just to name a few roles.
"I grew up in suburbia where everything is the same, so I try to champion variance," Mac explained to a live audience in an interview with Nick Westrate at the New York Theatre Workshop in March 2012. Bald and lean, often wearing a minimalist uniform of jeans and a button-up shirt, Mac is hardly the type to stand out in the deli line.
The last time I glimpsed the shape-shifting Mac, I was a small clapping figure in a sea of standing ovation that followed The Foundry Theatre's production of Brecht's Good Person of Szechwan. Mac played the role of Shen Tei, a young prostitute-turned-shopkeeper who, in order to avoid being used by friends and neighbors, creates a male alter-ego: a stern male cousin named Shui Ta. Ultimately, Shen Tei discovers that being morally good is impracticable for both genders. "Why is suffering reserved for the good, and why so much wickedness rewarded?" she mournfully asks the gods in a monologue at the end of the play.
The moment was a full-throttle turnaround from the hyperactive comedic zest that flavored earlier scenes, when Mac strode about either in socks-and-kimono or pinstripe-suit-and-moustache; it became clear that Mac was capable of the same versatility in emotion that costumes allowed judy in form. In a phone interview with The Foundry's artistic director, Melanie Joseph, I asked why she thought Mac was picked for the role. "Taylor Mac is a very specific, inimitable performer," she tells me. "The production wouldn't have happened without Taylor."
In the aftermath of Good Person of Szechwan, Mac was the landing site for a shower of incandescent reviews (including a particularly strong one from Charles Isherwood for the New York Times), resulting in an extended run of the show at the Public Theater and recognition as NYC's Best Theater Actor of 2013 by The Village Voice. Yet "actor" is just one of Mac's limitless talents, and Shen Tei just another gender-bending blip on the radar of an interminable network of roles acted, lives touched, and expectations overturned.
Mac grew up in the California suburbs, with little exposure to theater, until college in San Francisco. There, judy began working professionally in campy productions. Yet, it was not until Mac came to the East Coast, to study theater at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, that judy would discover a new approach to drag. Mac remembers seeing performers Brandon Olson and Jonny Woo. "Up until then I thought drag was vagina jokes and lip-synching. I didn't realize there was this whole other world," judy recalls at the New York Theater Workshop.
That whole other world, which Mac proceeded to research, was a queer avant-garde tradition born in New York City in the 1970s and '80s—where the likes of Penny Arcade, Ethyl Eichelberger, Jackie Curtis, and Charles Ludlam got their starts. The last three died of AIDS before Mac came to town. Charles Ludlam is credited as the founder of the famed 1970s sub-cultural glam-rock-meets-disco Theatre of the Ridiculous (pre-The Rocky Horror Picture Show), who oversaw the mixing of modern avant-garde tradition with campy pop culture and drag. The result was a pastiche often doused in glitter, which, when used correctly, is a clever way to both commemorate and satirize contemporary society. Mac fashioned a stage persona as a quick-witted polychromatic creature—often equipped with a ukulele—garnering comparisons to the Ridiculous aesthetic among an inter-generational network of Provincetown gay men. Not long after judy had moved into downtown New York venues, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 unfolded.
Less than two years later, Mac's play, The Face of Liberalism, billed on posters as "a mish-mash of original songs, parodies, stories, and mental illness"—was performed in the East Village basement Slide Bar. The show was a commentary on the xenophobia that prevailed in America under the Bush administration, in which Mac openly criticized conservative politics and social fears following the terrorist attacks. Dressed in a newspaper-print dress and red-and-blue striped face make-up, judy riffed on news headlines of the day and developments in popular culture, embodying a genderless emcee-activist crossover. Each night ended with an invitation to the audience to join voices in an eerie all-American refrain: "We've nothing to fear but fear itself, fear itself, fear itself."
The Face of Liberalism was an early taste of Mac's piquant blend of full-bodied entertainment and confrontation of society's ills—a contradiction, perhaps, that only judy could manage. A number of Mac's later works have closed on a similar note: with a call to arms for audience interaction, encouraging the formation of an in-house community that embraces all pronouns. In the last scene of Mac's five-hour play The Lily's Revenge, judy gave the audience a choice to make a come-hither pucker with their lips when the lights went down—a playful facial gesture, which in this context represented "a commitment to thinking about marrying everyone, and everything a man, and a woman, and a flower, and an incurable disease."
Beyond sequins, The Lily's Revenge was adorned with references to philosophers and queer theorists—in that regard, judy seems to bridge the seemingly disparate realms of academia and entertainment. The play was a five-act pastiche—drawing on works ranging from traditional Japanese theater to raunchy musicals—while at the same time opening a dialogue on marriage rights. On the one hand, extensive knowledge of theater history, from the classics to mod kitsch, might seem necessary for a full appreciation of the show. But a more Taylor Mac user-friendly way to look at it is that there's something for everyone.
Justin Vivian Bond: The Veteran
Appreciating the work of Justin Vivian Bond (whose preferred pronoun is "v") might also require some background knowledge. During intermission at v's January show, I overheard a couple in the neighboring line for the men's room: "Tonight is pretty avant-garde, don't you think? Justin Vivian Bond with Carol Channing?"
What they must have been referring to was the unlikely contrast between a truly modern cabaret artist with an old-time leading lady. Channing is now 93 years old, and it was clear from the standing ovation when she came onstage (assisted on either side by strong men in black suits) that she is still as revered as ever for originating the role of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway 50 years ago. Justin Vivian Bond is now 50 years old, a transgender singer, songwriter, theater artist, occasional actor, painter, and cabaret fixture with a sprawling fan base among New York City's queer nightlife scene—and, judging by how Bond was received by the audience, also among middle-aged Broadway buffs.
Like Channing as Dolly, Bond is bound irrevocably to one career-making role: Kiki DuRane, a down-and-out, elderly lounge singer who recounts her salacious life story with sobering bluntness while tossing back drinks in between numbers. Bond formed the act with gay musician Kenny Mellman—who appeared alongside Kiki as the compliant accompanist Herb—in San Francisco in the early '90s. In 1994, Kiki and Herb moved to New York, first performing in sparsely attended shows in the back-rooms of restaurants (often under the influence of hallucinogens) before gaining fans and momentum throughout the decade in downtown cabaret venues. The act climbed all the way up to a sold-out "farewell" performance at Carnegie Hall in 2004, followed by a brief retirement, tours of the United States and Europe, and a five-week engagement on Broadway in 2006 (titled Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway). Bond earned a Tony Award nomination for the performance.
Yet even before v's act skyrocketed to success and big-time investors caught on, Bond was tired of playing the role of Kiki. In 2008, Bond shed Kiki's wrinkle-warn drag alter ego, and decided to develop vself as a performer. Part of the process was to speak more freely about v's trans identity.
Bond took on the middle name "Vivian," and with it the pronoun v. As Bond explains in an essay on justinbond.com, "I want a name that provides a balance to the traditionally male name of Justin my new name is Mx Justin Vivian Bond because it embraces my trans identity." The essay is a personal account of what it means to not subscribe to the gender binary, and how assumptions about what it means to be transgender are often misguided. As Bond puts it, "For me there is no opposite sex. For me there is only identity and desire."
Several years later, Justin Vivian Bond's own solo career has more bravado than Kiki's fictional one. To give just a glimpse at Bond's resume, v has performed at the Sydney Opera House and Carnegie Hall; has released an EP and two full-length albums of original songs (Dendrophile in 2011, and Silver Wells in 2012); held an art exhibition of v's own work at NYC's Participant Inc. in 2011; and appeared in four indie films—most notably, in John Cameron Mitchell's 2006 film Shortbus in which v plays a pansexual party host, also named Justin Bond.
Bond has also written a novella-length memoir, Tango: My Childhood Backwards and in High Heels, which wears a book jacket swathed in rave reviews from Yoko Ono, Rufus Wainwright, and Sandra Bernhard—all current friends of Bond. The book recounts a difficult childhood, growing up a trans child in suburban Maryland—including tense relationships with v's parents, heated sexual exploits with boys, intimate friendships with smart and mentally unstable girls, and complicated sexual feelings toward both sexes.
Bond's lighthearted charisma makes the book an easier read than one might expect, given how much pre-adolescent trans trauma and turmoil is bound in 130 pages. (The first page reads: "A famous comedian once said, the greatest thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night. That might be true, but for me it doubles the anxiety.") The same effect is present in Bond's performance style, which seems to bear a mix of droll disillusion and high-spirited buoyancy—v often raises trans and queer issues without interrupting the pace. Bond originally came up with the role of Kiki DuRane as a way to channel rage about AIDS, which first struck the gay community around when the act was formed. At the Town Hall performance I saw, v dedicated a poignant number to queer people facing oppression in Russia, and joked dryly that every time an ad for Sochi Winter Olympics surfaces, "I puke on it."
It is hard to sum up Mx Bond's career in a single phrase, though some big publications have tried. A 2010 article in the New York Times Magazine calls v "a self-penned musical spectacle of transgender oppression and uplift." V's close friend, Hilton Als of the New Yorker, wrote in a 2011 profile that v is "the best cabaret artist of [v's] generation."
Well-reviewed, well-known, and well-dressed (at the Town Hall, in a refined purple gown and sleek blonde updo), Justin Vivian Bond deserves credit for helping bridge the still-wide gap between the queer underground and mainstream New York theater. One might call the Channing-Bond rendezvous on that night in January a meeting of disparate generations—especially considering that Bond is a do-it-yourself icon to gender-variant and queer people, while Channing made her name during an era when such a feat would have been inconceivable.
A few nights later, I saw v perform in a preview performance of Brecht's A Man's a Man at the Classic Stage Company. Bond appeared in the first scene clad in soldier's garb, to emerge later in velvet as the Widow Begbick, a lusty beer-wagon enchantress. Brecht originally wrote the role in 1926 for his wife Helena, and the torch has since been passed on to such NYC-theater luminaries as Olympia Dukakis (in 1963) and Stockard Channing (in 1986). Last month's Goings on About Town prominently featured a photograph of Bond in the role, looking like the lovechild of Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Bette Midler in Gypsy, and an extraterrestrial seductress.
Needless to say, Bond has already left some frosted-pink lipstick on the collar of history. As a trans performer, Bond has been enthroned alongside the greatest New York regal stage-women of the last century. And the new century has hardly begun.
Muses and Musings
These three performers—Bond, Mac, and Nef—each have a unique way of seeing and approaching the stage. Call it avant-garde if you like; Mac would disagree. "I think of myself as a traditionalist," Mac admitted to the audience at New York Theater Workshop. Mac's rationale comes from a comparison with how the Greeks used to perform—namely, in their use of masks, garish costumes, platform shoes, heightened language, and Aristotelian structure. Yet the runoff between the realms of ancient Greece and the stage Mac inhabits runs deeper than just stylistic similarities, but more to shared outlooks on gender.
"I think Greek literature, especially Greek drama, was more interested in gender issues than probably any major literature until the 20th century," Helene Foley, a professor of Classics at Barnard, says in an interview in her office last week. Foley described how in ancient Greek comedy, all roles were played by men, "which of course meant there were many opportunities to play off the gender of the actors versus the role being played." But those familiar with Greek tragedy understand that rigid gender roles were not all laughs: Just look at poor Medea, who killed her kids just because she was sick of being treated like a woman. Foley pointed out that Medea is just one of many tragedies that confront gender roles head-on; in fact, "practically every Greek tragedy does," she says. In that regard, Mac's plays may seems less like a groundbreaking experiment in theater and more like a back-to-roots approach, excavating themes from the classics before gender roles became entombed in texts and minds.
On Mac's website, a page with the heading "I Believe: A Theater Manifesto" shares the text of a speech Mac gave at the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival one year ago. The speech reads as a series of condensed statements on Mac's unconventional approach to theater. Some are jestier than others (e.g. "I believe perfection is for assholes"), but the connecting thread seems to be that the audience should somehow experience the range of their humanity; therefore, being a so-called theater artist involves heavy risk and responsibility. "Most importantly I believe in surprise," the speech ends, "and that if you want to remind your audiences of the things they have dismissed, forgotten, or buried, then you need to surprise them."
By now, it must be clear that Mac's think-banks contain surprises in surplus—no matter how well you think you know Mac's work, you cannot prevent judy from entering your head, wreaking havoc, then sprucing it up with something fresh. Between 2009 to 2013, Mac performed The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac over 200 times across the world. "The politics changed throughout all the years that I did it," Mac says in the NYTW interview. "If I don't adjust to [changes in the world], then it becomes a period piece. And that's not what I'm interested in."
As it stands, Mac has penned nine plays, hosted four concerts (with one upcoming in 2015: a 24-hour concert that commemorates 24 decades of music), and acted in countless works by other theater artists (Mx Justin V Bond often invites Mac to join the stage at v's Joe's Pub events). While I wrote this, Mac was out of town in San Francisco, working on play number 10, HIR, at the Magic Theater.
When it comes to age-old muses, Nef looks back to Columbia, to the classics, and to the Core. And from whom exactly might one seek wisdom? "Klytaemnestra, and Medea, and Electra, like all those girls," Nef laughs. "It never gets old!"
The next wave of limelight for Nef will be on the big screen as an actress in an independent film by writer-director Sebastian Sommer, to be shot this summer. Without dropping specifics, Nef hinted that it was a coveted role among some of the darlings of New York's indie film scene. Yet Nef does not want the role to teach anyone anything, but simply to act. "I just want to show up to a set, like, with my training, with my script, with my body, ready to do a bang-up job on a role," Nef says, in a thrum of enthusiasm about being a screen actor. ("Hopefully a female role.")
If the work and careers of these three performers are to show us anything, it's that the fault lines of gender are in flux—new tectonic shifts are quaking the foundations of film, theater, and art at large. The next seismic performance is on its way somewhere in New York. To those who bask comfortably in the shelter of homogeneity, to those who cringe at the mention of drag, and to the pesky demons of self-doubt—I leave you now with a come-hither pucker.
Correction: This article originally said that Justin Vivian Bond sang "I Will Always Love You". Bond actually sang "Love Song" by The Cure. The Eye regrets the error.