It’s a post-RuPaul’s Drag Race world. Never has this been performed in such stark detail than in Matthew Lopez’s play, The Legend of Georgia McBride, which opened on 20 August at the Lucille Lortel Theatre as the first of MCC Theater’s 2015-2016 season. This cotton-candy comedy tells the story of a heterosexual man finding his “true voice” in the form of his new drag persona, the Carrie Underwood-belting, cowboy boot-wearing Georgia McBride. While the topic may suggest a discussion of gender and sexuality, the play is ultimately diversionary froth that shies away from asking any of the big questions.
Casey, performed by Dave Thomas Brown as a charming mix of eager optimism and naïveté, works as an Elvis impersonator but is having trouble paying the rent. His wife Jo complains that they’ve bounced the rent check yet again, because Casey splurged on nothing more than a Papa John’s pizza. The stakes are raised when Jo announces her pregnancy and Casey is demoted to bartender, losing his performance gig to a pair of drag queens brought in to give the bar a new life. Casey’s unlikely break occurs unexpectedly—Rexy is just too drunk to go on for her roller-skating Edith Piaf number, so Tracy, the business-minded diva, convinces Casey to throw on a dress and take the stage. The song is in French, so who cares if he knows the lyrics? The performance is a disaster, and yet, Casey is easily convinced to don a dress again and again, and with the help of Tracy, develops a sassy drag persona of his own.
The main theme of the play is a simple and familiar one: to thine own self be true. In this case, the newly found self is a heterosexual White man who turns out to be unusually gifted at drag performance. Yet, there’s a troubling undercurrent beneath the play’s glitzy drag exterior. While the play is filled with an amorphous, light-hearted hope, matters are too simplified and sentimentalized to partake in the truly utopic, forward-thinking force rumbling beneath much queer performance. Indeed, does this production reference or respect the history of drag culture that it calls upon?
In many ways, the play seems to be devoid of any roots in the real drag community, but rather, living in an alternate reality. The play is set in Florida’s panhandle, and the bar is a stereotypical dive. Lit-up PBR advertisements decorate the bar’s drab interior. It seems highly unrealistic that two drag performers would be brought into such a setting, especially one without an established queer community and fan base, under the assumption that they would bring in more revenue. The change of clientele is at least alluded to within the play, as the bar runs out of vodka and the bar owner learns how to make a crass joke.
But it’s a false picture of the drag community if drag performance is equated to money. Indeed, money is a large draw for Casey as well. After a night of performances, Casey returns home to Jo elated, handing over enough dollar bills for overdue rent, groceries, and future baby onesies all at once. According to the world of the play, one amateur drag performance leads to immediate fame and fortune (or at least fortune), bypassing any sense of emotional turmoil, practice of the craft, or working from the bottom up. It’s as if Casey became the winner of a reality competition overnight.
Drag is relatively easy for Casey, not just as a genre of performance but also in the emotional and moral sense. Another topic portrayed in stark black and white within the play is Casey’s gender and sexuality. He is a heterosexual male, living a normative lifestyle with a wife and babies on the way, and the play portrays this information as a clear and undeniable fact. When Jo finally comes to learn of Casey’s new career, what troubles her most are his consistent lies.
Never does she voice a concern over Casey’s sexuality, nor does Casey feel compelled to defend it. What’s more, Casey is portrayed as the heroic breadwinner providing for his family. Perhaps there’s a utopic gesture in the suggestion that Casey’s gender and sexuality do not need to be a topic. But that thought is just a generous, hopeful musing. It does need to be a topic. The only reason it is not a topic in this play is because he is safely
A moment of solace arrives in a monologue delivered by Rexy, played by Keith Nobbs. Rexy gives Casey a personal history lesson, insisting that she did not choose drag, but drag chose her. It is a lifestyle that cannot be put on and taken off at will for a paycheck. What’s more, it’s an identity that has put Rexy in danger, as she describes being beaten as a sixteen-year-old in the parking lot of a bar. Thanks to Rexy, drag performance’s legacy as “a raised fist inside a sequined glove” at least has a cameo. If only the cameo was given a bit more lip service.
While The Legend of Georgia McBride claims “drag is not for sissies,” the play itself is far from brave, couching glimmers of hope or insurgence in a mass of heteronormativity. Casey and Jo move forward with their relationship, and moments such as Casey romantically applying lip gloss to Jo’s lips suggest a sliding gender scale, but the topic of gender is never breached. The audience is encouraged to whole-heartedly root for a drag queen, but the drag queen is a heterosexual male trying his best to be a father. Off-Broadway audiences are perhaps introduced to the joy that is drag performance, but this drag performance is a cleaned up version ready for a Disney movie, where the White heterosexual male is the main character and the more accurate drag performers are sassy sidekicks.
The Legend of Georgia McBride is a fun show and perhaps therein lies the danger. It’s an easy, false, all glitter and no gore portrait of drag that ends with a heteronormative bow, dodging the more complex stories that linger beneath the surface. This trend of whitewashing queer culture is all too prevalent (the upcoming film Stonewall is too obvious to not be referenced). No, “drag is not for sissies.” But this Off-Broadway portrayal of drag is.