- Photo by Kevin Buckstiegel, Chicago
- As "Shirley Q. Liquor," Charles Knipp performs in blackface and fright wigs for mostly white audiences.
With no fanfare, Southerndecadence.net posted an online message Aug. 24 about the forthcoming Labor Day appearance at the Bourbon Pub by female impersonator Shirley Q. Liquor: "IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT. Due to scheduling conflicts for the entertainer, the Shirley Q. Liquor shows have been canceled."
Fans will be disappointed, especially considering that with a festival that prides itself on being irreverent, Charles Knipp — aka Shirley Q. Liquor — has long been one of the edgier and most popular acts. On Labor Day weekend, with thousands of gays and lesbians pouring into town for a weekend of 24/7 partying, part of the draw has been the outrageous street parade and the promise of risque entertainment. While Knipp's act is not the most salacious — drag queen Lady Bunny singing a description of her derriere and its experiences is not atypical — Shirley Q. Liquor is surely the most controversial.
When Knipp, a heavyset, middle-aged white nurse by day, steps onstage, he is covered in light mahogany foundation makeup, multi-colored eye shadow and wearing a housedress and a curly wig. This is Shirley Q., a black welfare mom with 19 "chirren" of unknown origin who have names like Ice Bucket, Gonorrhea and Bubblelicious. Shirley greets her adoring fans — mostly young, gay white men — with her standard, "How you durrin?" and begins a monologue covering such topics as how she applied to the United Negro College Fund but spent all the money on marijuana, or singing songs like "Who is My Babies Daddies?"
Southerndecadence.net billed this year's event as Shirley Q. Liquor's "farewell performance," implying Shirley Q.'s swan song had been carefully planned and scheduled long ago. When inquiries were made to the Bourbon Pub, however, the reply was a casual, "She just couldn't make it this weekend."
But by missing her final performance, does this mean the end of Shirley Q. Liquor? No one is talking — not Knipp's booking agency, Diva Central, not the Bourbon Pub, and not, most importantly, Charles Knipp himself. Over the years, Shirley Q. has made many people laugh, so her supporters would like to know her future. Just as curious about Shirley Q.'s future, though, are her detractors, who wonder if Charles Knipp has finally retired Shirley Q. and put an end to what they see as throwback racist comedy.
Although Knipp has rarely spoken to the media regarding Shirley Q. Liquor, when he has been interviewed he has suggested his act could aid in healing prejudice and help overcome the racial tension between blacks and whites. Jasmyne Cannick — an African American social activist, public commentator and political consultant in Los Angeles — feels Knipp is offering an excuse for using racist humor directed at black women.
"The reality of the situation is if it was all that offensive to the white gay community, they wouldn't book him," Cannick says. "He makes his living off the gay prides and stuff. So that right there tells me this isn't a huge issue for the gay community overall."
Like Knipp, Cannick is gay, and she thinks there is a double standard at work when it comes to homosexuals and race. As evidence, Cannick recalls the incident two years ago involving Isaiah Washington, an African American actor on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, who called fellow cast member T.R. Knight a "faggot." The remark became, as Cannick says, "a national crisis" and eventually led to the network firing Washington.
"And you have this person, who's parading around town in blackface, and yet everyone turns a blind eye to him," Cannick says.
In 2007, Cannick started an online petition through her personal blog to ban Shirley Q. Liquor performances. Though the petition is addressed to "Anyone who dares to book this offensive act," it goes on to appeal to those who find it offensive "that a white man can perform in blackface in 2007 while promoting negative stereotypes of Black women, please sign the petition." With help from friend and radio personality Bev Smith, Cannick garnered national exposure for the campaign, and says more than 1,000 people signed the request. When Knipp attempted to bring a Shirley Q. show to West Hollywood, Calif. that year, Cannick threatened to organize a protest outside of the nightclub where Knipp was to perform. That show was canceled just as others have been stopped in various cities, including New York.
Cannick, who says she found her anti-Shirley Q. campaign to be too consuming, thinks Knipp is more successful doing his act in the South, and he doesn't get too many bookings in more "progressive cities."
Director Richard Read, co-founder of the zany, drag-heavy New Orleans theater troupe Running With Scissors, thinks Shirley Q. is more appealing to Southerners simply because the material is, like Knipp, Southern. (Knipp was born in Texas.) Because Knipp dons blackface, or as he spins it on the Southerndecadence.net Web site, "African-American lady brown foundation," Read feels people are too quick to judge Shirley Q.
"The biggest problem I have with all of it is the people who boycott performances without having even seen them," Read says. "Just boycott them based on the fact that there's blackface, which I find ridiculous. That happens in places where they're notorious for having no sense of humor — New York."
Read finds nothing offensive about the character, but he reasons that's due to his broad sense of humor coupled with his own history. "I'm a gay dude, and I'm from the South (Mississippi) and I was raised a cracker," he says. And for Read, that experience has translated into presenting a look at the Southern poor white experience in comedies such as Grenadine McGunkle's Double-Wide Christmas, a annual Yuletide offering that has garnered its own local cult following.
That Read grew up poor, white and Southern could explain why it's more acceptable for Running With Scissors to produce a show like Double-Wide when it might not be as kosher for a group of, for instance, rich Yankee kids to do so. So what about black male comedians like Eddie Murphy (in his Nutty Professor movies), Martin Lawrence as Big Momma, and Tyler Perry's signature character, Madea? Is there a difference between what they present and what Knipp performs, simply because they are black and he is not?
"I think it is (different)," says Michael Hickerson, a local HIV/AIDS activist who is a gay African American and former grand marshal of Southern Decadence. "I don't think Eddie Murphy and Lawrence are insulting these women. I think they're acting out some family situations they've been involved in — situations they've experienced. [Knipp] is poking fun."
Some African Americans are Shirley Q. fans. RuPaul, also black, gay and the world's most recognizable drag queen, has been a staunch defender of Knipp. During a 2004 interview with Chicago's Windy City Times discussing his most recent album, which included a cameo by Shirley Q., RuPaul derided anyone who criticized Knipp. "Critics who think that she's offensive are idiots," RuPaul declared. "They need to trust their gut because if they went with their gut they would know that she is so not a racist."
Rip Naquin-Delain, publisher of the local gay and lesbian newspaper Ambush (which also promotes Southern Decadence) disagrees, saying there is some material even drag queens should leave alone. "We're trying to promote gay life, music and culture," Naquin-Delain (who is white) says, "and I think you can have fun, you can do all kinds of things, but I think it has to be something that people won't be offended by."
Most of Knipp's audiences are gay white men, though Shirley Q. has a student following as well and has recorded her own versions of Southern college fight songs, including Louisiana State University. That fact isn't lost on Read. He says most gay communities, not just those in the South, are still segregated, but he adds that he knows people from every racial background that find Shirley Q. funny. He also points out that the protests against Knipp have backfired, producing a forbidden-fruit aura of sorts surrounding Shirley Q.'s performances; some people are driven to find out just what is so outrageous and offensive about her. For Read, the character remains difficult to explain because so much of humor is instinctive, not intellectual.
"Political correctness is logic, and humor is visceral," Read says. "And there's going to be times when those two don't reconcile very cleanly, and we're going to be left with these kinds of quandaries — Shirley being a perfect example."
So what about Knipp? How does he feel about the furor surrounding Shirley Q., and does this cancelled Southern Decadence performance mark the end of the character? It's impossible to say because all of my attempts to reach Knipp have been futile. For 10 days, I tried a variety of entrees — his booking agency, the general manager of the Bourbon Pub, and email — but phone calls and letters of inquiry were never returned. Additionally, Knipp has taken down his Shirley Q. Liquor Web site and the accompanying online gift shop, where he sold souvenirs like T-shirts for "Ebonics Airways" and CDs of Shirley Q. routines with names like "Watermelon Sale," "I Needs to Mop," "Oprah Sho Have Changed" and "The 12 Days of Kwanzaa."
Eventually, I found a phone number for Knipp by searching his name through a Quaker ministry Web site (Charles Knipp is also a Quaker minister who performs weddings and has presided over same-sex marriages), but repeated calls went unanswered. I can't say for certain that Knipp ever received the messages, but what I am certain of is finding Charles Knipp or Shirley Q. Liquor is a challenging task.
Is this the end of Shirley Q. Liquor? On one hand, Charles Knipp could fold up his housedress, put away his makeup and forever banish Shirley Q. to the memories of those who saw her perform. On the other side, there's the Internet, and anyone with a computer can always search and find Shirley Q. routines, either to laugh with, yell at, or discover what the outrage was all about.