Thirty minutes into Drag Kings on Tour -- one of the highlights of this weekend's Reel Identities Film Festival -- and it's easy to get completely lost in gender identity. All you can see are beautiful faces on beautiful people telling sometimes not-so-beautiful stories about what it's like to be a woman who, unlike Shania Twain, doesn't always feel completely like a woman. Androgyny is an inadequate word to describe the gender ambiguity at play here in Sonia Slutsky's documentary about the 15-city Kingdom Come tour by six drag 'kings' -- women who perform song-and-dance numbers as men.
Movies centered around tours conveniently fall into the 'road-as-journey' sub-genre, and in Drag Kings on Tour there is a virtual guarantee of various combinations of gossip, travel mishaps, arguments, misadventures and reflection, reflection, reflection. With all that time to sit around and talk, Slutsky certainly gets her subjects to do plenty of that, and with all that revelation comes information followed by just a little bit of tedium. And while there's enough performance footage to see what all the fuss is about -- the highlight being Toronto drag king Christopher Noel strutting to David Bowie's 'Boys Keep Swinging' -- you're still left wanting a little bit more action, a little bit less tell and more show. Slutsky clearly has gained her subjects' confidence enough to get them to talk about anything -- and I mean anything -- but this road trip can only provide the thinnest of narrative threads. Really, it's a game of survival.
Slutsky probably lost a chance at some juicy drama when, on the third stop, the most talented of the six is bounced from the tour. The reasons given are rather vague, though host king Kendra Kuliga (aka Ken Las Vegas) -- the most talented of the bunch -- admits for him 'it's tough being with a lot of people all the time.' On a tour where everyone chips in with everything from driving to cleaning the tour-bus toilet, it's all for one and one for all. His departure, though, seems to rob the film of some of its potential kinetic energy.
Rushing in to fill the void, in a much different way, is Pat Riarch (aka Neeve), who is as ambiguously beautiful as she is ruminative. With an almost lantern jaw, high cheekbones, wide eyes, a shock of brown hair and smooth skin, Neeve looks like she could seduce just about anyone in a room. Which is really the point, as she recites her rather beat-inspired poem 'Gender Game' onstage (twice), a work she co-wrote with popular lesbian singer-songwriter Alix Olson. 'Yes, we are deconstruction workers,' Neeve says in her finger-snap rhythm. 'We are exposing unfounded bedrocks that bed us to one sex, that wed us to one gender. We are overturning those stones, we are throwing them back. We are making a revolution, a gender revolution.'
Their mission is twofold on this tour: to reassure those who might feel the same way but have never had an outlet to express it, and to explain themselves to the skeptical. One of the more poignant moments comes when the tour stops off in Neeve's hometown of Milwaukee and she is able to get her supportive parents to come out for the show. (She had recently learned her mother was diagnosed with cancer.) At another tour stop, one of the other performers, Sile Singleton (aka Luce) -- the only African-American performer -- has finally convinced her parents to see her perform. Her father had been skeptical, declaring, 'I don't care to see one, just like I don't care for drag racing.' But her mother, who had watched as her daughter had slipped away from her, knew that watching Luce perform was a crucial step toward accepting her true self.
Frankly, neither of these two moments packs a lot of dramatic wallop, and that's how most of Drag Kings on Tour goes. The biggest missed opportunity, though, comes when they perform at the National Women's Music Festival in Ohio -- which has been a hotbed for lesbian feminism for three decades. For years, many feminists have decried the drag-king phenomenon as a rejection of feminism because of embracing of a person's masculine side, so the drag king performance this year is a first. Clearly the performance doesn't bring down the house, and some of the (older) attendees remain concerned; one worries that the idea 'seems like some kind of extension of misogyny at some levels.'
Maybe they're missing the point, as the performers try to show time and time again that we're not easily defined; we're made up of a whole lot of different parts. Just like sexual orientation can be defined by several points on a spectrum, so can gender identity -- and so you can find a lot of beauty, as long as the eye of the beholder has a wide-angle lens.
- Beauty in fall forms: performers Noelle Campbell Smith, Johnny Kat, Luster, Carlos Las Vegas and Neve challenge notions of gender identity in Sonia Slutsky's Drag Kings on Tour.