Is it possible for there to be too much glitter? We think not, but it will surely be put to the test next weekend. Two of the Northwest’s most ambitious drag queens are presenting full-length shows that blend dance, drag, comedy, blistering soundscapes, and utter hijinks … with wigs the size of Volkswagens.
Kaj-Anne Pepper started out as the youngest member of the infamous performance art drag troupe Sissy Boy in the mid-aughts. He’s since matured into Portland’s youngest grand dame, hosting TBA’s hugely popular Critical Mascara Drag Ball and club nights across town. Performing under the name Pepper Pepper, his show is called “D.I.V.A. Practice” and runs April 29–May 1 at New Expressive Works.
When Seattle’s alt weekly “The Stranger” gave a Genius Award last year to Cherdonna Shinatra, the paper characterized her as an “uncategorizable spectacle.” Cherdonna is the alter ego of dancer Jody Keuhner, who will bring the show “Worth My Salt” to Portland Center Stage from April 29–May 1 (presented by Risk/Reward).
Our conversation ranged from what it means to be a biological woman performing as a drag queen, to the misogyny of drag, to how RuPaul has changed the face of drag nationally. Here are a few highlights:
On being a biological woman performing as a drag queen:
Jody Keuhner: I’m a female-bodied person, presenting as a male-bodied person, presenting as a female, so there’s this triple idea, in that a lot of time in the performance, people don’t know my sex. That’s not something I’m trying to do. It’s just happened. The development of my drag character over the last eight years has been really organic and through the back door.”
Aaron Scott: “Drag Through the Back Door.” I think that’s a Rick Steves’ special.
On the character Cherdonna:
JK: She’s sort of an ethereal clown, child-like being who is the epitome of namaste. She’s a yes. You like that, she likes that. There’s an excerpt of this “Kiss” moment with the audience. I think that exemplifies my willingness to go in and talk to people. Audience participation is 50 percent of what I like to do in performance.
Kaj-Anne Pepper: I love that you call yourself a drag clown, Cherdonna. This ethos of mockery and gesture-liness; and in your face, not-giving-an-F magic; and celebration of the weird, the absurd, and the creepy. I think that is a Northwest stamp.
On the character Pepper Pepper:
Pepper: Miss Pepper, or the the Pepper Pepper, is Portland’s premiere art queen. She is a he is a they is a she, and she turns tragic into magic and trauma into drama.
On “D.I.V.A. Practice”:
KP: There’s a host of lineages and traditions that go into drag. What I started with is punk-rock trash drag, and I have grown accustomed and kind of in love with the glamour and the beauty of pageant drag and high-level TV drag. But for myself, I wanted to throw them on their head a little bit, because I found that’s always where the creativity or excitement is, like: ‘Oh, what is she going to do now?’ So we hearken on a lot of divas of dance and song. There’s a lot of music clips in my show.
On misogyny in drag:
JK: I’ve been really ginger about it, but my feeling definitely resides in ‘fishy’ and ‘c——’ and all of those words — I know it came out of this, all of this history of it, and that it is supposed to be subversive — but the base of those words is derogatory towards women. And so I do feel there’s a ton of misogyny in the world of drag.
AS: Would you say that’s one of the primary battles of “Worth My Salt”? Or what are the challenges you’re trying to approach with the piece you’re bringing to Portland?
JK: “Worth My Salt” is kind of a self portrait. There’s a little existential crisis and definitely a woman’s worth. The whole structure of the piece is really about, where does Cherdonna or females find their place? Even though my way into drag was through the back door, I think that coincides with how I’ve been taught to be a female and not to come at things head on or disrupt in any sort of way. And that’s something I feel like Cherdonna and myself as a performer is trying to push into a little more.