In the past few years drag culture has begun to stake its place in the public eye. Drag queens have, of course, been around forever but shows like Rupaul’s Drag Race have provided recent insight into the art and lives of drag. Previous musicals have had main characters who are drag queens, but their stories just lightly touch on drag culture. But now there’s Wig Out!, a newer show by Tarell Alvin McCraney that goes behind the curtain and into the tight and complex Queendom.
The audience is thrown into the world almost immediately; the queens have their own language, rules, and hierarchies. At the head of the House of Light is kind “mother” Rey-Rey, who runs a firm but loving house overseen by the house “father” Lucian, a hothead who never hesitates to show off his dominance. The plot picks up speed when the House of Light is invited to a Ball thrown by rival house, The House of Diabolique. A “ball” is a party but also a contest between houses, and the House of Light only has one day to prepare. Winners of contests get bragging rights; losers get “cut”. It’s a vicious party, and they take it very seriously.
Characters are expectedly large and dramatic, since drag isn’t exactly known for its subtlety. Most of the tension in the first act comes in the form of arguments that are caused mostly by sensitive egos. One of the queens, Ms. Nina (also called “Wilson”), picks up young man Eric on the subway and begins to give him a crash course on the drag world. Eric is obviously enticed by Wilson but has trouble grasping why he would want to live as Nina. Nina is patient with him, knowing that she can be a lot to handle and that her lifestyle doesn’t always mesh with everyone. Another queen, Venus, argues with her ex-boyfriend and house DJ, Diety, about gender roles in their sex life. And Lucian spends his time either trying to fuck everybody or threatening anyone who won’t fuck him. Lucian’s a complicated man. And an asshole.
That is the source of the drama in the show (forgive me: the DRAAAAAMAAAAA! In the show). It’s broken up by the humor in the catty snipes the queens make at each other. If drag humor is your cup of tea regularly, you’ll love it here. Sexual entendres, bitchy name calling, angry finger snaps. If you laugh and hoot every time someone says “Yass Queen!!” you’ll laugh and hoot here too.
But the crazy talented cast shines more when their characters get a chance to reveal themselves. Jordon Bolden and Justin Lonesome share many intimate scenes as Eric and Nina. Mr. Bolden makes Eric a little ignorant while still being charming, and Mr. Lonesome’s honey-voiced Nina is at times alluring, stern, and tragic. Jordan Phillips gives house mother Rey-Rey a strong backbone and presence, making it inspiring to watch her face her challenges and heartbreaking when she struggles. Jerreme Rodriguez succeeds in making Lucian sexy and alluring, while also making him someone very easy to hate. The entire cast also does excellent work individual monologues, all starting with a recurring phrase, that provide emotional background on their lives before the House of Light.
Act two opens at the Ball, easily the most captivating part of the night. Connor McCanlus starts it off with some hilarious audience interaction as rival (evil) queen Serena. Then the ball begins, showcasing the fantastic and energetic dancing of Freddy Miyares (Venus), LaTrea Rembert (Diety), and Jared Smith (Loki, Serena’s stooge). Britton Mauk’s fantastic set becomes an explosion of color as it transforms into a crazy club scene with Andrew Ostrowski’s lighting design. Robert C.T. Steele’s costumes, which are on point for the whole show, really shine at the Ball, ranging from Serena’s insane “evil queen” dress to Rey-Rey’s more elegant “Aunt Viv number one” style.
While the queens all do the drag, the “real girls” of the House of Light get to do some real singing. Krista Antonacci, Arica Jackson, and Amber Jones played the Fates Three, three ladies in the House who also serve as the show’s Greek chorus. In some scenes their dialogue feels a bit unnecessary, while in others their presence is crucial. The ladies and musical director Jane Howell deserve a shoutout to the power that their vocals and song choices brought to the production.
As the play just shows twenty-four hours in these characters’ lives, not everything is all tied up neatly at the end. Some characters have learned a few things, while others are left in less-than-desirable situations. The breaking point in act two dissolves away quickly in a way that’s not exactly reassuring, but one thing is clear: this is a true family. Their family is nontraditional and may not be accepted by everyone, but they are each others’ backbones. It’s a powerful and uplifting story that brought the crowd to its feet for a long ovation on opening night.
Wig Out! runs at the Pittsburgh Playhouse through September 25th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets.