The Akron Civic Theatre is a monument to glorious fakery.
A stuffed parrot watches over the Grand Lobby. The auditorium is designed to evoke the garden of a Moorish castle, complete with plaster statues and faux greenery. Wispy clouds, beamed by a projector, drift across a deep blue ceiling studded with electric stars.
What better place for a show that celebrates the art of beautiful illusions?
The inaugural Akron Pride Festival Drag Battle and Show on April 20 drew 13 performers to compete for the chance to reign over the festival in August, and I had the daunting task of helping to choose the winner.
An hour before the show, the Civic was already filling up, dance music blaring loud enough to wake the resident ghosts. As we judges gathered by the backstage doors, performers in various states of transformation went by constantly, chatting, going outside for a smoke, stretching (good Lord, I thought, they are doing splits way better than I ever could).
I'll admit I was a bit intimidated. I have a theater and dance background and felt qualified to critique those parts of a performance, but as anyone who has ever met me would tell you, I'm no expert on high fashion, makeup or hair.
Luckily, we were guided by head judge Anthony Stanton, an experienced drag performer, judge and promoter who walked us through the process. Also on the panel were Cody “Poundcake” Brown of The Alan Cox Show on WMMS (100.7-FM); state Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes; and Dina Younis of the GAR Foundation and the blog Dina's Days.
The first part of the competition would be lip-sync, Anthony explained, and we should assess the performance — do they hit all the words, are the dance moves and costume appropriate to the number? — along with overall personality and entertainment value.
After intermission would be modeling and Q&A. Anthony told us to look at the fit and quality of the outfits, the body shaping (“Drag is over the top. Hips and boobs!”), the overall illusion of femininity. Then each contestant would be asked a different question, and we should note whether she spoke clearly and assertively, projected her voice well and showed the ability to think on her feet, since the winner would be acting as hostess at the festival.
Anthony added that the performers took the competition very seriously, and we should too. I felt a little better prepared as we headed back into the packed theater and our places in front of the stage.
Get the party started
To emcee the evening, Akron Pride Festival brought in Raven, who was runner-up on both season two of RuPaul's Drag Race and the first Drag Race All-Stars, and is now RuPaul's own makeup artist. She was a cool, elegant presence, changing outfits and hats at each break, dropping arch one-liners and double-entendres while keeping the show moving.
The reigning Miss Akron Pride Festival 2017, Veronika Katrell, led off with a terrific performance of Ariana Grande's Into You, complete with Grande's signature moves and bunny mask. For me, both Veronika and Raven served as a welcome kind of calibration — this was how it's supposed to be done, and all the contestants who followed would have to measure up.
For each portion of the contest, the performer started with a 100-point score and we were to deduct a point or two for any missteps, so each queen was essentially competing against herself. I immediately recognized how much easier that made the task, because there was no way to compare them to each other.
First up was Ashley Adams Andrews channeling that favorite of drag queens everywhere, Liza “With a Z” Minnelli. Then came a comic number by Cherry Veneer, and a club thumper by Kaleigha Diamond. And let me tell you, calling it “lip-sync” doesn't do it justice.
Each performance involved not just mouthing words, but also choreography, costuming, makeup, and plenty of attitude and personality. They ranged from impersonations (Fantasia, Courtney Love) to show tunes (Hairspray, The Little Mermaid) to seriously athletic dance moves (no wonder they were doing splits during warmups).
There was some wild comedy from Miss Behave, who looked like Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter and a nurse from Rocky Horror had a love child who then stuck her finger in a socket. And after seeing The Greatest Showman, I'd told a friend that This Is Me was going to be the next big hit on the drag circuit; sure enough, here came Chasity James in a spangled gown and a beard to do that fierce number about knowing exactly who you are and demanding the world accept it.
At intermission, we turned in our score sheets and I wandered around the theater a bit, marveling at the size of the crowd and the party atmosphere. Several of the contestants circulated through the audience, posing for selfies.
Making a tough choice
I hoped the second half would offer a bit more clarity, because so far there was no overall favorite in my mind.
Before the runway walk began, Rosita Estefan was presented with a lifetime achievement award for her activism and fundraising efforts. She performed As If We Never Said Goodbye, every gesture and detail mirroring Barbra Streisand's, again setting a high bar for the contestants.
Anthony had told the judges during our tutorial, “If your drag is cheap, you don't work,” and the time, effort and money the performers put into their acts was on full display. Some did a typical model's strut, while others came to the edge of the stage to play more to the crowd.
Again, they ranged from funny to elegant to over-the-top and everything in between. Alejandra J-Love wore a jaw-dropping sparkly black gown with a matching headpiece, while Cherry Veneer's outrageous Marie Antoinette getup opened to reveal a Goodyear blimp under her skirts. There were yards of ruffles, inch-long eyelashes, earrings the size of saucers, an explosion of sequins and rhinestones.
For the interview portion, Raven had each contestant draw a question randomly. Most of them focused on their experiences, the challenges facing the LGBTQ community, and how the contestant would be a positive force if she won. Some were tougher than others (“If the world were a song, what song would it be?”). Alejandra J-Love gave an especially heartfelt response about finding acceptance in Akron as an immigrant from Honduras.
While the results were being tallied, Raven made a stately circuit through the auditorium, greeting and posing with ecstatic fans.
The contestants returned to the stage for the results, some modeling still another ensemble, different from their lip-sync and runway outfits. The crown went to Alejandra J-Love, but as it turned out, everyone truly was a winner — all the contestants will be invited to perform at the Akron Pride Festival, which will take place at Hardesty Park in Akron on Aug. 25.
More than 1,200 tickets were sold for a show that was originally expected to draw a few hundred. Beyond the sheer numbers, what impressed me most about the crowd was its diversity. People across spectrums of age, race and gender identity, couples and families and groups of friends all having a great time, reflecting back the energy coming from the stage, filling the old theater with a sense of joy, community and, of course, pride.
When she isn't judging drag shows, Features Editor Lynne Sherwin can be reached at 330-996-3856 or email@example.com.
Choosing Miss Akron Pride Festival is not an easy task at inaugural Drag Battle
The Akron Civic Theatre is a monument to glorious fakery.