Seeing and Believing

Which is what any diva worth her lip gloss should do. But there are divas and then there are Divaaahs. With drag queens now as American as apple pie (well, almost) and gender-guessing at gender-benders a familiar pastime, there's no denying the allure of a Miss (or Ms.) Thang, whoever she may be. What keeps drag queens current is their constant reinvention of reality: By assuming and transforming another's identity and making it their own, they create a forum for cultural reference. Branner, Chapman-Evans and Jones, for example, are exploring what they hope for and desire from African American culture, expanding Diva X beyond a drag show and into the realm of spiritual journey.

"Storytelling is crucial to African American culture," Branner explains, "which is something the gay culture is also doing through [drag]." Jones adds, "The concept of drag also takes on a component of ancestry. We are honoring women who opened doors, by taking on the vestiges of these people and by giving a space for their energy to be present, to break the time continuum."

The three artists share many goals, among them, according to Chapman-Evans, the creation of "an awareness of a black aesthetic" in the Twin Cities. As a choreographer and teacher, as well as a member of Sirius-B, a collective dedicated to the African American male voice, Chapman-Evans has been trying to find "an integration of movement with my own journeys in writing. In working with Sirius-B, and also in my personal work, I've been looking to craft a black image."

Like Chapman-Evans, Jones, who is currently a Jerome fellow at the Playwrights' Center, has gained an education in community building. He considers himself "a multidisciplinary artist, and it's hard to fit into a structure if you claim that. It was ultimately necessary to create a space in which to work, to form a community. Don't expect a community to come to you." For his part, Branner made a true "leap of faith" in leaving the critically acclaimed performance troupe Pomo Afro Homos; he moved here from San Francisco to marry Patrick Scully, proprietor of Patrick's Cabaret and to find a niche as a teacher, performer, and playwright.

Along with African American identity, the artists also reclaim gay identity. "We have to re-appropriate our own images," states Branner, explaining via his reaction to the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. "At first I saw cool images of queer black men, but then I thought 'They're taking my shit!'" Jones adds, "They take the pretty parts and leave the truth behind. It makes me think the same people who are laughing at the jokes inside the movie theater would be gay-bashing on the outside."

Based on real and fictional characters, the women these men create for Diva X are not likely to take any such guff. Cleopatra Jones, for example, "is the black American avenger for justice," says Branner, while Christy Love, Chapman-Evans proclaims, "was all that and a bag of potato chips. [Our show is about] about encapsulating images and exploding stereotypical images, like Christy explodes blaxploitation." Then there's JoMama Jones, "the quintessential singing star diva." In the end, these women, according to Branner, are "the '70s black sisters who were sitting there at their typewriters behind the black power brothers. Like Cleopatra Jones, they were saying, 'We are the ministry that kicks butt.'" In celebrating black and gay culture, Diva X has a message for everyone: "What is important is self-love for all that you are," says Chapman-Evans. "Without apology, without qualification," chimes in Branner. Which also entails drawing upon oneself as a resource, according to Jones. Paraphrasing Toni Morrison, he says, "I want to write the books I need to read--if it's not out there, then I'm going to put it out there." CP

Diva X will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Patrick's Cabaret, 506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis; call 222-2738 for tickets ($7 advance/$9 at the door).

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