Thursday, January 2, 2014

When Life Hands You Drag Queens

The conventional wisdom is well established and widely understood: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. But what happens when life hands a successful, mature, professional man a lovely new frock? Does he immediately hand it over to the first female who crosses his path?  Or does he try it on for size, look at himself in the mirror, and start to wonder if cross dressing might enhance his life?

It's hard to believe that the Kinsey Sicks have been performing as an a cappella drag quartet for two decades. But on December 28th the Castro Theatre was filled with loyal fans who were all thrilled to help the girls celebrate their 20th anniversary as a professional ensemble.

It's too bad Blackglama's brilliant "Legends" marketing campaign is less visible these days. Although it would enrage gay PETA eaters, I can think of no better girl group to be luxuriously decked out in the finest, warmest, and most decadently luxurious fashions than the Kinsey Sicks. I'm sure that gold-diggers like Trixie, Rachel, and Trampolina would all agree (although maybe not Winnie, who's got her clarinet to keep her warm).

Perfectly positioned between Christmas and New Year's Eve, the Kinsey love-in was an adaptation of their touring show, America's Next Top Bachelor Housewife Celebrity Hoarder Makeover Star Gone Wild! While offering fans a retrospective on the countless parodies created by Ben Schatz (Rachel) and Irwin Keller (Winnie) for the quartet, the most poignant moments of the evening came after the show.

The first "invited guest" was former Trampolina, Chris Dilley (who was en route from Dubai to New York after his final appearance with the internationally famous a cappella ensemble, Voca People). Chris brought the audience to its feet with his beloved rendition of "Be A Slut." He was followed by former Trixie, Maurice Kelly, who made a grand entrance down the theater's aisle before taking the stage and performing one of his greatest hits: "Beaver."

The quartet -- in street clothes -- returned to the stage for a Q&A session moderated by Deborah Doyle from the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center of the San Francisco Public Library. In 2014, SFPL will present a six-month exhibit entitled Chicks with Shticks: The Kinsey Sicks and 20 Years of Dragapella Activism (prior to joining the ensemble as Trampolina, Spencer Brown was a member of the Kansas City Society for Burlesque who raised over $80,000 for HIVAIDS organizations in Kansas City).

In addition to their caustic wit and formidable musical talent, candor and web have been a steady part of the Kinsey brand (after singing "I Will Swallow Him," one of the Kinseys turned to the audience in mock surprise and said "What? I'm just trying to suck seed"). Since joining the ensemble in 2004, Jeff Manabat (Trixie) has been responsible for designing the ensemble's ensembles and writing many of their vocal arrangements (Manabat performed with and directed the UC Men's Octet from the University of California, Berkeley when the group won first place at the National Competition of Collegiate A Cappella at Carnegie Hall). In recent years, with the help of videographer Maurice Molyneaux, the group's music videos have become increasingly slick.

In response to questions from the audience, the ensemble's two founding members (Schatz and Keller) spoke candidly about how much more rewarding a career in drag has been than the legal work they did in their previous careers.
  • Wearing multiple hats as attorneys, writers, directors, and performers, they have complete creative control over their artistic product (during many shows Rachel has been known to scream at the audience "If you don't like it, write your own fucking material!"). 
  • Schatz (who served as Executive Director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association and was appointed to President Clinton's Advisory Council on HIVAIDS firmly believes that making people laugh is much more fun than suing them. After performing in drag for 20 years, Ben is convinced that theatre and activism go hand-in-hand.
  • Keller, who frequently sings the Yiddish song Papirosn during performances, also functions as the spiritual leader of Cotati's Congregation Ner Shalom and writes about "Torah drashot and other Jew-musings" at

In one of their more serious moments, Schatz and Keller discussed how, over the 20 years they have been performing in "America's Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet," men in drag have evolved from being politically transgressive to becoming a part of mainstream American pop culture. They also pointed out that when the United States Supreme Court ruled that 1996's Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional, they quickly realized they would have to retire "Locked Out of the Chapel of Love" from their repertoire.

I'm sure that when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," he never imagined how it would impact a drag quartet's song list.

* * * * * * * * *
Written and directed by Thai transsexual filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, It Gets Better has nothing at all to do with Dan Savage and Terry Miller's famous It Gets Better Project. Instead, this is a layered drama about complex characters struggling with issues of gender identity, forgiveness, and what course of action an aging kathoey (ladyboy) should embark on when a water buffalo takes an unnatural liking to one of her more colorful accessories.

Saitarn (Penpak Sirikul) stops to pray in a village temple

Billed as "the craziest fairy tale never told," It Gets Better is partly about Tonmai (Panupong Waraakesiri), who arrives in Thailand after growing up and being educated in the United States. He's traveled across the Pacific to handle the legal details of closing his recently deceased father's business (a popular bar in the Thai resort of Pattaya). Tonmai is in for more than a few surprises.

Having never known his father (or had any idea what kind of bar his father owned), Tonmai is more than a little bit amazed to be met at the airport by a van full of ladyboys dressed in black (to show that they are in mourning). It doesn't take long for Tonmai to find himself strangely attracted to Tonlew (Nuntita Khampiranon), a very feminine ladyboy who dresses like a tomboy and drives the van for the bar/cabaret.

Out in the country, a middle-aged postop transsexual named Saitarn (Penpak Sirikul) is on vacation. A hot young country boy named Fai (Kawin Imanothai) who becomes enamored of Saitarn doesn't care that she's a ladyboy. He's a decent young man who treats everyone with respect. And he thinks she's hot (even if he already has a girlfriend).

Din (Pavich Suprungroj) tries to give a handsome, older monk
(Kisthachapon Thananara) an extra bit of food in It Gets Better.

A third subplot focuses on Din (Pavich Suprungroj), a young man growing up in northern Thailand whose father finds him home alone, dancing in his dead mother's clothes. Although Din's father sends his son to a Buddhist temple so that he can become a monk, Din soon develops an inappropriate crush one of the other monks (Kisthachapon Thananara).

I found It Gets Better to be an intensely poignant film whose three subplots dance around each other until they finally merge at the tail end of the film. There are moments when Nikorn Sripongwarakul's cinematography is simply breathtaking

In the following interview conducted at the 2012 Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, Thitipan Raksasat (Managing Director of Amfine Production) and filmmaker Tanwarin Sukhapisit (who also composed the film's musical score) discuss the challenges of casting a dramatic film about ladyboys and reveal how they finally discovered the dramatic solution that ties their three subplots together. Although the interview moves slowly as Rakasasat translates the filmmaker's words from Thai to English, it's definitely worth 12 minutes of your time.

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