Exploring the Cleveland drag scene

Drag is much more than wigs and costumes

By Nick Hawks

A&E Editor

At first glance, there was nothing special going on at The Five O’Clock Lounge on Feb. 29. The building itself is easy to walk by unnoticed, as it’s small and made up of old red brick, which fits the Lakewood scene perfectly. 

Inside, a television was showing a basketball game, there were people casually milling, sipping on cocktails, and music was playing softly in the background. It had a decent crowd, but wasn’t overstuffed. At just a little past 11 p.m., it seemed like a typical Saturday night for the middle of winter. Somewhere in there was supposed to be a drag show taking place for the event, “Black Mass XIX: Season of the Witch,” it just wasn’t clear where. Big crowds were assured, but where were they in this little venue? Did we arrive early?

Suddenly, a faint echo of music came from what sounded like the next room over. Following the scent of vanilla and coconut, a little hallway led into a dimly lit, miniature concert venue, and that’s where the atmosphere completely changed. 

There were people dressed in drag, some in elaborate costumes, standing shoulder to shoulder, buzzing with excitement. People were even standing on couches and pool tables in the very back so they could see over the sea of people clamoring the stage. 

It was not the typical bar scene, with strangers embracing each other only after rounds of cocktails and banter over whatever sporting event was being showcased. It was not even like a typical concert scene or that of a musical. More than the show itself, it was a reunion of friends and likeminded individuals, with people joyfully expressing themselves in colorful costumes and vocally showing their support for each of the night’s seven performers. 

The event’s host, drag queen Kimmy Katarja, hilariously roasted the audience in between performances. 

“That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” said Katarja at one point, directed at a person who was wearing a full Jafar costume from “Aladdin” and had just stumbled through a joke. As hilarious as the jokes were, most cannot be written for this publication due to their graphic content. The event was not for faint ears (or eyes, for that matter). 

The event was a perfect showcase of the Cleveland drag culture, according to Cleveland State University student, Manny Gomez. 

“[Season of the Witch] is a part of a series of shows called Black Mass,” Gomez said. “If you ask me personally, that’s the epitome of Cleveland drag. People that aren’t from around here, if you’re not familiar with the Cleveland scene, that’s the show for you to be at.” 

Although Gomez himself does not perform in the shows, he is what he calls a “glorified stage hand,” meaning he assists the performers in getting ready for a show.

“Whenever there’s a show, it takes a lot to perform, whether you’re a queen, king or burlesque dancer,” Gomez said. “I’m the person that helps out in any capacity that they need. I help people get in and out of costume and help them with whatever they need.”

Gomez has been on the scene for about a year and a half, with his best friend being popular drag queen Aurora Thunder. Thunder was voted Cleveland’s Best Drag Queen in 2017 and 2018 by Cleveland Scene Magazine and was one of the standout performances at Season of the Witch, performing to a variety of songs, including the Fleetwood Mac classic, “Dreams.” 

The performances aren’t just lip syncing, dancing or reenacting scenes from popular movies. They are artistic expression, put together by the performers in a sequence to showcase a theme. For instance, in a past show, Gomez and Thunder were putting together a show that was themed, “Heroes and Villains,” when they decided on having Thunder go as Mystique, a popular anti-hero in the X-Men movies and comic books. 

“We painted her blue and had her wear a red wig,” Gomez said. “The entire performance had songs with blue in some capacity. It’s performance art, pushing the boundaries. It’s not just men in wigs and crazy makeup.”

In addition to Thunder, another one of the standout performances from the event came from a drag queen that goes by Pineapple, who masterfully alternated performing to fast-paced songs and scenes from “Mean Girls” and “The Wizard of Oz,” recounting dialogue from Glinda, also known as “The Good Witch of the North.” 

When choosing a scene to re-enact, Pineapple knew immediately when she learned there was a witch theme that she would perform as Glinda, citing her and her mother’s mutual love of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I’m a trans woman, and growing up, I was attracted to high femininity,” Pineapple said. “When you see Glinda coming out of the bubble, she’s so stunning. I just loved her growing up. I think it would’ve been easy to do The Wicked Witch, so I wanted to do Glinda.”

Pineapple, whose name originated by simply liking the fruit pineapple, moved to Cleveland last year to pursue theater, but it didn’t work out the way she planned. Left with a burning desire to express herself artistically, she turned to drag, even performing in Cleveland State’s drag show in October, calling it “so much fun.” The transition to performing in drag was natural for her, with her background in theater adding to her dramatic performances. 

“I could hear people in the front row, talking about the drama in my performance,” she said. “Being able to hold a crowd and switch from a slow song to a fast song, it’s going to get a reaction. Being in theater, you have to know, ‘here’s the punchline.’”

Speaking in the show’s intermission, between her two performances for the evening, she was approached several times and hugged by friends and admirers, as onlookers gawked over her like she were a celebrity. She makes it look easy when she’s on the stage, but a lot of time and effort go into perfecting a routine.

“I always want it to tell a story,” she said. “While I’m getting ready, I’m literally just listening to my two mixes over and over, gluing on my eyebrows and lip syncing the songs.” 

While the Season of the Witch only featured burlesque dancers and drag queens, drag kings are also prominent in the community, although not in as high of demand. Cleveland State film major Ren Kauffman performs as a king and is a prominent reason why the school’s drag shows have grown in popularity over his time here as a student. Kauffman said that over 280 students attended the show in October, so many in fact that they actually had to move up the show from when it typically is, in November. 

Kauffman described the Cleveland drag scene as a tight knit community, something that had been echoed by everybody associated with this article. Many of the same performers and attendees run into each other at all of the main events in the city and are familiar faces at each other’s performances, all there to support each other. 

Kauffman loves performing and sees himself having it be part of his life “until I’m 80.” Although he can’t sing, he incorporates a lot of physical activity into his shows.

“I play ‘Pony’ from the Magic Mike movie,” he said. “I can do flips.” 

The feeling of stepping on a stage is a rush of adrenaline unlike anything else that he can experience. 

“I black out every single time,” he said. 

Kauffman was among the many attendees for Season of the Witch. From outside the building, the event may have seemed small and unassuming, but stepping inside The Five O’Clock Lounge and into the side room, the party was rocking well into early Sunday morning. In a way, it serves as the perfect metaphor for the Cleveland drag scene. 

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