August 1, 2013 at 6:00 am EDT | by Will Owen
Show time for Shi-Queeta
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Cast members of the upcoming Howard Theatre show surround Shi-Queeta-Lee. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

‘Drag Salute to the Divas’
‘Waiting to Exhale/Steel Magnolias’ mash-up
Howard Theatre
620 T St., N.W.
8 p.m. (doors at 6)
$20 in advance; $25 at door

Washington is fortunate to have an outstanding drag scene with performers at several of the area’s gay clubs. The Howard Theatre’s “Drag Salute to the Divas” bolsters this performance art to the level of a full-scale stage production.

“I’m elevating the drag community here to take it to the next level at the Howard Theatre,” Shi-Queeta-Lee, local celebrity drag queen and director of “Salute,” says. “It’s a venue that gives much more space and opportunity to flaunt our talent — much more stage production, with background dancers. It gives us a chance to have props and dancers and make a bigger production.”

The Howard has hosted seven of the “Drag Salute to the Divas” shows, and they have all sold out. The upcoming performance on Monday night is the one-year anniversary show, and is a mash-up musical of “Steel Magnolias” and “Waiting to Exhale.”

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The Howard Theatre (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Prior to the 1968 riots in D.C., the Howard Theatre was a regal, prestigious institution for black performers, including many of the greats like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. The Howard also hosted a number of drag performers, so “Drag Salute to the Divas” marks the return of this tradition to the newly renovated space.

“They had drag there during the 1950s. I’m the first drag queen to bring back drag to the Howard. Some older people have told me, ‘Oh I used to see drag there,’” Shi-Queeta says. “They mostly just remember that the queens were larger than life and would sing live. I’ve been researching people, trying to find pictures. I found one individual, who was a drag performer (named) ‘Running Water.’”

Shi-Queeta has had difficulty finding much concrete information on The Howard’s past drag performers, especially since Running Water’s death last year.

Shi-Queeta, aka Jerry VanHook, mainly uses her own income from doing drag to budget the show. She’s had an impressive career with frequent live performances at local clubs like Town and Nellie’s Sports Bar, as well as television appearances on “Ugly Betty,” “The Wire” and “America’s Got Talent.”

The production scale of “Salute” is affordable but professional, utilizing the Howard Theatre’s giant television screen to embellish the sets with visual art.

“She does a fabulous job of bringing in a very loyal following. Her productions are always elaborate,” Jennifer Vinson, director of marketing at The Howard, says. “For the last show, ‘The Wiz Twisted,’ she bought and installed a yellow brick road. Toto was hot pink and purple — it was just amazing.”

In addition to great sets, Shi-Queeta has celebrity performers to bring some extra star power to the show. She attributes many of her celebrity connections to her past television appearances and work as a coordinator for Miss America pageants in Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Broadway veteran Sheryl Lee Ralph was in “The Wiz Twisted” with her.

“I had such a wonderful time working with Shi-Queeta-Lee,” Ralph says. “The two of us Lees turned Oz and ‘The Wiz’ inside out. Can’t wait to do the next show.”

Shi-Queeta met Ralph after she was cast on the TV One show “R&B Divas.” Ralph, who starred on the show, has been active in HIV/AIDS outreach through the organization “Divas Simply Singing,” and was impressed by Shi-Queeta’s own HIV/AIDS activism.

“”Divas Simply Singing” has different celebrities come in and perform to raise money for HIV/AIDS. With me being HIV-positive, [Sheryl] said she would be part of ‘The Wiz’ with me at The Howard,” Shi-Queeta says. “I was involved with the ‘Makes Us Stronger’ organization for HIV/AIDS, so she liked what I was doing for the community.”

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Porcelin St. Clair (left) and Shi-Queeta-Lee (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Despite Shi-Queeta’s celebrity connections, she laments that she has never been a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” In fact, no D.C. drag queen has ever been on the show, no matter how flourishing the drag scene is here.

“There are so many talented individuals in D.C. I’ve tried out five times. I don’t understand what it is about our drag here that isn’t popular with them.” Shi-Queeta says. “With so many of the people being cast from L.A., I think they just don’t want to spend the money to send people over.”

Shi-Queeta says her productions are bridge builders between various drag factions here.

“We’re no different than other cities, we’re just more divided than other cities. We have the white drag shows, black drag shows, transsexual shows,” Shi-Queeta says. “What I’m doing with the shows at the Howard is reaching out to the different girls in the community, that’s my goal. I’m trying to build the bridge between the different drag communities here in D.C.”

During its first year, Shi-Queeta’s show has saluted a wide array of divas from many eras, encouraging involvement from all kinds of drag queens. The divas impersonated include Cher, Lauryn Hill, Patti LaBelle, Dolly Parton, Erykah Badu, Missy Elliot, Beyoncé, Toni Braxton and Diana Ross. Shi-Queeta herself specializes in impersonating Tina Turner, but also has fun doing Mary J. Blige, Rihanna and Whitney Houston.

Other local drag queens have applauded “Drag Salute to the Divas” and Shi-Queeta Lee’s work ethic, including Ba’Naka Deveraux, who regularly performs at Cobalt and Town. Ba’Naka, also known as Dustin Schaad, had to withdraw from performing as Adele in one of the past productions, but hopes to perform with Shi-Queeta at The Howard sometime in the future.

“Shi-Queeta puts her all into everything she does, to the point of exhaustion at times. I think her pure will and tenacity is what really drives the shows,” Ba’Naka says. “I give Shi-Queeta a lot of props for creating venues and places for drag queens to entertain; she opens up the door for other girls to work with her. I think it’s really awesome that she not only looks out for herself but also for her community. She’s always doing something charitable.”

Correction — An earlier version of this story should have said that Sheryl Lee Ralph will not be in the “Steel Magnolias”/”Waiting to Exhale” mash-up. The Blade regrets the error. 

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