The Kinsey Sicks is celebrating 25 years of dragapella, performing their hit Off-Broadway show “Things You Shouldn’t Say” and “Naked Drag Queens Singing” until September at the Art House in Provincetown, Mass.
The tour is bittersweet however as Benjamin Schatz, founder and chief writer for the group, will retire along with his character Rachel at the end of the month. The quartet was founded in 1993 when five friends went to a Bette Midler concert as the Andrews Sisters and were requested to sing.
Their decline was short lived once they realized that they all had musical backgrounds. From then on, they’ve performed all around the country at some of the most prestigious venues such as Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, the Nordstrom Recital Hall in Seattle, the Broward Center in Ft. Lauderdale, the Hobby Center in Houston, the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen and the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. Schatz/Rachel spoke with the Blade about her beginnings with the Kinsey Sicks, her love for the stage and her plans for retirement.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How were you introduced to drag?
BENJAMIN SCHATZ: I used to do drag in college but I always did it as a politically provocative thing. This was back in the ’70s so drag was pretty threatening back then. Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s when I was an attorney and executive director at the peak of the age of terror in terms of discrimination and hatred, I used to organize drag excursions with my friends. Part of my job as an activist back then was to be a respectable homosexual and I wanted to remind myself that I wasn’t, in fact, respectable.
BLADE: When you founded the Kinsey Sicks, how did the character of Rachel come about? Or has Rachel always been the name you used while doing drag?
SCHATZ: Back in college my friends and I assigned each other drag names. I’d do it to anybody who was queer, male or female, and I’d give them a drag name. So my friends called me Rachel. The character of Rachel has evolved or devolved over time to be somewhat different from Ben I hope. It was just a name that people originally assigned to me and it stuck.
BLADE: How has Rachel shaped or shifted the way the way you present yourself as Ben?
SCHATZ: I often say that Rachel gives Ben a fighting chance of being socially appropriate because Rachel gets all of that out of Ben’s system. Rachel is an unboundaried mess. A delightful unboundaried mess and let’s just say Ben has a tendency to let Rachel do the work for him. Rachel has changed over time. One of the Kinsey Sicks moms said, “You should make Rachel more vulnerable,” and I did. I started making her more vulnerable and more lovable. She’s a lovable unboundarly mess. I think Rachel represents for a lot of people their queerness, unboundaried, embarrassing self. But she does it with such utter cluelessness that you just can’t help but love her. There is nothing she won’t do or say. Although, as a writer, there are many directions we won’t have her go. People think that we’ll go anywhere but in fact, as a writer, we’re very careful about racism, gender stereotypes and sexism. We’re very careful about who’s the butt of our jokes.
BLADE: Speaking of your writing, as I was looking at your repertoire of songs, I noticed the amount of creativity that goes into creating these and I think it’s amazing. So, how do you come up with these titles?
SCHATZ: I appreciate your lack of taste and judgment. That’s a promising sign. So there’s three different types of writing goes on. About 60 percent of our songs are parodies and 40 percent are original songs. For parodies, that just happens when I hear something and all of a sudden the idea comes to mind. It’s very easy to write words to another tune. The challenge is to change as few words as possible, use the original lines and completely subvert the original intention. So once I get an idea for a parody, I spend a lot of time with the original rhyme scheme and thinking about making as few changes as possible and words I can change the intent and the meaning 100 percent. With original songs, that’s more of isolating myself. I’ll often say I’m taking this time on the side to write a song. I don’t really know where they come from. I have no idea. Then there’s the writing of the script, which is a whole other beast in itself. They utilize different skills and they’re all entirely different skills than the performance. So, I can’t write when we’re on the road. That’s sort of an extroverted energy while writing is very quiet, withdrawn and un-Rachel like. I hate writing. I love having written. You can have an office job and coast but if you’re writing you want to write the best you can and you never can write the best you can. There’s always something better you can do which can make it torture.
BLADE: With you retiring from the show, how will that process change?
SCHATZ: The great thing is that I still get to offend people all over the world without having to get dressed or leave my house. That’s what I’m really excited about. I love the performing. I’ve loved it as much as I ever have but, touring life after a couple dozen years, and it’s not like we’re Cher or Madonna with a glamorous entourage, we’re schlupping luggage upstairs at three in the morning. It loses its glamour after a couple dozen years when your body gets old. So, I have mixed feelings about retiring from touring but my body does not. So, it’ll require more communication with the group because part of what we do now is we test it out on the road and we say, “Oh that didn’t get a laugh” or “that needs a different ending musically because it doesn’t have enough pop” and I won’t be there for that. There will also be times when the group will be performing where I am. It’s much easier to critique what’s going on on stage when you’re not actually on stage performing. I will really be thrilled to be able to write stuff and then be in the audience not trying to remember my lines, or my note, or my choreography. Just to see what’s going on and how the audience reacted. That’s something I’m really looking forward to.
BLADE: Angel is the group’s newest member. How will the transition from Rachel to Angel affect the content of the show?
SCHATZ: Well the show is a show I wrote and we started it off with me. Angel is taking over the spot. Rachel and I met with J.B. (McClendon), who plays Angel, and we got to know each other and I think I gave him some useful tips. We’ve had people replace other people in the past, not too often because we have a lot of longevity like Jeff (Trixie) who’s been with us for 16 years, so the others tell me great things. It takes awhile for people to sink to the level of performing with a group. So there’s a certain kind of observation that’s our own and I think that culture remains very strong. So the others are really excited about Angel’s performances and I think they have the tools to guide Angel to blossom over the years to come.
BLADE: You all are currently performing two shows: “Things You SHouldn’t Say” and “Naked Drag Queens Singing.” How will “Naked Drag Queens Singing” be different or similar to previous shows?
SCHATZ: The show that they’re doing in Rohoboth (“Things You Shouldn’t Say”) was the first time we broke character in the show. It’s a really powerful show, on top of being hilarious, it’s also very heartbreaking. So the question was what do we do after that? So “Naked Drag Queens Singing” was another “let’s try this experiment and see if it works.” So, everybody breaks character and we kind of go seamlessly back and forth between character and not and talking with the audience. It’s a very exciting experiment and it’s been going fantastically so that really people get eight characters for the price of four. It’s a really interesting experiment because lots of drag performers are very tethered to their personas and I think a lot of people are interested to see what’s behind drag and the members of the Kinsey Sicks are very thoughtful. While we are a comedy group, there’s a lot of thought behind what we have to say and why we say it. It was another big risk and it turns out it was a successful one.
BLADE: Let’s say under this current administration that the Kinsey Sicks were invited to perform at the White House. What would you all perform and what would you want to accomplish?
SCHATZ: I would totally take the opportunity to perform. My personal goal would be to induce a heart attack. I think that would be a worthwhile goal. People like the current administration need to be challenged. They shouldn’t have safe spaces. So I would perform at the White House. And I’ll tell you what; when we’re done with this conversation, I’ll sit by my phone waiting for the invitation. I would definitely come out of retirement for that.
BLADE: What will you miss about performing?
SCHATZ: Well, I’ll definitely miss picking on big guys and sitting on them. It tends not to work very well in civilian life. I love making people laugh, making people think (and) I love the uniqueness of us. There’s nothing like us. I never feel more alive then when I’m on stage and I never feel more dead then when I’m on the road waking up at 3 in the morning getting ready for the next gig. I’ll miss the incredible excitement and satisfaction. I love the feeling of constantly growing and I do a lot of improvisational humor so I’ll definitely miss that. But, the goal is to quit while you still love it and while people still love you.
BLADE: Is there anything in your personal life that you’ll be doing to replace that theatrical high?
SCHATZ: I promised myself that I would set no goals for my retirement for at least a year. I’ve spent my whole life perpetually making the impossible happen so right now I’m letting things happen to see where things go which is kind of revolutionary. I suspect that I’ll be writing again soon. Well, I know I’ll be writing for the group. I don’t know what I’ll write. I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m wildly excited about it. I know there will be other chapters but I don’t know what they’ll look like and that is fantastic.
BLADE: What’s been your favorite Kinsey experience?
SCHATZ: There’s a particular kind of experience that I love like Salina, Kansas. Going into conservative communities and rocking people’s world and not holding back. We did this essentially county fair and there were letters to the newspaper and protests and threats on our lives. We did four sets over two days and by our fourth set, we drew the largest crowd the musical festival has ever drawn. And we did it unapologetically. We cleaned up our language but not our content. When you’ve got a bunch of kids around you’re not going to say the f-word. But we had very political songs talking about racism and homophobia and I love the feeling of going to a place like that and winning them over shocking the hell out them and making them love you for it. People who have no business loving us coming out and loving us anyway. I was an activist for years and still consider myself one today, but what you can do with laughter and music in terms of opening people up, is something you can’t do in another context. I’m so proud at the fact that we’ve been able to do that and we continue to do that.
BLADE: Who’s your all-time favorite drag queen?
SCHATZ: I would name two who are very different: Divine and Coco Peru. Divine was absolutely fearless and was not trying to pass and was not trying to look pretty. Divine was drastically provocative and in your face. Coco is so thoughtful and I love how she mixes comedy with heart, with politics and with integrity. You do not leave her show without thinking something and feeling something.
BLADE: Where do you see the Kinsey Sicks going in the next decade?
SCHATZ: If you would’ve asked me when we started the luck we’d have 26 years later, I never would’ve thought it possible. I think the goal is to be provocative, fresh, to take risks and to be unafraid. We’d be a lot more commercially successful if we would’ve said, “What does the market want and let’s do that.” So we always try to be cutting edge, to push the boundaries, to test things and to risk provoking people and people know when their seeing something that it’s live and not safe. So I hope the group continues to take risks because there’s no shortage of people out there who are playing it safe and who’s taking the less controversial route. To take risks creatively in terms of what we’re willing to do. That’s the goal and to keep loving what we do.
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Hip-Hop’s complicated history with queer representation
At 50, experts say the genre still doesn’t fully welcome LGBTQ inclusion
I didn’t really start listening to rap until my college years. Like many queer Black children who grow up in the closet, shielded by puritanical Christianity from the beauty of a diverse world, I longed to be myself. But the affirming references I could pull from — in moments of solitude away from the wrath and disdain of family and friends — were in theater and pop music.
The soundtrack to my teenage years was an endless playlist of pop divas like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, whose lyrics encouraged me to sashay my hips anytime I strutted through a long stretch of corridor.
I was also obsessed with the consuming presence of powerful singers like Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, and the hypnosis that was Chaka Khan. My childhood, an extrapolation of Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays spent in church groups, choir practices, and worship services, necessitated that I be a fan of throaty, from-the-stomach singing. But something about the way these artists presented themselves warmed my queer little heart. LaBelle wore avant garde geometric hairdos paired with heavily shoulder-padded blazers. Houston loved an elegant slender gown. And Khan? It was the voluminous red mane that gently caressed her lower back for me.
Listening to rap music in college was a political experience. My sociology classes politicized me and so it was only natural that I listened to rap music that expressed trauma, joy, and hope in the Black experience. However, I felt disconnected from the music because of a dearth of queer representation in the genre.
Nevertheless, groups like Outkast felt nostalgic. While delivering hedonistic lyrics at lightning speed, André 3000 — one half of the rap duo — mesmerized with his sleek, shoulder-length silk pressed hair and colorful, flowing shirts and trousers — a style that could be translated as “gender-bending.” Despite the patriarchal presentation rampant in rap and Hip-Hop, André 30000 represented to me, a kind of rebellious self-expression that I so badly wanted to emulate but couldn’t because of the psychological confines of my conservative upbringing.
My discovery of Outkast was also sobering because it was a stark reminder of how queerness is also often used as an aesthetic in Hip-Hop while actual queer people are shunned, rebuked, and mocked. Queer people in Hip-Hop are like backstage wingmen, crucial to the development of the show but never important enough to make a curtain call.
As Hip-Hop celebrates 50 years since its inception in New York City, I am filled with joy because it’s been half a century of Black people owning their narratives and driving the culture. But it’s fair to ask: At whose expense?
A viral 2020 video shows rapper Boosie BadAzz, famed for hits like “Set It Off” and “Wipe Me Down,” rebuking NBA star Dwayne Wade and award-winning actress Gabrielle Union-Wade for publicly supporting their then-12-year-old daughter after she came out as transgender.
“Don’t cut his dick off, bro,” said BadAzz with furrowed eyebrows and a gaze that kept turning away from the camera, revealing his tarnished diamond studs. “Don’t dress him as a woman dawg, he’s 12 years. He’s not up there yet.”
The responses from both Wade and Union-Wade were a mixture of swift, sarcastically light-hearted, and hopeful.
“Sorry Boosie,” Union-Wade said to an audience during a live podcast appearance at Live Talks Los Angeles. “He’s so preoccupied, it’s almost like, ‘thou doth protest too much, Little Boos.’ You’ve got a lot of dick on your mind.”
Wade also appeared on an episode of podcast, “I AM ATHLETE,” and looked directly into the camera.
“Boosie, all the people who got something to say, J-Boogie who just came out with [something] recently, all the people who got something to say about my kids,” he said. “I thank you because you’re allowing the conversation to keep going forward because you know what? You might not have the answers today, I might not have the answers, but we’re growing from all these conversations.”
This exchange between the Wades and BadAzz highlights the complicated relationship between Black LGBTQ individuals and allies and the greater Hip-Hop and rap genres and communities. While Black queer aesthetics have long informed self-expression in Hip-Hop, rappers have disparaged queerness through song lyrics and in interviews, or online rants like BadAzz, outside the recording studio.
And despite LGBTQ rappers like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Lil Nas X, and Saucy Santana achieving mainstream success, much work lies ahead to heal the trauma that persists from Hip-Hop’s history of patriarchy and homophobia.
“‘Progression’ will always be relative and subjective based on one’s positionality,” said Dr. Melvin Williams said in an email. Williams is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Pace University. “Hip-hop has traditionally been in conversation with queer and non-normative sexualities and included LGBTQ+ people in the shaping of its cultural signifiers behind the scenes as choreographers, songwriters, make-up artists, set designers, and other roles stereotypically attributed to queer culture.”
“Although Hip-Hop incorporates queerness in their ethos, ideas, and trends, it does not privilege the prospect of an out LGBTQ+ rapper. Such reservations position LGBTQ+ people as mere labor in Hip-Hop’s behind-the-scenes cultivation, but not as rap performers in its mainstream distribution,” he added.
This is especially true for Queen Latifah and DaBrat who existed in the genre for decades but didn’t publicly come out until 2021. Still, both faced backlash from the Black community for daring to challenge gender roles and expectations.
Lil Nas X also faced backlash for his music video “Montero” with satanic references, including one in which he slides down a pole and gives a character representing the devil a lap dance. Conservatives such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem accused him of trying to scandalize children.
“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am,” Nas X said in a note that accompanied “Montero.” The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
Regardless, “Montero” debuted atop the Billboard 100.
In an article published in “Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society,” scholar C. Riley Snorton posited that celebrating queer visibility in mainstream media could be a problem as this kind of praise relies on artists presenting in acceptable forms of gender and sexuality expression and encourages representation that is “read alongside…perceptions of Hip-Hop as a site of Black misogyny and homophobia.”
In the case of Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 prior to the release of his album “Channel Orange,” his reception was warmer than most queer Hip-Hop artists because his style of music is singing, as opposed to rapping. Because of this, his music was viewed more as R’n’B or pop.
“Frank Ocean ain’t no rapper. He’s a singer. It’s acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don’t know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine,” rapper Snoop Dogg told the Guardian in 2013. “It’s like a football team. You can’t be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, man, I like you.’ You know, that’s going to be tough.”
So what’s the solution for queer people in Hip-Hop? Digital media.
Williams, the Pace University professor, says that being divorced from record labels allows queer artists to be independent and distribute their music globally on their own terms.
“We witnessed this fact with artists such as Azealia Banks, Cakes Da Killa, Fly Young Red, Kevin Abstract, iLoveMakonnen, Lil Nas X, Mykki Blanco, and Saucy Santana, as well as legacy LGBTQ Hip-Hop acts like Big Freeda, DeepDickCollective, and Le1f,” he said. “The music industry has experienced an increasingly mobilized market due to the rise of digital media, social networking platforms, and streaming services.”
“More importantly, Black queer Hip-Hop artists are historicizing LGBTQ+ contributions and perspectives in documentaries, films, news specials, public forums, and podcasts. Ultimately, queer people engaging in Hip-Hop is a revolutionary act, and it remains vital for LGBTQ+ Hip-Hoppers to highlight their cultural contributions and share their histories,” he added.
(Hip-Hop pioneers Public Enemy and Ice-T will headline The National Celebration of Hip-Hop, free concerts at the West Potomac Park on the National Mall in D.C. on Oct. 6 and 7.)
Cuisine and culture come together at The Square
D.C.’s newest food hall highlights Spanish flavors
Downtown got a bit tastier when “the next generation of food halls” opened its doors on Tuesday near the Farragut West Metro stop. Dubbed The Square, its half-dozen debut stalls are a Spanish-flecked mix of D.C. favorites, new concepts, and vendor-collaborative spirit.
After two years of planning – and teasing some big-name chefs – the market is, according to the owners, “where cuisine, culture, and community are woven together.”
Behind this ambitious project with lofty aims are Richie Brandenburg, who had a hand in creating Union Market and Rubén García, a creative director of the José Andrés Group who also was part of the team of Mercado Little Spain, the fairly new Spanish-themed Andres food hall in Hudson Yards.
Food halls have come a long way since the new Union Market awakened the concept a decade ago. Instead of simply rows of vendors in parallel lines, The Square has a new business model and perspective. This food hall shares revenue between the owners and its chef partners. Vendors are encouraged to collaborate, using one software system, and purchasing raw materials and liquor at scale together.
“Our goal was two-fold: to create a best-in-class hospitality offering with delicious foods for our guests; and behind the scenes, create the strong, complex infrastructure needed to nurture both young chefs and seasoned professionals, startups, and innovation within our industry,” says Brandenburg.
The Square has embraced a more chef-forward methodology, given that the founders/owners themselves are chefs. They’re bringing together a diverse mix of new talent and longtime favorites to connect, offer guidance to each other, and make the market into a destination.
The first phase of The Square premiered this week. This phase encapsulates a selection of original concepts from well-known local chefs and business owners, and includes:
• Cashion’s Rendezvous – Oysters, crab cakes, and cocktails, from the owners of D.C. institutions and now-closed Cashion’s Eat Place and Johnny’s Half-Shell (Ann Cashion and John Fulchino).
• Jamón Jamón – Flamenco-forward food with hand-cut jamón Iberico, queso, and croquetas, sourced by García himself.
• Brasa – Grilled sausages and veggies are the stars here. Chef García oversees this Spanish street-food stall as well.
• Taqueria Xochi – Birria, guisado, and other street tacos, plus margs. Named after the ruins of Xochitecatl in Central Mexico, and from a Jose Andres alum.
• Yaocho – Fried chicken, juices, sweets, and libations.
• Junge’s – Churros and soft serve ice cream. Brandenburg and García both have a hand in this stall.
• Atrium Bar – The central watering hole for drinks. Atrium Bar serves cocktails, wine, and beer curated by The Square’s Beverage Director Owen Thompson.
“Having been part of Jose Andres’s restaurant group and getting to know Ruben and Richie, it’s amazing to see how their values align with ours at Taqueria Xochi. Seeing all these incredible chefs heading into Square feels like a full-circle moment,” said Geraldine Mendoza of Taqueria Xochi.
Slated for fall 2023, the next round of openings includes Flora Pizzeria, Cebicheria Chalaca, KIYOMI Sushi by Uchi, Shoals Market (a retail hub), and more. Additionally, chef Rubén García’s Spanish restaurant, Casa Teresa, will soon open next door to The Square.
The Square is just one of a handful of new food halls blossoming in and around D.C. Up in Brentwood, Md., miXt Food Hall is an art-adjacent space with tacos, a year-round fresh market, coffee, and beer. Across from Union Market is La Cosecha, a Latin marketplace with everything from street food to a Michelin starred restaurant and a festive vibe. Closer to The Square is Western Market by GW University, which opened in late 2021 with a buzzy, relaxed style.
For now, the Square is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Square plans to open on weekends and extend hours to offer dinner service in the coming months. A few alfresco seats will accompany the hall.
Charles Busch reflects on the paths he didn’t take in new book
‘Leading Lady’ a riveting memoir from legendary entertainer
“Charles, I’m telling you, I go to plays in rat-infested basements where I’m the only one who shows up,” the late queer icon Joan Rivers once told the queer, legendary playwright, actor, director, novelist, cabaret performer and drag icon, Charles Busch. “I can see the actors peeking through the curtain and groaning, ‘Oh God, that old bitch in the fur coat is here. Does that mean we’ve gotta go on?’”
Busch reminded Rivers that she’d seen him perform in a rat-infested basement.
This is just one of the many stories that Busch, born in 1954, tells in his riveting memoir, “Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy,” which comes out on Sept. 12.
“Leading Lady” is a page-turner. Some of its tales of Busch’s life and career, such as his account of a Christmas party with Rivers as a guest, are dishy. Others, like his memories of trying to care for his beloved Aunt Lil, when he knew she was dying, would make even the Wicked Witch in Oz tear up.
The memoir, is, as Busch says on his website (charlesbusch.com), the story of “a talented artist’s Oz-like journey.”
“Leading Lady” isn’t linear. This isn’t a detriment. Busch deftly intertwines memories of his life and career from his mom dying when he was seven to being raised by his loving Aunt Lil to being the author and star of the cult classic “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” to watching Kim Novak handle fans to being the Tony-nominated writer of “Tales of the Allergist’s Wife” to being creative during the pandemic.
“Storytelling is a huge part of my life,” Busch told the Blade in a lengthy phone interview, “I get into various adventures and, I think, this could be a good story to tell.”
Interviewing Busch is like chatting with a fab storyteller over coffee or a glass of wine. Except that you’re talking to a legend who’s entertained and inspired queers (and discerning hetero audiences) for decades. (I’m wearing my “Vampire” T-shirt as I write this.)
As a playwright, Busch writes “linear” plays, with a beginning, middle and an end, he said. As a cabaret singer, “the way I sing songs is telling a story,” Busch said.
Since childhood, he’s been creating vivid scenes in his imagination. From early on, Busch has felt as if he’s both a spectator and star in the movie of his life.
It seemed inevitable that he’d write a memoir. It’s the ultimate form of storytelling. “You reach a certain point in your life,” Busch said, “where you’re more reflective and see your life as a whole.”
“You reflect on the paths you didn’t take,” he added.
Busch spent his childhood in Hartsdale, N.Y. He had two older sisters, Betsy and Margaret. His mother’s death was devastating for Busch. His Aunt Lil and Joan Rivers have been among the women who have been “mothers” to Busch since his mom died.
Once, Busch said he and Rivers dined with friends. “Joan Rivers said ‘I wish I had a gay son I could phone at midnight and discuss whatever movie was on TCM,’” he recalled.
Busch would have loved to have been Rivers’s “gay son.”
Life in Hartsdale was hard for Busch after his mother passed away. His father was often absent and showed little interest in his children.
Things were miserable for Busch when his grandmother, for a time, cared for the family. He knew, as a boy, that he was gay and hated going to school where a movie-and-theater-loving kid who liked to draw wasn’t one of the cool kids.
Yet Busch forgave his “father’s failings,” he writes in “Leading Lady, “because he gave me the theater.”
Busch became entranced with the theater when his father, an aspiring opera singer who performed in summer stock, took him to the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to hear Joan Sutherland sing the role of Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”
Busch was saved from a life of boredom and bullying when Aunt Lil, his mother’s sister, took him to live with her in Manhattan. There, like Auntie Mame, she raised him. She prodded him into applying to the High School of Music and Art in New York City. He was accepted there.
After high school, Busch graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama from Northwestern University in 1976.
“My Aunt Lil is the leading lady [of the title of his memoir],” Busch said, “she was the most influential person in my life.”
One of the reasons why Busch wrote “Leading Lady” was to paint a full portrait of her. “It was important that it not be this kind of gauzy, sentimental memory piece,” he said, “making her out to be a saint.”
Aunt Lil adopted Bush when he was 14. Her goal was that he would go to college, become independent, be a survivor – make a place for himself in the world.
“I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t stepped in,” Busch said.
“She was very intellectual,” he added, “I’ve never met anyone [else] with such a pure devotion to thinking. It was a little intimidating.”
Aunt Lil’s standards for caring – for giving of oneself – were so high that it was almost impossible to meet them. “She believed that you should anticipate what people would need,” Busch said, “before they told you.”
Looking back, Busch is most proud of himself when, “I’ve gone past my natural self-absorption,” he said, “when I’ve thought of someone else.”
Busch is being too hard on himself. In “Leading Lady,” and when interviewed, he’s caring and curious as well as witty, savvy, and as you’d expect, a bit campy.
His sister Margaret died recently. “She declined gradually over nine months,” Busch, said, choking up, “I gave her my bedroom and I slept on my sofa.”
Like many of her generation, Aunt Lil didn’t understand queerness or drag. But she loved Busch. She didn’t go to see his productions, he said. “She could have gone like other parents,” he said, “and been tight-lipped. And said something nice that she didn’t believe.”
But “she didn’t want to lie or be hurtful,” Busch added, “so, for her, it was: can’t I just love and support you, and not go?”
Aunt Lil didn’t get Busch’s sexuality. But she knew about secrecy. Busch learned of a terrifying secret that his aunt had long kept hidden. In the 1930s, during the Depression, Aunt Lil worked as a nurse. One day, when she worked overtime, one of the patients suffered a burn. She had to leave nursing. “Her sister in a nasty mood revealed this,” Busch said, “Aunt Lil never discussed it.”
In the 1970s, Busch had trouble getting into theater because there were only roles for actors playing straight male characters. “The only way I could get on stage was to write my own roles,” he said, “I have a rather androgynous nature.”
Busch found that the feminine within him was a place of authority and strength. “I’m fine when I play male characters,” he said, “but I’m better when I play female characters.”
Why this is so liberating for him is a bit of a mystery to Busch. “But I accept and love it,” he said.
Times have changed since Busch made his first big splash with “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” “In 1985, being a drag queen was considered a negative,” Busch said, “my generation of drag performers bristled at being referred to as drag queens.”
Busch no longer bristles. “I feel like the characters,” he said, “I enjoy costumes and getting the right wig.”
“But, I go from male to female not through trickery or anything visual, I transfer through my soul.”
In “Leading Lady,” Busch recalls AIDS and other dark moments from the past. Many of his friends and colleagues died from AIDS. “AIDS was the World War II of our generation,” he said.
But Busch, in his memoir and in his life, isn’t only looking back. He’s very much in the present. Busch is embarrassed to say he was lucky. During the pandemic, devastating to many, he made art. He did play readings on Zoom and finished writing “Leading Lady” which he’d worked on for 14 years.
During the pandemic, Busch with Carl Andress co-wrote and co-directed the movie “The Sixth Reel.” The film’s cast includes Busch, Julie Halston (Busch’s longtime muse), Margaret Cho and Tim Daly.
Busch describes the film, an homage to the Hollywood madcap movies of the 1930s, as “a comic, caper movie.”
“I play a disreputable dealer in movie memorabilia,” Busch said, “a legendary lost film is found, and I see it as my ticket out of debt.”
The “Sixth Reel” is playing from Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 at the LOOK Dine-In Cinema West 57th Street in New York City.
“I hope the run in New York will encourage people to distribute this little movie,” Busch said.
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