Review: Sasha Velour’s Smoke and Mirrors, Sydney

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, labeled for non-commercial reuse

Went with husband last night to Sasha Velour’s show Smoke and Mirrors at the Enmore Theatre. By chance, we’d been across the street from the theatre the night before, when the Suicideboys were playing. Wikipedia tells me they’re a depressed hip-hop duo from New Orleans and the street was packed and rowdy, sweaty straight boys had ripped off their shirts, and their was an aggressive, drunk atmosphere. What a difference for a drag show!

While I loved the show, observing the culture of the show, the cultural moment, was as interesting to me as the show itself. There were a fair few drag queens, dressed to impress, and by my count, the audience was about 70% women (or women-presenting, if I’m trying not to assume or be dismissive of the gender-diverse) and 25% gay men, and a handful of straight men who appeared to be boyfriends, friends or relatives of whoever they came with.

Just as RuPaul’s Drag Race has popularised drag, and brought it out of gay clubs and into mainstream American pop culture, the audience reflected that. Drag is no longer a gay cultural phenomenon. And while old-school drag had a tense relationship with trans people,  there were certainly trans audience members, which shows me that contemporary drag celebrates inclusivity and trans and other identities.

What’s more, as we’d observed when we went to see Kim Chi, another RPDG alumni, at ARQ nightclub, a few years ago, a new phenomenon has appeared: straight women dressed as drag queens. I wonder if this is happening elsewhere in the world, but I think it’s fascinating. Women are not dressing as ultra-feminine women (as some drag queens do), nor to imitate women, or drag queens. They are dressing in a way to express creativity with exaggeration: fierce, fabulous, strange and occasionally grotesque.

The show was a dozen performances accompanied by video, and often with video interludes, giving Sasha time to change or alter costumes. There was a reprise of her famous season-winning performance of ‘So emotional’; the second number transforming from an all-white angel to a devil on a red bodysuit was amazing; I loved a witty performance of ‘Fame’, with Sasha as the RPDG trophy with a chequered flag where the performance starts to glitch and breakdown, a complicated commentary on fame in front of an audience who had discovered her through television and a fame-making machine.

Sasha is the real deal. Her commentary in between songs was funny, honest and revealing. She’s grateful for and acknowledges that the medium of TV has allowed her to make a living from her creativity, and also push a message of inclusivity, diversity and creativity. Sometimes the queens on the show feel false to me, in terms of their convictions or self-knowledge, or just feel very unformed: that they haven’t figured out why they do what they do, or what they want (except to win Drag Race!) But I get none of this from Sasha, who is fierce and smart.

The audience was absolutely lapping it up from the second she appeared on stage, out-of-proportion, I’d wager to say, to the actual person, Sasha Velour, or the show. People were screaming and whooping and clapping. They were there to enjoy themselves, to celebrate Sasha, and perhaps themselves. This felt somewhat jarring to me in that it felt that many were there to consume entertainment and be in contact with someone who is famous, to enjoy a colourful show and a good night out.

But the performances were much more complicated and sometimes felt more like performance art than say, a lip synch for your life. Here is Sasha translating the concept of the ‘other’ from French philosopher Jacques Lacan into a lived experience (and a painful one, referring to an eating disorder and self-hatred) and the audience claps and screams supportively, as if Sasha had instead just said, ‘YOU GO GIRL’.

In fact, some of what the audience is applauding and connecting with is certainly attitude, which was evident from the first performance. Sasha’s resting face, her go-to expression, in her performances, is one of proud and gleeful defiance, clearly enjoying herself. There was a crackle of electricity in the room every time.

But I also thought the performances were subtle. There were many cases where she could have done the drag queen trick of opening one’s mouth wide and vibrating slightly in time with the big notes, a visual exaggeration of singing which I find quite effective. But Sasha’s lip synchs are quieter than that, relying on the images and music, and perhaps her own integrity and connection to the songs to come through.

And perhaps the level of images and dreams that Sasha works with does cut through to an emotional, non-verbal response better than intellectualising. A number playing with the idea of a woman sawed in half by a magician; another with drawings (dreamlike, childlike) are torn off an easel and change but keep coming back to the same image; the finale with an amazing costume of a tree, and projection of a tree, and Sasha’s performance melding life with projection and image and music… These will stay in my mind. It was fun to hear this was only her fourth performance of this show. Considering the packed house and its reception (and standing ovation), Smoke and Mirrors will obviously be a huge success. Go see it if you can.

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