Drag By Daylight
Drag queen Robin Banks panned her gaze across a crowd that packed Center St. from Church to Orange.
“For how many of you is this your first time seeing a drag show live?” she asked, counting hands as they went up. It was Saturday afternoon at the annual PRIDE New Haven Block Party, the signature event of New Haven's annual PRIDE weekend, and she was serving as emcee for the day.
“One, two, three, four, five—I count a thousand!”
Vendors, food trucks, and civic-interest institutions handing out everything from Smarties candy to holy water lined the street's curbs. At its center stood a bandstand that featured musical sets, dance demos, and a seemingly endless bill of inspired drag performances from 4 to 10 p.m.
The first queens to take the stage hailed from the Imperial Sovereign Court of all Connecticut, a nonprofit charity that hosts shows on behalf of local nonprofits like the National Kidney Foundation and St. Phillip House.
Trevor Reynolds, honorary Court board member and heir apparent to “Nicole the Great” explained how the Court collected general operating support straight from the extended fingers of star-struck onlookers.
“If you like a performer and you like what they’re doing—it goes to the rain tip fund!”
The New Haven Pride Center’s (NHPC) decision to begin with the Court was a masterstroke. The Court’s philanthropic mission helped warm up the block party’s broad general public—LGBTQIA, as well as the visiting friends and allies magnetized by Pride—to a sometimes cliquey and niche genre. Its tried and talented retinue, which included Lady Sylvia Heart, Lady Bella Donna, and reigning Empress Lucia Virginity, kicked the festival off with ambitious, energetic, heart-pounding routines.
They rocked Center Street. Heart’s glamorous bearing—straight off a Parisian runway—repeated visually what the words of her accompanying, Euro-poppy Meghan Trainor lyrics said plainly: “If I was you, I’d want to be me too.”
Bella Donna executed sobering, object-based choreography. Her plaintive meditation on a lover’s abandoned black hoodie helped balance Lady Virginity’s assertive, fist-pumping rendition of Mel B’s “For Once in My Life.”
The Court continued on. Its Count literally swept the audience off its feet, taking several bystanders by the hand and spinning them around a sultry ballroom routine. The Duke and Duchess, celebrating a 60th birthday, jammed to Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.”
At all points in their showcase, the Court modeled outstanding aristocratic gentility for the masses. They proffered banknotes with hand flourishes, sweeping bows, and clicks of their heels, exciting further donations. The afternoon’s biggest tip came from NHPC Director Patrick Dunn: a check by the organization for $250.
Alisa’s House of Salsa was slated next after the Court, but the love didn’t stop flowing with the queens. With noticeable surprise, studio owner and dancer Alisa Bowens and her facilitating male couple danced forwards to palm bills tendered by the crowd.
“Now this is Pride,” Bowens shouted, “so we want to have some fun!” She gestured for everybody to fill in, drawing up two ranks right before the stage. “Go grab their hand! Let’s merengue!”
It was at this moment the block party became a block party. The crowd’s loose semi-circle began to thicken into a shoulder-to-shoulder phalanx; two rivulets opened up in the crush for single-file shuffles of comers and goers.
“There we go! Hips are moving! I know you guys know how to shimmy!”
Pride paraded contributor after contributor. The troupe behind the variety show Escapade: Experience the Madness—up at Lyric Hall on Whalley Avenue later in October—sampled three upcoming acts. They blended clowning and drag, Sinatra and contemporary dance.
Queen Mia E Z’Lay wowed the crowd with an optically arresting outfit. She had wound her hair into an openwork sculptural confection of interlocking fiber cylinders bound in gold foil; her form was simply draped by a luminous white gown and cape and accented with stacked bangles.
Robin Banks climbed back on-stage. “Have you seen enough drag show?” she asked. The crowd yelled back a resounding: “No!”
“Would you, in fact, actually like to see some more drag show—?” she asked again.
People knew perfectly what they wanted. A wave of applause drowned out the last few syllables to her sentence.