Out Front’s ‘Dead Drag Queen’ explores life among queer and marginalized

With “At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen,” director Damian Lockhart seeks to "normalize and humanize queer people who might be different from the mainstream, especially people who are living with HIV and AIDS.” The Georgia-set play stars Trajan Clayton, left, as Anthony and Ben Cole as Hunter.

Credit: Photo by Sydney Lee

Credit: Photo by Sydney Lee

With “At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen,” director Damian Lockhart seeks to "normalize and humanize queer people who might be different from the mainstream, especially people who are living with HIV and AIDS.” The Georgia-set play stars Trajan Clayton, left, as Anthony and Ben Cole as Hunter.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

“At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen,” a new play by Georgia native Terry Guest, runs through Feb. 17 at Out Front Theatre Company. Director Damian Lockhart said the play is vital because it shows the humanity of a marginalized community too often dismissed or mistreated.

“Being a queer Black man, the story has so much meaning to me,” Lockhart said in an interview. “I also believe that it is important that we have this conversation where we normalize and humanize queer people who might be different from the mainstream, especially people who are living with HIV and AIDS.”

“Dead Drag Queen” centers around a performer named Anthony, whose drag persona is named Courtney. Anthony is portrayed by actor Trajan Clayton.

Anthony uses the queen Courtney’s wake as an opportunity to tell his biography of growing up in the South on his own terms. The show takes place with the character on and offstage, where he confides in his friend and lover Hunter, played by Ben Cole.

“Courtney is struggling with telling the truth of her story,” Lockhart said. “When you die of something like AIDS or HIV, and you are in charge of telling your story, it’s about how you tell your story at the end of the day. She struggles with telling us the truth. That’s why the drag is there. She’s throwing on these wigs and costumes to explain what happened in her life but not getting to the nitty-gritty.”

Guest’s play was written in tribute to his uncle Anthony Berringers, who passed away in 1988. The show is set in a more modern period, yet it still addresses the issues of HIV and AIDS. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in two Black men who have sex with men will contract HIV in their lifetime.

“All these people who died of HIV and AIDS, their lives matter,” the director said. “Their lives have such richness and beauty, heartache and pain as well. You see a lot of that contrast displayed throughout the play.”

Trajan Clayton's character Anthony performs as the drag queen Courtney who struggles with "telling the truth of her story," director Damian Lockhart says. "That’s why the drag is there. She’s throwing on these wigs and costumes to explain what happened in her life but not getting to the nitty-gritty.”

Credit: Courtesy Out Front Theatre

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Credit: Courtesy Out Front Theatre

Lockhart and Guest, alumni of Kennesaw State University, have been friends since their time as students, developing this work over years.

Lockhart said he encouraged the actors to take time to develop their own drag personas in order to effectively portray seasoned performers.

“Each actor really needs time to develop who their drag persona is,” he said. “They have to take their makeup home; they’re gonna need to play with it. They need to do the lines, the makeup. That’s the only way you can actually create this person and make them a piece of you. It’s the training with the makeup; it’s the walking in the heels.”

“At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen” contains welcome moments of levity, though it deals with issues surrounding death and illness.

“It’s a story about love, friendship and drag as a means to understand how someone deals with their life,” Lockhart said. “I think Terry created a wonderful show that’s not traditional. It’s different. It’s unique. We haven’t seen it that often in a stage play that isn’t so heavy, like ‘The Normal Heart’ or ‘Angels in America.’ It really offers opportunities to laugh, to cry and to have nostalgic moments.”

Out Front Artistic Director Paul Conroy wrote in a statement that this play is truly special because it is homegrown.

“What makes ‘At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen’ even more exciting is that it is truly a story about Georgia, the creation of a playwright who was truly born and raised here, with the story playing out in our own state,” he noted. “The characters are as entrenched in life here as we all are.”


THEATER PREVIEW

Through Feb. 17 at Out Front Theatre Company, 999 Brady Ave. N.W. $15-$25. 404-448-2755, outfronttheatre.com

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Benjamin Carr is an ArtsATL editor-at-large who has contributed to the publication since 2019 and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, the Dramatists Guild, the Atlanta Press Club and the Horror Writers Association. His writing has been featured in podcasts for iHeartMedia, onstage as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival and online in The Guardian. His debut novel, Impacted, was published by The Story Plant.

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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL

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