“PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM), Ep. 13: “Arts as Action” edition, with Dana Embree, Stephanie V. McKee & Sunni Patterson, and Paul Oswell & Benjamin Hoffman

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In response to Friday’s (Jan. 20) inauguration, we wanted to take a look at artistic and creative instruction as a response to political and cultural change. Throughout New Orleans and the rest of the country, we’ve seen creative people finding their own voice in terms of protest and action. There’s the New Orleans version of the Women’s March on Washington and the March for Revolution over in Faubourg Marigny. There was Friday’s J20Nola: Anti Trump Inauguration Rally & March. And plenty of other shows that definitely will infuse the night with plenty of protest themes.

So I welcomed a range of guests to this, our “Arts as Action Episode,” to discuss their works — sometimes directly related to the topic, or just because their current work served as a nice jumping-off point.

To that end, we welcomed as our guests:

Director Stephanie V. McKee and poet Sunni Patterson, two of the creative forces behind Junebug Productions’ current show, “Gomela/to return: Movement of Our Mother Tongue,” which opened this weekend over at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. (Sunni’s work, “Black Back,” opens the show, and I’ve got a video of the entire poem in this post.

Dana Marie Embree, longtime New Orleans-based costume designer for stage and screen and inspirational figure in the very popular, very creative, very artistic and often politically satirical Krewe of ‘tit Rex — which rolls, by the way, on Saturday, Feb. 18. (You can see it if you can crouch low enough.) I pre-recorded our interview so Dana could participate in today’s Women’s March New Orleans.

Paul Oswell and Benjamin Hoffman, co-producers of the weekly “Local Uproar” comedy show at the AllWays Lounge. On Saturday they welcomed Andrew Healan, host of “WHAT A JOKE,” a national comedy festival taking place in 30-plus cities on inauguration weekend to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union — as part of Local Uproar’s weekly show.

SEGMENT ONE: Dana Marie Embree

Dana Marie Embree has parlayed her love of history and dress up into a career, having over 30 years of experience in styling and design for New Orleans, film and television — including costume design credit on several independent films. Embree also studied draping, pattern-making, design techniques at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NY. She reproduces historic costume and fantasy fashion for film and personal clientele. She’s also familiar to many in New Orleans’ cultural community through her work with the Krewe of ’tit Rex, which marches this Carnival season on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 5 p.m. from the St. Roch neighborhood into Faubourg Marigny. Learn more about her work at http://www.danamarieembree.com.

I met with Dana in her Mid-City home, and I asked her to place the election of Donald Trump into her own personal historical context.

Our next guests are two of the principals behind a very cool new performance by Junebug Productions — director Stephanie V. McKee and poet Sunni Patterson. They opened their new production, “Gomela/to return: Movement of Our Mother Tongue” over at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center on Thursday and it runs through Jan. 29. It’s an amazing combination of dance, spoken word and music.

Stephanie V. McKee is the executive artistic director of Junebug Productions. She’s a performer, choreographer, educator, facilitator and cultural organizer born in Picayune, Mississippi and raised in New Orleans. She is the founder of Moving Stories Dance Project, an organization committed to dance education that provides opportunities for dancers and choreographers to showcase their talents. In 2007, she was awarded The Academy of Educational Development/New Voices Fellowship, an award for emerging leaders. For the past 20 years Ms. McKee has been involved with Junebug Productions as an artist and educator. Most recently she served as Associate Artistic Director of the first annual Homecoming Project 2011, a place-based performance project that addresses the Right of Return and what home means to communities in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Sunni Patterson hails from New Orleans, and draws upon her local origins, as well as her holistic view on life, to shape her art. She has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, performed at major spoken word venues throughout the country, and is a certified instructor of Tai Chi and Qi Gong. Please, please, please watch the video I shot of her reciting her poem, “Black Back” in the preview post I did for PopSmartNOLA.com

Now, I already posted a podcast interview with them on PopSmartNOLA.com that focused more heavily on the show itself, and that post also includes that video of Sunni Patterson and her poem. But for this show, I wanted to focus the conversation more specifically about how artists like McKee (who speaks first here) and Patterson respond creatively under political circumstances like these.

For our final segment for this, I wanted to hopefully end things with a chuckle. And so I welcomed:

Paul Oswell, a New Orleans-based writer, journalist and comedian. He writes for The Guardian US and co-produces two weekly comedy showcases in New Orleans: “Local Uproar” at the AllWays Lounge and “Night Church” at Sidney’s Saloon.

Benjamin Hoffman, a comedian in New Orleans who co-hosts and produces two weekly showcases, Night Church and Local Uproar. Most consider him a sex symbol.

(LEARN MORE: 16 Comedians on the Role of Comedy During a Trump Administration/Vulture)

Together they welcomed Andrew Healan and the touring “What a Joke” comedy festival Saturday the AllWays Lounge, benefiting the American Civil Liberties Union.

(LEARN MORE: Comic Hero: Why Donald Trump’s Candid Rhetoric Resonates With Supporters Listen)

We also got a chance to feature Margie Perez and her new CD, “Love Is All,” which she will feature at her show tonight (Sunday, Jan. 22) at d.b.a. Check it out at the end of the show, and thanks, Margie!

Last week, I introduced a new segment on “PopSmart NOLA,” and I call it “Relevant Link,” in which I share an interesting story I’ve come across over the past week. I know it’s only a week old, but this week I’d like to divert a little in the interpretation of the title segment and direct you to a link to take action:

Quoting here from an email I received Thursday from the Arts Council of New Orleans: “On the eve of Donald Trump’s Inauguration, The Hill newspaper reported that Trump Transition Team staff intend to recommend that the President-elect eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This decades-old proposal from the politically conservative Heritage Foundation and House Republican Study Committee is expected to be included in this year’s Congressional House Budget Resolution, as it has in previous years. However, it would be much more serious if it were also proposed by the Trump Administration. Legislative and executive branch action will start moving very quickly now. We need everyone to be prepared, organized, and educated about what’s at stake. Please help us recruit more free Arts Action Fund members, spread the word, and raise some money to support our grassroots activities. The Arts Action Fund will continue sending important updates to you.”

You can take the following four steps, which include links! (Yea, links.)

  1. Share this page with your personal network. Ask at least five of your friends to join the Arts Action Fund for FREE.
  2. Post onFacebook and Twitter to help rally national support to save the NEA. There is strength in numbers and your social media friends can help.
  3. Contribute to the Arts Action Fund to help fund our grassroots advocacy campaign to keep the arts alive.
  4. Register for the Arts Advocacy Dayconference on Capitol Hill on March 20-21, 2017.

OK, I lied. I did have a relevant link. For those intrigued by the Shen Yun performance at the Mahalia Jackson Theater this weekend, I offer this in-depth look at the politics (and seemingly cult-like background) of the New York-based performance troupe — courtesy the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, with this excerpt:

Falun Dafa, often used interchangeably with the term Falun Gong, is the organizational structure behind the practice. Practitioners bristle at being called a cult. But some of their communication strategies carry a strong whiff of cult-like control issues, including avoidance of media requests to explain their side (attempts to reach Shen Yun for this story were unanswered), stringent policing of images that forced the use of a five-year-old Associated Press photo to accompany this story, vague platitudes in lieu of specific descriptions and the assertion that their made-in-America show is a more authentic ambassador of “5,000 years of Chinese culture” than cultural-entertainment exports actually based in China. “The thing that irritates Chinese people everywhere is the specious claim that they’re representing traditional culture,” Ownby said. “They don’t, but they don’t do any harm. I grew up among seven Baptists, and they had strange beliefs, too.”

Interesting stuff. Check out the Relevant Link here.

I want to remind everyone that if you like what you hear on “PopSmart NOLA,” we’re here every Saturday from 3-4 p.m. on WHIV (102.3 FM). You can listen to the archived, podcast version of the show on my SoundCloud account, “dlsnola.” Also, you can visit the website at popsmartnola.com, and like our Facebook page. You can also follow us on Instagram at “@popsmartnola” and I’m yammering away on Twitter at @dlsnola504.

Also, if you like our show, we’d love your support in the form of underwriting; email me at dlsnola@gmail.com for more info.

Thanks again for joining us, y’all. For “PopSmart NOLA,” I’m David Lee Simmons, reminding everyone to keep the intelligent discussion going.

BONUS: Check out Stephanie V. McKee and Sunni Patterson discussing “Gomela” above, and Sunni reciting “Back Black” below!)

5 (hilarious!) questions for Paul Oswell as “Local Uproar” launches into 2017

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Weekly stand-up comedy show from Paul Oswell and Benjamin Hoffman, with New Orleans and touring comics
WHEN: Saturdays (8 p.m.)
WHERE: AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
MORE INFO: Visit the Facebook event page

Over the past decade or so, the comedy scene in New Orleans has enjoyed an amazing growth spurt that might be tracking in line with scenes in other U.S. cities, and the breadth and depth of it can be pretty amazing. On a lark I finally took the chance to sample another one of these: “Local Uproar,” which Paul Oswell and Benjamin Hoffman co-produce for the AllWays Lounge on St. Claude Avenue.

The 2017 debut show on Saturday (Jan. 7) featured a mix of local and touring comics, and a mix in performances as well. Approaches ranged from the absurd (New York City’s Gina Ginsberg) and sardonic (New Orleans’ Alex Luchun) to the subtly subversive (New Orleans’ DC Paul and the hilariously observational (headliner James Hamilton of New York City). (It should be noted DC Pauls’ mother was in the house, and didn’t act too embarrassed by the material.) Oswell hosts the show, deftly dropping in jokes in between sets and keeping the show moving, and Hoffman popped up for a set marked by a likable stoner vibe.

If the show weren’t free (and with free treats from sponsor New Orleans Ice Cream Company, as well as free red beans), you’d think it was still a bargain at most prices. But the goal of the show is to get people into the bar, and while the evening started out modestly enough, by the end, the place was packed — partly because of the popularity of this show and probably from the one following.

Regardless, the 2017 debut offered the opportunity to get Paul Oswell to review the show’s brief history and success, set against the backdrop of a continually growing New Orleans comedy scene.

How’d you get started in comedy, and, by extension, how did “Local Uproar” get started? (Especially against the backdrop of this growing comedy scene.)
I’d been doing long-form one-man shows for the New Orleans Fringe for three years, and someone suggested stand up and I tried to transfer my material and I was pretty awful. I didn’t go up much in the beginning (2014), but the only way to improve is to go up a lot, so I thought a start would be to run an open mic — I always remember some solid advice from Bella Blue: “If you’re not getting booked, produce the show yourself.” Anyway, I looked at what nights didn’t have a show (Saturdays) and what venues had regular slots and would be natural for comedy (The Allways). We started in May 2015. I co-hosted with my friend Tory Gordon and when she moved away after a couple of months, Benjamin Hoffman came on board.


Benjamin Hoffman

It was OK — we had patchy attendance and for open mics, you have to stand by the fact that anyone can go up, so quality was inconsistent. At some point, I thought, this is people’s Saturday night, they (and I) don’t want to sit through very bad comedy, so let’s make it a booked show so we know what we’re putting out. One bad comic can drain the energy for the good comic following them, or people will just leave, so let’s avoid that. We did that about a year or so ago, and we haven’t looked back.

Crowds grew, bigger comedians asked if they could do sets, and now we have bigger names swinging by — they love the venue, and we have a packed, engaged room most Saturday nights, I’d say.

So it’s been an evolving thing, much like the scene itself. Talk about that. In your mind, how and why has New Orleans’ comedy scene become to vibrant and spread out over the past several years? Is this another post-Katrina phenomenon?
People like Leon Blanda and the Henehan brothers (Cassidy and Mickey) have been running comedy shows longer than I’ve lived here — I can’t speak to the early days as I wasn’t there, but the Henehans were there post-Katrina and Leon a couple of years later as I understand it. They laid the foundations and were there to give mic time to people like Mark Normand and Sean Patton. When I started out, the second wave was already in effect, with people like Andrew Polk and Joe Cardosi bringing people from outside New Orleans — touring comics from New York City and Los Angeles — into the scene.

Suddenly Hannibal Buress and Louis CK are dropping into New Orleans mics — and we’re still (to this day) talking about bar shows. There’s no comedy club here in the traditional sense. So I was lucky that other people had done the hard work, and me and Benjamin just kind of slotted in, did our thing and hoped we added to the variety.

A year after “Local Uproar” on Saturdays, we started “Night Church” at Sidney’s Saloon on Thursday nights — another booked show, smaller venue, lower key.

Mark Normand and Sean Patton — local comics who have gone onto great things, just for reference.

How do you book your talent? Just fielding applications on Facebook, or what? And, what do you look for in the talent, and how has your eye/ear for talent improved since starting this?
Our shows are a mix. Firstly, we have trusted locals who go up all the time and are solid comics, week in week out. We have a rotating headlining system, so at some point they can all go up and do longer sets (15-plus minutes). Secondly, we have visiting comics (either touring or on vacation) who come and ask us to go up as they’ve heard good things about us — we’re always open to visiting comics as it gives our shows variety and the regular audience members like that a lot. If they’re bigger names in town for other reasons (Tiffany Haddish springs to mind), we’ll let them headline and promo it. If they’re bigger name touring comics, we’ll think about making it a ticketed show — we’d rather have it be free and give all the tips to comics, but at some level pro comics need a guarantee and if that’s the way we can bring people to New Orleans, that’s how we’ll do it. Benjamin is a much bigger comedy nerd than me (especially for younger US comics) so I take his recommendations mainly. A few weeks ago he bought in Hari Kondabolu who I wasn’t aware of previously and that guy sold out two shows on a Sunday. So Benjamin has a better instinct than me!


DC Paul

Last year we also bought in Joe DeRosa and, Shane Mauss and Billy Wayne Davis for ticketed shows. Sometimes they’re just in town on vacation and they approach us, or if they’re touring and passing through, say, Lafayette, their agents will approach us about adding a date. This year, we have Emo Phillips coming in (in June) And I couldn’t be more excited. We don’t earn much money doing this — we try and cover our marketing costs and pay the comics what little we can (a free show depends on bar splits and tips — we may get $100 on a good night total). This is very important: our great sponsors, New Orleans Ice Cream Company — make it easier for us. They not only sponsor us but they also provide ice cream, which we give away at every show — a big draw for us and we’d have less people without them.

When you’re not hosting and performing, where do you like to go for your yucks?
My favorite shows are many: weekly shows include “Comedy Beast” at The Howlin’ Wolf, “Comedy F*ck Yeah” at Dragon’s Den, “Bear With Me” at Twelve Mile Limit, “Comedy Catastrophe” at the Lost Love Lounge.

Some great monthly shows: “The Rip Off Show” at the Hi-Ho Lounge, “I’m Listening” at the VooDoo Lounge, “Stoked” The at Howlin’ Wolf.

There are so many now, I created a website for listings and occasional news: www.nocomedy.com.

I’m still trying to figure out how comedy became a “thing” in New Orleans. Was it just a matter of a few folks you mentioned previously lighting the fuse? It reminds me of the burlesque renaissance, which obviously is different and had been doing OK for several years (let’s say 1996-2005) but got really big after Katrina.


James Hamilton

I mean, I’d imagine that stand up comedy has grown in every city, but the scene in New Orleans and the respect it gets from very good professional comics, is down to those people I mentioned — not only lighting the fuse, but making sure it stays lit. Stand-up comedy production is a grind — you have to be there week in week out whether it’s a crowd of two people (and we’ve done shows like that) or a full room. Stand-up comedy is showing up, it’s providing a regular spot and doing it in as professional a way as you can to make sure that the audience and the performers have a good time.

The Henehans and Blanda and Polk all worked the coal face, committed themselves to creating a scene with weekly booked shows and open mics, performing and producing even to five people on a rainy Wednesday, and I hope we’re part of the growing scene. They had people like Louis CK and Doug Stanhope and Bill Burr drop in — in the last few weeks we’ve had Sasheer Zamata (from “SNL”) and Hannibal Buress just swing by and do time at our shows, and I think it speaks well of the local scene, and to the people that put in the real work creating it. I feel like Benjamin and I are part of its maintenance, and hopefully part of its further growth. A real change would be for someone to open a downtown comedy club and it would be a risk but it’s a wide-open niche right now.

What’s the rush for you as a comic? What do you dig about it?
It’s an immediacy thing. Instant validation — laughter (or no laughter) is an immediate assessment of your material AND how you’re presenting it. It’s a challenge to match the material chosen and the way you present it to match the room you’re up at. I like that a lot. That said, I know my limitations as a comic and I’m not even top 20 in New Orleans. I’m OK with that, and though I do like the very clear ways in which I’m so much better than I was in 2014, I also think I’m better as a producer and host and that’s more my comfort zone. But I love being around very funny and talented people two or three nights a week and the mutual support our small scene affords itself. There are very few ego-driven spats, people are broadly happy when anyone advances their careers.

Jassy reflects on New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 (Exit Interview)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

WHAT:Rat Sh*t, presented by Neon Burgundy; hosted by Hannibelle Spector
WHEN: Tuesday, June 14, 11 p.m.
WHERE: AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude Ave.

In this second installment of our “Exit Interview” series, New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 student Justin Gordon (aka “Jassy”) recounts his and her experiences following the “Draguation” ceremony hosted by Vinsantos May 10 at the AllWays Lounge. (I previewed the show for PopSmart NOLA, and then I covered it for the New Orleans Advocate, and posted photos afterward on PopSmart NOLA.) Gordon started off by recounting his first drag experience while a student at Tulane University.

“Once a year (Tulane’s Center for Wellness and Health Promotion) puts on a drag show that’s called Miss Paul Tulane and Mr. Sophie Newcomb, with girls as drag kings and guys as drag queens. There’s one winner each for every year. This past fall was the 19th one. It’s been losing interest lately. I won that show twice because I was the only one who was really putting some interest in it. I’d started going to different shows around town, and I knew that Vinsantos hosted Drag Bingo every Thursday at the AllWays Lounge. (Vinsantos has since left that gig.)

I even won a poster one night! So I knew about the Drag Workshop. After graduating from Tulane, I started looking for drag shows, and Vinsantos had on Facebook talked about starting up the Cycle 4 of the workshop.

(Read more: Slenderella reflects on New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4)

“Since I was a little boy, my nickname was Juicy. As in, I was fat and juicy. It stuck with me my entire life. Friends and family and some teachers called me juicy, and then a friend in college bastardized it and started calling me Jassy. So I think I’m going to stick with that. Jassy is more an extension of myself. She allows me the ability to explore gender in a way that I’m more comfortable with. It’s more empowering through it. I don’t think Jassy is necessarily a character. I have a lot of interests, and this was another one. I do ceramics, I do podcasts, I perform on aerial silks. I like to change things up and do new things each time. Like to be almost like a chameleon. Jassy’s the mastermind!

“I went into the workshop thinking it would be about makeup and lip-synching. It was way more intense than I ever would have imagined. Vinsantos was really good at helping everyone clean up our ideas, and to get us to just push past our limits and really go for it. She definitely pushed us to make our acts more like performance art. The majority of the class was more about how to perform. Like if your wig is ratty, you can still captivate an audience. And then you can alter your aesthetic and be as pretty as you want.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“I decided to perform to the Bjork song ‘Oh So Quiet’ when, a few months ago I was listening to the song and thought that would be good for an Anne Frank character. It had all these loud sounds and then the shushing. So I started thinking up this funny little Anne Frank piece. At first, I was confused how I would incorporate the love theme. I remember there was a news headline controversy about Justin Bieber writing in the Anne Frank House guest book (in Amsterdam) that she if she were alive today she would be a ‘Belieber. So I started thinking about conceiving my character a Justin Bieber-obsessed Anne Frank. That was concept I was going for. For the first section, I decided to write an original diary script that the audience hears over the speakers while I’m performing. Then I used the website Fiverr, which offers a variety of tasks for a small fee, after I’d Googled ‘German voiceover actress,’ to get someone to record my ‘diary entry’ in German. It’s totally absurdist, but it makes sense in the context of what people are doing. I was excited that that many people (in the audience) got it. I was a little nervous they wouldn’t quite grasp it. But the AllWays Lounge is a great place to do these kind of conceptual pieces.

Slenderella reflects on New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 (Exit Interview)

WHAT: “The Dollhouse Revue,” hosted by Nicole Lynn Foxx and featuring Slenderella, Wednesday Bonet Iman, Ivy Dripp and Pussy Hertz
WHEN: Friday (May 27), 10 p.m.
WHERE: Golden Lantern Bar, 1239 Royal St.

As part of a series we’ll call “Exit Interview,” I’m cleaning out the reporter’s notebook from my coverage of Vinsantos’ New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 Draguation (for PopSmart NOLA, including a look at the rehearsal and show, and for the New Orleans Advocate), starting with thoughts from Cory Greenwaldt — aka Slenderella. Slenderella makes her professional debut Friday (May 27) in the “Dollhouse Revue” show at the Golden Lantern in the French Quarter. Here, in his own words, Greenwaldt discusses how he came to the workshop and his drag persona:

“Draguation night was one of the most liberating nights of my life. I’d have to say that it was on par with taking my final exams during my last semester of university. We spent two months constructing these drag personas and acts, with the help of Vinsantos, all for one special performance for our families, friends and fellow drag lovers. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything … however, I do wish the air conditioner was on full blast. We were melting backstage.

“Not only did the Drag Workshop provide a positive space to expand our creative minds, but it also gave us a networking platform. The class had such a diverse crew of talented people. Whether they were experienced performers, makeup artists, body painters, costumers, sound engineers … everyone brought something to the table. I learned valuable tips of the trade and how to properly communicate with future promoters, event coordinators, which in turn will help me with my future gigs/performances. I basically owe everything to our Headmistress Vinsantos DeFonte!

“He would probably snicker if he heard my say this, but he really was an inspiration to us all, which is why I wanted my performance to reflect that. At times during my number, I found myself giving him most of the attention rather than the crowd. He was front and center with the biggest smile on his face and I couldn’t help but show him how grateful I was. He’s one of the most talented artists in the New Orleans community, and I’m incredibly grateful for the time and effort he put into this. I can’t imagine the patience it took to get a bunch of artists to finish things on time!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“The character Slenderella is a play on how skinny, and well, slender I am. I used to be very self-conscious about my slender frame, which is why I wanted to use Slenderella to help me feel comfortable in my own skin. However, she really is an extension of my personality. Silly, bubbly, a bit ditzy, and a laugh you can hear a mile away. I chose to do the song ‘Primadonna’ by Marina in the Diamonds because it perfectly represents Slenderella (and myself) as a whole. It truly represented my inner need to be perfect in an imperfect world — which can be dangerous at times. I’ve learned through the creation of Slenderella and the Drag Workshop that not everything is perfect, and at times, I just need to loosen up and have fun!

“Prior to the workshop I studied art history and architecture through the University of New Orleans and Charles University (Univerzita Karlova v Praze) with a concentration in Central and Eastern European art and architecture. I finished my studies and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine aArts on December 18, 2015. In all honesty, I wanted to do the workshop in order to find a creative outlet for myself. I’ve always had a passion for the arts but never really found an avenue that best suited my creative abilities. Drag became a way to express my inner creativity and personality through a developed persona, while earning some dollar bills. It turned into a way for me to create a living piece of art and become a fierce drag performer.”

For Vinsantos, Tuesday’s another “Draguation” day with the New Orleans Drag Workshop

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

WHAT: New Orleans Drag Workshop Cycle 4 Draguation
Tuesday (May 10), 8 p.m.
WHERE: AllWays Lounge, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
COST: Tickets $15. Click here for tickets.
Cycle 4 class: Cate Swan (aka Tarah Cards), Dane Baxter (aka Kedavra), Rocharlotte Raphael (aka Bellagio Showers), Angie Zeiderman (aka Shebrew Internationale), Cory Greenwaldt (aka Slenderella), Sadie Edwards (aka Mx. Mystic), Evan Spigelman (aka Carrie Mehome), Logan VanMeter (aka Candy Snatch), Justin Gordon (aka Jassy), AJay Strong (aka Boy Gorge)

Kedavra is nearly flawless.

Working the AllWays Lounge stage to the sounds of “Bring On the Men” (from the Broadway musical “Jekyll & Hyde”) on a recent weeknight, the aspiring drag queen struts and preens and glares at the audience, shifting from the main stage at various times to the piano at left or over toward the right. When she’s finished, Kedavra’s audience — fellow students in the fourth iteration of the New Orleans Drag Workshop — applaud wildly both out of support and awe.

As the applause fades, a voice booms out from the back of the room, up in the sound booth.

“I actually have some notes for you.”

It’s Vinsantos DeFonte — aka the New Orleans performer Vinsantos — who oversees the workshop and never misses a detail. This is where the “nearly” in “nearly flawless” is revealed.

“I feel like you straight up stole two of Jassy’s moves,” DeFonte says, noting for starters a cartwheel that Kedavra did, almost as an afterthought. But it’s a move heretofore only done by Jassy, one of the other classmates, and DeFonte is clear about each act of the 10 students being singular and unique. No borrowing allowed. Jassy smiles, almost as if to say, no harm done. Still, DeFonte concludes with, “I’m just letting you know you stepped on some drag toes.” With that, and a note to use the main stage more, Kedavra’s last rehearsal before the class’ “Draguation” day on Tuesday (May 10) looks promising.

That Kedavra seems promising shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. Her creator, 26-year-old Dane Baxter, also happens to be one of New Orleans’ most popular and in-demand body-paint artists — a fixture at BUKU Fest, Voodoo Fest, Jazz Fest, you name it, whose social media presence includes more than 31,000 followers on Instagram. (He took his drag name from “Avada Kedavra,” or the “Killing Curse” from the “Harry Potter” series. He’s a fan, and has the shoulder tattoo to prove it.)

Several of the other classmates also are known as creative in other areas as well. There’s Angie Zeiderman, who as Angie Z was voted one of New Orleans’ most popular burlesque performers (and a talented vocalist) but in this workshop has created the hard-rocking persona Shebrew Internationale and will lip-synch to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” And there’s Logan VanMeter, who as Danger Rockwell is one of New Orleans’ few regularly working boylesque performers.

Then there’s Cate Swan, an in-demand makeup stylist by day who on Tuesday night will transform into Tarah Cards, dancing a crazed dance to Diamanda Galas’s “I’m Gonna Live the Life.” And, perhaps most unlikely of all, there’s AJay Strong, a recently transgendered male who will revisit his previous feminine life onstage as a whip-cracking Boy Gorge performing to Marilyn Monroe’s “Teach Me Tiger.” This run-through is being done without costumes, but it’s their last time to get their act just right.

This Cycle’s class is a study in diversity: There are men, women, transgender, white, black, gay, straight, performers from other disciplines, and newbies. Like many drag queens, several tuck their junk, while others pump up their boobs, and yet another creates the illusion of junk — with a codpiece.

“My drag family was always a healthy mix of men, women and trans folk that were exploring their identities on and off the stage,” DeFonte says. “I’m glad I was raised in this kind of drag world. If there’s one thing that drag should not be, is narrow-minded.”

While there are plenty of complete newcomers to any kind of stage performance, the New Orleans Drag Workshop also gives New Orleans artists a chance to tap into something different, to add another arrow in their creative quiver.

But it’s also helped fill New Orleans nightclubs with fresh drag talent; “draguates” of the workshop over the past three years include Hannibelle Spector, Liberaunchy, Dasani Waters, and Neon Burgundy, a performer and producer known for such shows as the monthly “Gag Reflex” show at the AllWays Lounge.

“I’ve had many talented performers pass through the Workshop,” DeFonte says, but also notes, “The best thing about the Workshop is that it is completely transformative. It works for the people involved, including myself, on so many levels. It’s definitely a confidence builder. Whether or not a student chooses to pursue a career in drag, they leave the class changed.

“The group dynamic really creates a family style bond,” DeFonte adds. “Each of the cycles have their own connections, and most of them draguate having made life-long friends.”

Continue reading

Vinsantos: Cabaret and drag shows turn into fundraisers after French Quarter fire

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For weeks, New Orleans cabaret performer Vinsantos was looking forward to welcoming performer Kitten on the Keys to New Orleans for their “BACK2BACK” show Wednesday (Feb. 3) at the AllWays Lounge in a thrilling double-bill show.

And then came a very blue Monday, as a fire swept through Priestess Miriam’s Voodoo Spiritual Temple, next door to his apartment on the 800 block of north Rampart Street. The fire headed straight up and into an upstairs closet that held all the costumes and other belongings of friend and drag performer Hannibelle Spector.

“We live in a very special compound on north Rampart Street that consists of the Temple, Deity Arts, our home as well as the homes of five residents,” Vinsantos said. “Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to put the pieces of these people’s live back together, The Voodoo Temple suffered a huge amount of fire, smoke and water damage and will not be reopening in its long-standing location.

“Both Hannibelle and the tenant adjacent to her have lost their homes. This is painful to us as we had the best neighbors that we could ask for. This isn’t something that can be fixed with a little drywall and some paint. This mixed-use building will be out of commission for a long while.”

To help out, Vinsantos is turning the “BACK2BACK” show at the AllWays Lounge into a fundraiser to help support the Hannibelle, who will emcee Tuesday’s “RATSH*T” show at the AllWays Lounge as well.

A GoFundMe campaign titled “Starting Over from Scratch” also has been started.

All proceeds from the shows will go toward Hannibelle Spector and housemates, said Vinsantos, who added a that a third fundraiser, “Rampart Is Burning,” has been scheduled for Feb. 13 at the Voodoo Lounge, organized by Akrum Salem and Daniel Ford.

“It’s really hard to put a price on loosing everything and having to find a new home and start all over from scratch,” Vinsantos said. “Thank all of you for getting involved, spreading the word, making donations, and coming out to these shows and helping us raise the money the old fashioned way.”

Here’s some bio info on Kitten on the Keys:

Suzanne Ramsey aka Kitten on the Keys is a world class burlesque legend and piano chanteuse. She’s toured the U.S. and Canada with Devotchka and Catherine D’Lish, opened for legendary punk band The Damned on the Twisted Cabaret Tour UK 2007, toured with the Teaseorama Roadshow, performed sold out shows in France, Netherlands, Finland, Italy, Edinburgh Scotland, Switzerland, played piano for Jazz Legend Little Jimmy Scott in Las Vegas, MC’d for Exotic World and the Burlesque Hall of Fame, played the Spigeltent at Outside Lands Fest in San Francisco, sang her original songs with a jazz band. Currently she is working with her latest band with none other than Dead Kennedy’s drummer Bruce Slesinger. Kitten on the Keys staked her claim in Europe co starring with Cabaret New Burlesque in the French film “Tournee” with award winning actor and director Mattieu Almaric (2010). The film was an official entry at the 63rd Annual Cannes Film Festival where it won a best director Palme D’or for Mattieu Amalric’s Directing and the Foreign Press Award. Kitten was pleased as punch to walk the red carpet with Mi Mi le Meaux, Evie Lovelle, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Roky Roulette and Mattieu Amalric and the rest of the cast.”