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Student drag performers foster identity, community virtually amid pandemic

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The free Crimson and Queens drag show will be streamed April 29 from 7-10 p.m.

The redbrick walls of the University of Oklahoma are for learning. Here, you can learn how to write music, build a computer program, solve a crime or do something else entirely. Here, you can learn how to be who you are. 

Drag — a performance art centered around a dramatic representation of gender — gives some students a similar opportunity.

“Drag is a chance for people to be their authentic selves and to learn who their authentic selves are,” said musical theatre senior and drag performer Taylor Ratliff.

Since OU began hosting its two annual drag shows — Miss Student Theatre Initiative and Crimson and Queens — student drag performance has made its mark on campus. During the pandemic, student drag performers have struggled to continue their art, but they have found ways over social media to keep performing.

Ratliff started doing drag officially on campus his freshmen year. He first competed in Miss Student Theatre Initiative with the OU School of Drama.

“By the end of the night, my wig had slipped to the back of my head, and I was exhausted,” Ratliff said. “But I loved it.”

After that experience, Ratliff began working to solidify his drag persona. He had always loved the classic silhouette from the 50s, being especially inspired by the movies starring Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn that he grew up loving. He pulled inspiration from that era, focusing on “high-brow fashion, glamor and the impeccable beauty standards.”

“It was this persona that lives in the 21st century,” Ratliff said. “But it harkens (back to) the age of where women walked the red carpet and were revered as goddesses.”

From the vintage vision, Ratliff’s drag persona — Plasma LaRose — was born. 

“I’ve probably focused more on drag than on my musical theatre degree,” Ratliff said, laughing.

Many of the outfits Plasma LaRose wears feature big hair with a form fitting dress. LaRose also has a signature makeup detail — a white line leading to a white dot on the tip of her nose. Overall, LaRose has an aesthetic strongly focused on the classic silhouette of Marilyn Monroe combined with the fashion style of Audrey Hepburn. 

Meanwhile, Ratliff has been competing in an Instagram drag competition. Jak’kay Monroe’s Drag Idol is an OKC-based competition for local artists to show off what they can do despite the pandemic. Ratliff posts weekly batches of photos with different outfits to his Plasma LaRose Instagram page.

“I have an opportunity to feel like I’m creating art,” Ratliff said.

Ratliff works with his roommate to produce his content between classes. Apartment photoshoots and putting on makeup during class have become part of Ratliff’s day-to-day routine, he said.

“It’s really helping me cope with the absence of my true love, performing live,” Ratliff said.

Ratliff is not the only student drag queen on campus. Justin Norris, vocal performance and marketing senior and former SGA president, also competes in drag. Through drag, Norris became heavily involved in the queer community on campus.

“Sometimes it can be hard, especially for queer people, to find that same sense of community that a lot of these events provide,” Norris said.

Norris began his drag career through the Miss Student Theatre Initiative pageant, but it started with an outside perspective. He had been helping his roommate at the time get into costume for the pageant when he realized he wanted to try it out. A month later, the GEC announced the first “Crimson and Queens.”

“I shot my shot,” Norris said. “I put on some makeup and a Goodwill dress, took some pictures, and that was it.”

Norris went on to perform at OU’s first Crimson and Queens event along with future Miss Student Theatre Initiative competitions. Across his drag career, Norris has built the drag persona known as Blacc Cherry. 

The name came through a joke with friends as a play on socialite Blac Chyna, but Blacc Cherry’s personality was developed with a more personal touch.

“Blacc Cherry is really the manifestation of a lot of the things that I was told I couldn’t be,” Norris said. “I was told I couldn’t be black and queer, but Blacc Cherry just doesn’t feel any of that. She’s always smiling, always trying to make people laugh. She is an extension of me, but she’s also what I aspire to be.”

Blacc Cherry’s aesthetic features a modern look with clean lines, but she has a tendency to switch up the aesthetic not only between performances, but also between acts at the same event. She will often go from a modest look with simple colors to something daring, usually with the goal to add shock value, said Norris. 

During his time as SGA president, Norris said that his role as Blacc Cherry became even more important.

“It felt so important to be that representation to other people on campus,” Norris said. “I hope that makes other people on campus feel like they can be their authentic selves, whether they’re genderqueer or black or gay.”

Norris has not been consistently performing as Blacc Cherry during the pandemic, but he has continued to participate in the queer community by working on the LGBTQ+ Program Advisory Board and talking to friends like Ratliff.

“I’m fortunate to have a support system I can rely on,” Norris said. “We can check in with each other even if we can’t be together.”

Despite the pandemic, performers like Ratliff and Norris are given opportunities to perform.

The 2021 Crimson and Queens event has been in the making since the pandemic began. Jerry Lessley, petroleum engineering masters student and founder of the event, started preparing as soon as the 2020 event was canceled. It was not an easy process, Lessley said.

“This is my baby,” Lessley said. “But we weren’t able to plan too much because things were changing by the minute.” 

Crimson and Queens started in 2018 as a combination of the Gender + Equality Center’s diversity and inclusion efforts and the Union Programming Board’s event organization experience.

“I knew this would be a really great partnership between us,” Lessley said.

Lessley was right. Through collaboration between the two organizations, Crimson and Queens started with a few different goals in mind.

First, the event was meant to be student-based. While organizers would be inviting local drag artists to showcase the drag that exists in the community, Crimson and Queens was primarily an opportunity for students to perform and show off their talents. 

Second, it was a chance to give queer students, particularly students under the age of 21, a space to be open about who they are and meet other queer people.

“This is a very safe environment to experience drag in,” Lessley said. “But this year will look a little different.”

Due to the ongoing pandemic, “Crimson and Queens” will be hosted online through Zoom. After performers are selected, they will be given the chance in early March to record their performances on camera. Chakra Media Company, a local production team, will be filming and editing all performances with professional-level quality.

“It’ll be just like a big music video,” Lessley said.

Shangela — a world-renowned drag queen and former contestant on “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and “Rupaul’s Drag Race: Allstars” — will host the event this year. She was previously listed as the headliner last year before the event was canceled due to COVID-19.

Between the streamed performances, Shangela will be commenting on the competing queens and providing additional entertainment to the online audience.

“We’re very excited we could work with her again this year,” Lessley said.

The event will be streamed April 29 from 7-10 p.m. The event is completely free, and a link will be posted to register on the “Crimson and Queens” Facebook page.

Ratliff and Norris both plan to audition for “Crimson and Queens.” Performers for this year have not been announced yet, but Ratliff said he is excited to see who will be on the stage.

Ratliff and Norris will be graduating in 2021. Ratliff is planning to move to New York and hopes to continue performing in the drag scene while he pursues work in live theatre.

“My plans are all very flexible,” Ratliff said. “I would love to break onto the drag scene, but theatre is my first love and always will be.”

Norris is currently applying to multiple law schools across the country. He wants to work in entertainment law, representing those in the performance industry. He wants to represent marginalized performers especially, Norris said. While attending law school, he’d like to continue performing drag wherever he ends up. 

“It would be a disservice to myself and Blacc Cherry to keep her confined to Norman, Oklahoma,” Norris said. “The sky seems like the limit.”

Norris said he hopes that the OU drag scene will continue after he graduates

“Drag is not just a thing for queer people,” Norris said. “It’s a chance to learn, and college is a place of constant learning. So, go and learn.”

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