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A Love Letter to Atlanta’s Queer Performance Scene

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A film by Heather Provoncha and Leo Hollen Jr., screening Thursday, May 19, at Midtown Art Cinema.

From the living legends of the city’s wild past to the Legendary Children of today, Atlanta’s queer performance artists have always had a significant presence, but their stories have remained untold to a wider audience. Queer Moxie, a new documentary movie by Atlanta-based filmmakers Heather Provoncha and Leo Hollen Jr., seeks to take a closer look at the city’s queer performance community, past and present. The film will screen at the Midtown Art Cinema on May 19 at 7:30pm, with performances beginning at 7pm.

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The project’s origins go back seven years, when Provoncha, a recent transplant to the Atlanta area from Vermont, first began to follow the drag king performances of her then-girlfriend and several friends. Provoncha also began managing a cabaret show as a space for diverse performers from usually separate realms to appear on stage together: drag kings and queens, burlesque, spoken word artists, and African-American and white artists. “I started to take pictures and I realized I suck at them,” says Provoncha. “So I hit record on my camera, and I started filming the numbers. That’s literally how it happened.” In recording the performances, Provoncha says she realized that the footage had enormous appeal (friends would ask to see the shows again and again). It also began to dawn on her that no one else was documenting the shows even though it was clearly a pivotal time and significant place in queer culture.

“It’s a political act for a member of a marginalized group to occupy space on stage,” says Provoncha. “It’s even a more revolutionary act for my friends from the South to do so … It’s not a film about coming out; it’s a film about showing out.”

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From Queer Moxie, a film chronicling Atlanta’s queer performance scene.

The film aims to celebrate a wide spectrum of Atlanta performance styles, from drag to spoken word, delving into some of the untold history of queer performance in Atlanta. Performance and interview subjects in the documentary range from iconic Atlanta performers, such as Diamond Lil, who was the star of some of the first post-Stonewall era drag shows in Atlanta, to the Legendary Children, a popular contemporary collective of young gay Atlanta performance artists, some of whom recently appeared on the drag reality-show competition RuPaul’s Drag Race. Other performers appearing in the film include drag legend Lilly White, punk rock performer Jayne County, pageant-queen Tina Devore, members of the first drag king troupe in Atlanta, ground-breaking queer burlesque performers, queer comedians like Brent Star and Julie Osborne, and renowned spoken word artists Theresa Davis and Karen G.

“It’s the moxie,” says Provoncha about what drew her to select the diverse lineup of Southern performers as subjects. “I know ‘moxie’ is a Northern term, but one thing all these performers have is an intention, an ability to stand up no matter what..”

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The film explores different communities and venues in Atlanta —  Armory, Backstreet, Mary’s, the Jungle, My Sister’s Room, Eyedrum, Maison Rouge at Paris on Ponce, Friends and Traxx —  and features its subjects both in performance and off stage in intimate interviews. Provoncha says the film’s narrative loosely follows the historical evolution of queer performance, beginning with drag queens, leading into drag kings, then burlesque and ultimately spoken word. Subjects speak about why they perform, what performances mean to them and how their art has the potential to ignite social change. “We’re opening the curtain, giving you a little glimpse into this world,” she says.

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Left to right: Ms. Stewart, Lydia Libertine, and Camellia Cuntwell, in Queer Moxie.

The film had a sold-out premiere at Atlanta’s Out on Film festival in October 2015: Thursday’s screening is its second. The event will involve performances by some of the film’s stars both before and after the screening. The lobby will open early for a photo booth and mix-and-mingle with the performers along with a silent art auction of photos and other artwork. There will be live performances in the theater before the film and a Q&A after, followed by post-show performances at the nearby Highlander Bar. “The goal of this is to make it an event that really celebrates the community,” says Provoncha.”It’s my love letter to Atlanta.”

Provoncha says initial reactions to the film have been positive, and she hopes to take it to more film festivals and to screen it in other Southern cities with strong queer performance scenes, such as Savannah and Asheville.

“One thing that people will see overall is that there is no box,” she says. “There is no one definition, there is no one way. Not a single person defines ‘queer’ in the same way. No performer does it for the same reason or does it the same. All they do is be themselves.”

Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based critic who covers visual art, dance, and theater.