“Identified: A Queer Variety Show,” which played at 7 Stages Theatre February 26-28, took an innovative approach to discussing what it means to be queer, Southern, and an artist. This show captured universally understandable experiences of queer Southerners—loving the wrong people, trying to be someone you’re not, etc.—and presented them to a general audience. Performers Corian Ellisor and Amber Bradshaw told heartfelt stories about their particular identities through monologue, dance, drag, and burlesque. I am a queer Southern artist too; I identified with many of the stories that Ellisor and Bradshaw shared. I left the show more proud of my uniqueness in this sometimes repressive land.
Corian Ellisor, known in drag as Ellisoraus Rex, comes from an academic dance background, and this informed much of what he did in the show. He thoughtfully held and moved his body according to a wide range of characters—stiff and muscular as a guy on the DL, light and airy as a housewife, and poetic as a modern dancer. Ellisor also used this performance to discuss his identity as a black person in a monologue about trying to be just like the white kids in school in order to succeed, and then moving to Atlanta and seeing the successful black people he never knew growing up. This speech invoked the classic queer film Paris Is Burning, and Ellisor called his peers to action to celebrate their Southern otherness through art.
Amber Bradshaw works in theater and dramaturgy, and this manifested in her performances. As an experienced actor, Bradshaw used her monologues and performances to connect emotionally with audiences. She told a story about a lover with a big personality she kept going back to, despite the pain the woman brought into her life. This type of story, well delivered, is very resonant with a wide audience. She also discussed wearing frumpy, bulky, manly clothes as a way to be a dyke and still be the modest Southern girl she was trained to be. This performance ended with Bradshaw shedding her fatigues, putting on heels, and then doing a burlesque strip tease. As a gay man, I related to her story of confronting the queer and mainstream cultural norms that affect our bodies. It was liberating to watch Bradshaw free herself of these problems in her performance. This connection between performer and audience was central to the show, said Bradshaw in an email: “We want to have the audience see themselves in us, reflect on our experiences, and take something out of it that lifts them up somehow.”
Drag and burlesque were prominently featured art forms in this show, reflecting both their power and their popularity in our society. Burlesque troupes and schools are popping up all over America (there are several in Atlanta); Rupaul’s Drag Race, now in its seventh season, is one of the most critically acclaimed reality shows on television. These two old performance styles are receiving a revival, and mainstream audiences are now enjoying them. Bradshaw describes the power of these art forms: “Drag and burlesque are tools for exploration of different personas and characters. These are just a few ways we can express ourselves without the limitations of traditional societal norms.”
“Identified: A Queer Variety Show” perfectly encapsulated queer Southern identity in a fun, creative way. With queer equality eking its way into the South, now is the time to tell stories of our lives that everyone (queer or not) can relate to. We are entering a world of more freedom as queer people, and we need to have open hearts as we move into it. For both Amber Bradshaw and Corian Ellisor, this sort of positive impact was central to their plan for the show. Ellisor wants everyone, regardless of their identity, to take something good from “Identified”: “I want people to come to the show and be able to relate. I want them to hopefully have one or several moments where they go, ‘I have felt that before.’ I also want people to laugh and have a good time.”
All of us get caught up in the external signifiers of identity—the clothes we wear, the packs we travel in, and the attitude we put on display. Bradshaw and Ellisor showed how everyone, regardless of gender, race, and sexuality, can transcend these signifiers to find our true selves. “Identified” presented the queer experience as a subset of the human experience—all the same pangs and triumphs, but with a little bit more style and sass. Performances like this will be vital as we move towards a more inclusive society for everyone—regardless of identity.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues. He is a cofounding member of Legendary Children, Atlanta’s premier queer art collective. Terrell received an Idea Capital Grant in 2014 for his project “Sweet Tea: The Story of the Queer South.” Terrell received his BFA and MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design and has an MA in communications from Georgia State University.