From Bushwick to (off-off) Broadway: How Sasha Velour marries her night club roots with modern theatricality
In a recent grad school interview, I pitched a vision to bring the experience of Brooklyn drag into the theatre I direct and produce. I would integrate the simple games worked out by ingenious Drag Queens and I would give them the resources to do their queer-vangelist work with institutional support. In her souped-up solo show, Smoke & Mirrors, Sasha Velour turns New York Live Arts into a church-like gathering conjuring the joy and catharsis from the late night shows at Brooklyn haunts (Metropolitan, Rosemont, Bizarre, and Macri Park, to name a few). Velour’s piece, however, is housed in a comfy proscenium with all the tech and design of an Off-Broadway show with ambitious stories to boot.
The RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9 Winner is at home in this “legit” venue. They* host and produce the expertly curated Nightgowns at National Sawdust which features a constantly sickening lineup of Queens, local and visiting (naturally, Velour’s own contributions are a stand out). Smoke & Mirrors was consistently thoughtful with some of the most gorgeous drag concepts I’ve seen – notwithstanding some superfluous padding, especially in the first act.
Sasha Velour’s unique and deeply personal approach to drag represents the current and constant movement of conceptual Brooklyn “art queens” (Untitled Queen, Chris of Hur, Patti Spliff, West Dakota, Pearl Harbor, Lucy Balls, Ragamuffin, the list goes on) who specialize in delivering moments of genuine soul searching, stillness, and unexpected revelation. Velour also calls to mind the work of fellow bald academic queen, Taylor Mac, known for the drag epic 24 Decade History of Popular Song and Broadway’s Gary, further proof that this type of performance can expand onto a larger stage.
On a recent Thursday night, it seemed as if the entire queer performance art club scene was at NYLA along with some serious Drag Race royalty. Though the chatter and screaming felt tamer then at the midnight shows at Metropolitan, the beautifully queer crowd let loose at gag-worthy moments: The Dauphine of Bushwick waved his finger at the evening’s first big reveal in the number “Precious.” Untitled Queen let out an audible gasp at a fantastic feat of projection mapping to Judy Garland’s “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Season 11’s Brooke Lynn Hytes “yassss-ed” the opening chords of the finale, “Wild is the Wind.”
Through wonderfully executed concepts and technical designs enacted by Velour, the evening took on a circular narrative around the queen’s drag past, present, and future. A workout of a solo performance, the show features the projection designs Velour has made synonymous with her brand, which worked most of the time. A campy “Fame” moment had faux-faux pas, intercut with clips of a very gay, very little Sasha Velour. Another prior Velour projected onto a white gown provided a punk spectacle to Sia’s “Cellophane” (first performed in 2016 at Bizarre). The point of view alternated between the face of Velour three years ago and the actual Velour with Matthew Piercy’s lighting providing the dramatic isolation with jump cuts to Sadah Espii Proctor’s precise projection mapping. These moments brought to mind Disney attractions I used to relish, like “Honey I Shrunk the Audience,” wherein enthusiastic lone cast members would interact with saturated onscreen characters. For her own attraction, Velour charmingly treated these colorful backup dancers as co-stars, even giving them their own numbers and a curtain call.
The most magical moment for the ensemble of Velours was a dance trio to “Decepticon” by Le Tigre. The tight choreography was intended to call out those who stood in Velour’s way throughout her rise to stardom. With bobs, hippy bops and fierce poses, those people should feel thoroughly trampled. Admittedly, I prefer the number when performed at Nightgowns with Johnny Velour (who loyally manned the booth for this show) and legendary all-around queen Miz Jade.
Diego Montoya, perhaps the most sought-after costumer in drag design, provides the fashions for the evening. The first act’s looks revolve around a glitzy rose-red corseted suit layers added and removed as needed. The final reveal during the first act closer, “High By The Beach” was a standout. The superior second act featured more drastic costume events. Velour began it in a dandy white tuxedo by Yessy Pachego for “The Greatest Performance of My Life” in which, performed with a contemporary responsibility, she hilariously waved away a mention to “gypsies.” This was followed by a manically emotive “Come Rain or Come Shine” as performed by Judy Garland (Velour forwent the 1961 Carnegie Hall standard for a performance from 1956). She conveyed emotional mayhem as the world flooded around her with three wig changes (gorgeous wigs by Elle Emenopé) and a stage white-out synchronized from puddle jumps. Gag!
Her big win on Drag Race is played up in an almost self-deprecating set-up to her performance of “So Emotional,” the most gorgeous and elevating display of drag art ever seen on the program. Live, the performance of a red-headed beauty going mad with love retains its iconic, gif-worthy status: the first reveal of the petals shooting out still gave me the ooh-aah-aaaah sensation (you’re welcome, Monique Heart).
In between songs, Velour would take to the mic with inspiring manifestos. Aphorisms like “Seek not linear growth but elasticity and fluidity,” “Necessity is the mother of invention,” “Realize or surrealize,” all spoken along with stories from her early drag career. Velour is a captivating speaker with spacial and self-awareness showcasing her notoriously brainy personality on Drag Race, with an MFA from the Center of Cartoon Studies and Fulbright Scholarship where they studied the LGBTQ+ community in Russia. She can solve a problem and back her shit up.
In the show’s program, Velour notes that “Drag promises the queer community transformation, that we can turn pain and make it into something beautiful.” Ms. Velour expands, “Drag can be a source of hope but also a way to process mourning.” For her most personal number, Shirley Bassey’s dramatic and romantic cover of “If You Go Away,” Velour brought back her original persona: a glam Nosferatess for the first time since its original performance in 2015. In her humorous commentary recounting the number’s conception, Velour had to actually justify monster feminism to their late, scholar mother (a critic of the piece). This version of the number was left unperformed until after she died of cancer. Now, the song takes on a sadder double meaning with lyrics like “If you go away, as I know you must, there’ll be nothing left in this world to trust.” Picture by picture, the relationship of a vampiress and her knight is unveiled. Velour’s cartooning MFA is on full display with each frame beautiful and off. As the grotesque vampiress narrator, Velour looked downright ravishing in studded elf ears and a blood-red Grecian gown sistered with a projected, painted, and live forbidden apple.
Velour and her team saved the best for the finale. She planted herself center stage as a tree for a still rendition of Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind”, wearing Montoya’s finest creation of the evening: a skintight white gown with branches growing out blending into the rear projection. Velour presented the cycle of a dogwood tree. Each movement felt specific and essential as if she was blooming. This is best drag: rooted by a simple movement vocabulary elevated with full design elements embodied by a queer figure in complete control of her material. She was that dogwood.
Drag has permeated the mainstream culture, and Sasha Velour’s imprint on this conversation is indelible. She is one of the great theatre-makers of our time: resourceful, specific, in complete control of her elements. Velour serves up a masterclass, a supreme example of why Drag should be programmed in performance institutions and studied voraciously by anyone who seeks to make contemporary performance. In this Golden Age of drag, Sasha Velour continues to push the boundaries and elevate the art form. It is clear this is only the beginning for the Velourian dynasty.
*Please note that Sasha Velour prefer “she/her” pronouns during performance and uses “they/them” pronouns in their personal life. As their drag and personal life are deeply intertwined, these pronouns are switched throughout this article with no offense intended to Velour or anyone else.