AS STANFORD CELEBRATES Sexuality Week this week, PULSE profiles Stanford Drag Troupe, a student group dedicated to exploring issues of gender and sexual orientation through the writing and performance of drag.
IT'S A TUESDAY night during Week 9, and I’ve arrived at Roble to a scene of cheerful chaos. “Thanks for coming,” Lexi Neilan, wearing a fire-engine red wig, says as she lets me in. “We’re just getting ready.”
Ten or so performers, in various states of dressed- and made-up, are scattered across the foyer. Since the start of fall quarter, these students have been the creative and logistical forces behind the Stanford Drag Troupe (SDT). By providing a space for students to explore the art form, SDT allows its members—who come from diverse backgrounds and levels of drag experience—to take an unflinching look at gender identity and sexual orientation.
“[Drag is] basically a huge ‘f— you’ to gender roles and anyone who tells you that you have to act or present a certain way,” said Lexi, one of the group’s co-presidents. “I think I was confused about my sexual orientation or gender identity for a while, but experimenting with both masc drag and femme drag helped me to figure out who I am.”
Initiated by students Ima Grullon and Lexi Neilan at the start of the year, SDT became an official student arts group during winter quarter.
The group does not have a Creative Director. Instead, performers developed their own personas and choreographies, preparing their acts in the months leading up to the group’s inaugural show, Silicone Valley. As evocative as it is irreverent, the title seemingly pokes fun at tech culture in the Bay Area and at Stanford. “We wanted to show that hard work and creativity can manifest in ways other than a start-up,” Lexi said.
The night of the show, Roble Theater is packed. There aren’t any open seats visible when I arrive, so I hover uncertainly outside as performers and audience members mingle in the foyer. Thankfully, I’m saved by a performer who introduces himself as Beau and helps me find a spot to watch the show. “The sound guy’s nice. He’ll probably let you sit next to him,” he says. “You’ll be able to find him. He’s covered in glitter.”
As the performers take the stage in full costume and makeup, the crowd quiets down as Lexi takes the mic, introducing herself as her drag persona umami, and somewhat sternly reminds the audience to be respectful during the performance. “If you aren’t,” she adds with a smile, gesturing to another performer onstage who is dressed in police uniform, “We will have you removed.”
As the show begins, troupe members reveal the result of months of creativity and practice—performing their acts with professionalism and enthusiasm. Performances featured lip-syncs to songs like “I’m Afraid to Talk to Men” and “Psycho Killer,” as well as student-written spoken pieces such as “Am I Failing Hard Enough?” satirizing Stanford d.school thinking. The tone of the performances is consistently campy and sexy, regularly eliciting laughter and whooping from audience members. But the audience also feels deeply introspective reflections of performers on themselves and the campus culture around them.
The performers’ energy was matched only by that of their audience. When the finale comes around, the entire cast returns for a choreography to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” finishing to a standing ovation. Perhaps it’s the unapologetic yet self-deprecating humorous approach that SDT takes on self-expression and exploration that charms audience members. The balance that performers strike between critique and drama provokes the viewer but does not fail to entertain—and the group hopes its unique perspective will foster important conversation on campus.
“I have felt that there has been a lot of separation between the queer community at Stanford and those who don’t know very much about LGBTQ+ history,” Lexi said, “and I think that drag is the perfect way to unite people and have fun.”
Check out Stanford Drag Troupe's latest show on Friday, May 4th from 8-9 pm in Toyon Lounge featuring Honey Mahogany from RuPaul's Drag Race Season 5!
Photo compliments of the event fb page
The full names of SDT cast members (and their drag names, if applicable) are listed below:
Lexi Neilan aka umami
Christian Badillo aka BINCH
Steve Rathje aka Lady Dragbeth
Eva Grant aka Annie Depressant
Medora Rorick aka Beau
Colette Brannan aka Alex Hardon
Tabitha Walker aka Paul Tart
By: Cindy Kuang
Photography by: Alessandra Diaz