An idea sparks, awakening a slow burning flame …
Late in the warm month of February 2017 was the week-long Mardi Gras of the black fella persuasion; a safe space for us mob to come and socialise, party and be recognised in the queer scene of Sydney in the week leading up to Mardi Gras itself. All the black queers with their glitter beards and sequin dresses with fabulous wigs took over Redfern in style!
My first experience of Koori Gras was celebrated with my family; Aunty Kim, Aunty Lizzy and cousin Meriki. My fabulous cousin was fresh off the plane back from London (I was cheering because it meant not being ‘the only queer in the village’ at family bbqs!), and her mum had invited me out to party with them. ‘For this new black, queer week’, she described it.
It was Opening Night at 107 for Koori Gras; Exhibition and Performance. A whole week of black, LGBTQI, rainbow, beautiful peoples! As an up and coming baby dyke from the Western Suburbs trying to make a name in Redfern—mmhmm, yes please—I was so there!
I remember Aunty Kim in her bob-cut, pink wig, stylin’ up with Aunty Lizzy. I was in my all black, lesbian uniform look (as usual) and the night was ours! I hadn’t seen Aunty Kim dance like that in ages.
Over the week we saw black, queer history in the exhibition space at 107, conversed about several issues facing our communities over a shared a meal at Black Point, partied hard all week (I remember Meriki peeling me off her couch after Opening Night). We made some lifelong friends amongst all the razzle dazzle. Being with my beautiful family gave me the strength to get out there and meet new people, I had the confidence to be 100% myself in a public space … that’s a rare feeling!
In a time of ‘diversity’ and people being ‘politically correct’ there still are groups in society that face immense discrimination and prejudice because of who they are, especially the Indigenous and LGBTQI communities. But I tell you what … I was in amongst our black, queer peoples that week, and I’d never felt so connected and free in my life!
I digress. The real highlight of Koori Gras was Friday night’s ‘Black Nulla’, a fabulous spectacle for all black rainbow children everywhere! In the spirit of the night, I felt so connected to all my brothers and sisters.
Then, for the first time in my life, my eyes witnessed a whole line up of black Drag Queenz. A marvellous array of Black Royalty taking over the joint:
Destiny Haz Arrived
Nanna Miss Koori, and
It was enthralling. From the wigs, makeup and costumes, to the attitude, glamour and pizzazz. The way those Queens strut around that stage and made it their own, just wow. I even had my first lap dance—by none other than Nanna Miss Koori!
All with my family right beside me.
It’s an overused phrase, but I felt like a kid in a candy store. My eyes couldn’t get enough of everything I was taking in. And that’s what Koori Gras is. It is more than a week-long event, or a time or place; it’s a feeling of family, of connection and understanding. To come as you are, in all its glory; bold, blackness and Fabulous-ness! I think something was planted in me that night, a stirring. An idea.
A King is Born
The second year of Koori Gras (2018) I was invited by the Producer, Liza-Mare Syron, to attend the performance workshops run by Cherish Violet Blood. I know that I read the poster as ‘performance workshop’ but my heart took it as ‘drag workshop’. The workshops were held during the week of Koori Gras, Cherish was teaching us about the craft of stage performance and how to ‘find your stage character’—or as I took it, how to find my Drag persona!
When day 1 of the workshops came, I came to slay. I had a whole year to think about this moment. With inspirations and ideas flooding my brain, I knew I had something strong to go off! I was close to my grandfather, Pop Chop, when he was alive and he loved Prince. Pop’s favourite song was ‘Cream’ (believe it or not). An ode to Pop Chop, Prince was my inspiration for my first show. I had to calm down a bit in order to be able to meet the 3 other participants, Buna, Katie and Simone. Then I met Cherish and her partner Lacey, who both whipped us into shape with vocal training, acting skills, amusing acting games that get you thinking on your feet and several other mind f*cking activities that get you out of your comfort zone and into the world of exploration! A magical, wonderful place for the artist to discover, play and find new ideas. And with that, we were off.
Amongst all the fun and games, we had the opportunity to develop a performance for the Black Nulla Cabaret to be held later that week. I think we all knew where I was going with my performance piece *cue the confetti guns … DRAG KING! Buna already had his amazing gothic, magician/siren character and Simone is a killer comedian with a great life story to back it up, she tells the best yarns! Katie told her story of being a black, queer, Catholic through the character of a painted up [in ochre], queer nun, habit and all.
These three participants are performers, they are used to being on stage. I was nervous because I was not a performer (I still don’t regard myself as one), I’m not used to being in the spotlight. I must admit, I do face a bit of anxiety so I had all kinds of fears pulsing through my brain that week. Especially because I was exploring the drag persona of a very outgoing, sleazy, overzealous, but sexy and Fabulous man! Someone completely different to who I am in my daily life.
Those artists in that space gave me so much love and support that it gave me the confidence to find my Drag King persona … and along with it, my Drag Name: Bee Dazzled Shanks—The Prince of Redfern. A bold and beautiful man, over confident and sleazily charming.
I had a lot of homework. I was practicing pick-up lines, strutting like I’ve never strutted before through the halls of our rehearsal space. I was loud and took up space. All good traits of an overzealous male Drag persona.
The night before Black Nulla, I remember my little sister watching me trying out different styled glitter beards, she was six then and let’s just say, there was glitter everywhere. We both successfully found our glitter beard styles.
Held at Carriageworks that year, Black Nulla Cabaret was bigger and better than ever! A spectacular night! All the black Drag Queens from the previous year came back to light up the stage and wow us all again. I remember all of us getting ready back stage, so many suit cases with all the necessities of fashionista Drag Queens. Glitter everywhere (mainly on my part) and just big hugs and support all round. All the beautiful queer, black family from the year before came back to party too, in numbers. It was so good catching up with friends and queer family I haven’t seen in a while. And whilst I threw cream all over myself (to the fabulous musical workings of Prince—Cream) with a bit of a bump and grind along the stage, in a black latex diamante-fied G-string … full disclosure: I wore long black pants underneath the G-string.
I heard my family laughing and having a ball. My mum actually made me nervous cause I heard her laughing from backstage for the act before mine. I strut onto that stage with my family backing me, I had the love and support of our mob to give me the strength. Unfortunately, my Aunty Kim couldn’t be there that night in the flesh, but when Aunty Lizzy hugged me at the end of my performance and said, ‘Aunty Kim would be proud of you, she was here with us watching in pride’, I cried.
Back with Black up
When Liza-Mare, asked me to come and perform for a second year … I was cheering! A comeback for Bee Dazzled Shanks—The Prince of Redfern at Koori Gras Black Nulla Cabaret! Where do I sign?
Unfortunately, I was flat out with my work and I found it hard to commit to the workshops but I heard (through the grapevine) that they were amazing! From costume design and making, to makeup and Drag workshops. I was jealous of the pics on the socials from the week. But when we were finally able to come into the rehearsal space and meet the other participants it was unbelievably fabulous! There were feathers and hats, feathers in hats, and prop guns, and an oversize teddy bear in the corner. Plus make-up, wigs, duct tape and a pink shirt with Yumi Stynes on it. This year’s participants were on another level! This was going to be fun!
Armed with a weapon I did not have the previous year, I had my amazing partner Lou standing right beside me. True God, she’s a gun. Lou and I share a love for a lot of the same music, and whilst chatting over some mad tunes we joked about her making a little cameo for my next show. Lou was reluctant, until later when we were short a drag queen. I was playing around with an idea of doing something to ‘Pony’ by Ginuwine, known as the Magic Mike song, with its seductive rhythms and addictive beats, but it was only an idea. I had nothing solid in it. Lou, a former Mardi Gras Party Director, pitched to me:
Imagine this. You are the cowboy and you work the stage with two drag queen horses; a black one and a white one. We mix the music from ‘White Horse’ (Wonderland Avenue) to ‘Pony’, the black horse can kick the white horse off the stage and you can get down to Pony with the black horse.
Lou was in full production wife mode, I LOVED IT!
I knew I wanted to work with Felicia Foxx, and we were also looking for a big build drag queen I could potentially ride in on. But as time got away from us, and we didn’t find our other butch queen (I even asked my tank Tongan brother-in-law if he’d give it a go … a solid ‘no’ from him). But the show must go on! Felicia and I started rehearsing. When Felicia heard the thumping, very 80s, high-tech disco machine track that is ‘White Horse’, well, she was the white horse. Lou, now crowned ‘Daddy Cool’ by ‘Bee Dazzled Shanks’, played the black horse, instead of being ridden in, he was led in. YAY! So, the story of the number changed a bit, the white horse got to stay.
Now, #realtalk. People concerned about that metaphor change of the white horse seemingly winning, don’t worry. The black horse removed itself with utmost dignity and integrity whilst the white horse frantically threw her fork around and did some show ponying … only to get tamed by the sexy black cowboy.
We, of course, had left space for Felicia’s improvisation style amongst some self-choreographed moves. Felicia, in her horse mask and white spanks, found some white wings before we walked onto the stage. Next minute we had a white Pegasus galloping across the stage in an impressive dance … and I mean, actually galloping … have you seen how long Felicia Foxx’s legs are? DAAAAM!
Felicia’s lovely long legs aside, that was the beautiful thing about working with black queer mob. Our processes are based in our cultural ways. It involves listening to all, leaving space to hear comfort zone needs and styles, and then adapting to conditions. We’re storytellers and I see Koori Gras as an amazing platform for our community to step up, explore and have a go. I mean, with biggest mob black, queers community filled with friends, family, Drag Queens, and all the glitter in the world … what more could you want in a family?
Bee Cruse is a Storyteller across roles and mediums, born and bred on Cabrogal country (a clan within the Darug nation), whose family comes from the Gomeroi, Wiradjuri and Monaroo-Yuin peoples of NSW. Bee is the Community Engagement Coordinator for Solid Ground—Blacktown Arts’ long-term partnership program with Carriageworks. Bee’s stories focus on strong Indigenous culture, people from the urban Liverpool area and Bee’s American Indian and Chinese ancestry. Bee has worked in film, theatre and television alongside Rachel Perkins and Wayne Blaire on Redfern Now and Cleverman, and with Urban Theatre Projects as the Assistant Director of Home Country for Sydney Festival 2017. Bee is a creative with a strong interest in global politics, uses art for social change.