Arts and culture is a 4.1 billion dollar industry in Philadelphia. But with COVID-19 cases still a concern in our city and with most bar and theater spaces shut down, our LGBTQ performers are coping with the lack of stages and the cancellation of many performances. Although there have been some community grants awarded to artists, many are having to get creative to survive, including doing shows via Zoom and receiving cash tips through Venmo. This week PGN spoke with five of those performers who proudly entertain their queer fans and allies.
Icon Ebony-Fierce has been performing for eight years, and until recently this was a primary part of their income. They admit while performing online is still a creative outlet, it does not garner the same excitement as getting in front of an audience and feeling the energy in the room.
“It felt empty getting all dressed up,” they said, “to stare in the camera and watching it just cut off in front of you, when it’s all done, instead of feeling the love after a good show.”
Last month, Ebony-Fierce was part of a virtual meeting during which performers of color called out producers and bar owners for mistreatment. When in-person performances resume, they hope to make shows through Tabu Lounge and Sports Bar and Burd Events more diverse and inclusive, bringing artists of other identities into the spotlight.
The call to be more inclusive also applies to digital performances. Last Friday, performers of color participated in a Zoom burlesque show, hosted by Jennifer Eden, in support of Black Lives Matter Philadelphia.
“There’s so much to go around in this new world of digital drag,” Ebony-Fierce told PGN. Regular digital performances include Vinchelle’s The Black Diaries, Eric Jaffe’s Saturday brunch series, Beary Tyler Moore’s weekly talk show, as well as Ebony-Fierce’s own work. “I have a show every Tuesday called “Ebony’s Confessions” which is a fairly raunchy show where people submit anonymous rants, questions, secret admirers, and workstories. I read and react to them which is always entertaining in itself.”
Like Ebony-Fierce, Sapphira Cristál had some reservations about performing digitally. But, she knows it keeps her audience happy. This past Sunday she was able to give back to the community through a digital drag show hosted by Miss’d America, the annual drag pageant in Atlantic City.
“We were able to raise over $2500 for the Queer Covid Relief Fund,” Cristál said. “We may want to be out in front of audiences because the energy in those spaces is so important. But it’s important to be socially responsible. Yet, we must never forget to create art. Art is the life force of society.”
Tasker Morris has been performing since 2001 when he hit the Philly drag scene with chest hair, a sewing machine and a self-described “itch to shock people.” He is a curious person who sees potential in nearly everything he touches. He describes his drag as a journey in which he hopes will result in a variety of reactions — from abject horror to applause.
While his live shows were cancelled, he still performs online. However, he too admits there is something lacking in a digital audience — no matter how many comments, messages, or reposts he gets.
“We are all learning the new normal as we glitter,” Morris said. He has been using his downtime to relax, calling this the first major time to have a break in the past two decades. “I have been going along and staying strong. But, being a social person, I miss making people laugh, smile and question what they just saw on stage. I love seeing friends, fans and chosen family when I go out and about.”
To keep himself active he has created art and remained busy during his downtime. He and his husband have marched in solidarity with the Black Trans Lives Matter protests in Center City and West Philly. And he has also been on the phone.
“I’ve been doing some remote activism. Calling Senator Toomey when he steps too far out of line.”
Miayanna Brooks, also known as Mia Bombshell, performs drag and burlesque. Defying labels, she describes herself as a unicorn and a fashion model who creates “something magical,” she says. The home health provider uses performing as a creative outlet, while not being a primary source of her livelihood.
“I’ve been performing for about 10 years. I got my start at Bob and Barbara’s. It is the only bar in the city that employs all performers, especially trans performers of color. So yes it’s my favorite. I haven’t done any performing while in quarantine. But I have been attending protests and making sure that Black Trans Lives Matter,” she shared.
On a hopeful note: like Ebony-Fierce, Brooks is excited about the changes which performers of color anticipate to take place in terms of inclusion and diversity in our local stages. She also participated in the Facebook panel discussion with other performers of color.
Alejandro Morales, a local queer comedian and writer who identifies as a “powerful creative howling force of nature with a procrastination problem,” has produced and hosted everything from Fringe Festival productions to game shows in the region. He is also a fixture on local open mic nights.
Performing digitally is not something new to Morales. He created a nine-part web show called “Sadulous,” about a queer person who seems to always having to role with the punches, and he has appeared with his roommate Nate Jones on a number of YouTube shorts. He finds the Zoom format, which allows viewers to keep their microphones on and interact, allows him to feel somewhat as if he were performing in-person.
Performing online has kept Morales afloat in terms of his creative energies. But since performing is a major source of his income with appearances across the country throughout the year, his finances have taken a hit. His day job and his bookings evaporated in March. His requests for unemployment benefits haven’t been answered despite a determination letter and submitting bi-weekly claims.
“All of my savings are gone,” he said, recalling his persona on the “Sadulous” series. “So, it’s been extraordinarily stressful and not a great time to find anything funny, to say nothing of the current political climate and the atrocities being committed against BIPOC and peaceful protestors.”
But, like Morris and the other performers, Morales is using the time to create. His current project is something decidedly other-worldly.
“Right now I’m working on an alien abduction story that takes place in the alleyway outside of a Philly bathhouse,” he said. He also promises us that he has been cultivating a very salty persona which he hopes to unleash on, according to Morales, the “unseasoned landscape of Philly Bro Comedy.”
Next week, we’ll check in with some of our local LGBTQ retailers and businesses in the region.