by Sara Lyons
Photo by Eric Long
Subtitled “A Post-Realness Drag Ball,” Critical Mascara celebrated its fifth and final presentation at Time-Based Art on Saturday night with an expansive queer showcase of vogue, drag, and fashion. Previously a competitive drag ball, this final installment was decidedly a celebration, featuring a showcase of previous ball winners followed by performances from local vogue houses and drag stars. “I feel full and empty at the same time…which is sexual, morose, and precious, just like all of you,” producer and host Pepper Pepper crooned into the mic at the top of the evening. This slippery sense of simultaneous celebration and grief flowed through the entire program, carrying the leather-and-lace-clad audience through waves of irony and sincerity, political despair and euphoric sexuality, embedded histories and queer futurisms.
Critical Mascara has clearly been a mainstay of Portland’s burgeoning vogue community in recent years, collaborating closely with a small group of artists who are working to bring the dance techniques, competitive balls, and history–driven by and for primarily trans women of color–to Oregon. Throughout this family affair, House of Luna, House of Ada, and House of Flora offered performances rooted in the technical roots of vogue femme, while asserting a contemporary queer ethos expanded to include some ciswomen and a range of racial representation. This broad spectrum of femme performance inspired by the legacy of vogue femme continued to be a highlight of the evening. Critical Mascara’s high concept fashion showcase included artists of many genders experimenting with looks ranging from classic high femme glam to off-kilter pop-culture irony to unapologetic confrontation to sexual hyperreality.
The drag performances that followed ushered in a glittering, raw, fabulous mess of American identity, with the most powerful numbers harnessing the sublime aesthetic power of drag towards sharply critical, unapologetic political commentary. Horror queen Carla Rossi’s satanic ritual of a performance urged the audience to BURN IT ALL DOWN and MAKE ART. Kourtni Capree–who is African-American–brought down the house with a startlingly raw and explosive a cappella performance of The Star-Spangled Banner. “Grieving is a skill,” Pepper instructed us near the end of the show. And with all that queer people, folks of color, and women have to grieve in this moment of American history, Critical Mascara was simultaneously our communal catharsis, salvage carnival, and rallying call to–as projections repeated to audience members dancing into the night–“Get Sharp, Be Loved, Stay Critical”.
Sara Lyons is a queer feminist artist working as a director, writer, and occasional performer in theatre and performance. Recent projects include an original adaptation of “I’m Very Into You,” the published 1995 email correspondence between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark. She is currently a John Wells Directing Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University. www.sara-lyons.com