Every Sunday morning my girlfriend and I get brunch at grungy little restaurant in her neighborhood. The food is delicious and the coffee is strong, but the real appeal lies in the fact that every time we go there we feel like we are getting away with something. The waitresses are the height of cool—tattoos slathered across their bodies with little glints of metal protruding from every orifice imaginable. They slam down menus, slosh out coffee, and expect a quick and unwavering reply when they ask your order. We obey orders, anticipate questions, and try our best to get the fleeting smile of approval that spreads across their faces when we’ve played our part well.

This is the closest I can get to explaining how I feel when I go to Dykes Do Drag - a monthly “queer performance art cabaret” hosted at Bryant Lake Bowl. These performance nights have been going strong since 1999—long before I had moved to the Twin Cities, come out as queer, or understood what performance art meant. Perhaps this is why I have always looked up to the performers with what borders on intimidated idolatry. I feel a thrill of being welcomed by a community, being turned on by the wild and often promiscuous performances, and becoming part of a tradition much greater than I could ever sensually comprehend.

Dykes Do Drag is never just a series of performances – it is a history, a community and an autonomous creature that evolves from month to month. If the Twin Cities’ queer/drag/burlesque/dyke (etc.) performance community is an interconnected mycelium of individuals, venues, traditions, and relationships, then Dykes Do Drag is just one of the strange and beautiful mushrooms that shoots up from month to month. It would therefore be woefully inadequate to review a singular performance of Dykes Do Drag, but in the interest of increasing awareness and conversation (and love) around this tradition, I offer a few remarks on the show I attended this last Thursday, April 18.

I arrived early with a small pack of friends, which is simply the best way to attend DDD due to the sense of community and relationship that saturates the space. Walking through Bryant Lake Bowl always makes me laugh due to the 1950’s good-ol’-boy aesthetic of hamburgers and bowling lanes. We passed the diners and the clean-cut bowlers, and hunkered into the small stage in the back of the restaurant. Here there were rows of seats with candlelit tables in between, and nimble waitresses who crawled gymnastically around the darkened space to ask drink orders. Up close to the stage sat regulars—people who I gradually identified as loyal partners and friends of the performers. Further back sat large groups of tipsy and boisterous audience members, almost all of whom I guessed would identify as queer and female.

The show opened with two hunkered ice fishers (Butt Girl and Sackajoweeda) costumed in ridiculously puffy parkas. Their fishing rods were slapped together with twine and wood, epitomizing the improvised nature of these performances that gives them life. The two performers did a hilarious performance of Usher’s “Yeah,” with thick Minnesota accents and queer Midwestern jokes thrown in. In ways it was a classic “drag” performance in its re-appropriation of a pop song for a queer audience, but it was a clear deviation from (or expansion of) this genre as well. The performers were more unisex than anything in their giant puffy jackets, and the jokes were more regional than sexual (made devastatingly humorous due to the infuriating April blizzard we were watching outside). The audience shrieked in delight and support in a way that I have never experienced in more traditional theater venues, and the show was off and running.

The MC and one of the original founders of DDD — the Gentleman King (otherwise known as Heather Spear) swaggered on stage in his snappy suit with its signature flared lapels. His blue eyes sparkled as he welcomed us to yet another show and gave a brief introduction to the performers we had just seen. This past February at the 14th anniversary show I learned that the Gentleman King had started DDD with another performer, the Glam King, when they were both working as modern dancers. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that this cabaret was so inclusive of different performance acts and styles from the very start.

This deviance is highlighted by one of my favorite regular performers—Sackajoweeda. In a space were the strange is expected, Sackajoweeda continues to push the boundaries. Usually costumed in some combination of hideous and glamorous king or queen gear, their signature is often a pair of gruesomely twisted fake teeth. In these deteriorating dentures Sackajoweeda slides around the stage giving the audience adoring puppy eyes, and seeking out close-by audience members’ glasses to lick with an erotic fervor. Although these flirtations with the grotesque often leave me reeling (and literally nauseous this week after they ate what appeared to be laundry detergent), they also offer such a refreshing take on drag. Performance that flaunts, interrupts, and reimagines gender does not have to stay shackled to sexy!

Another DDD regular who consistently crosses into the space of performance art and reimagining drag is Barbara Gordon (also the “Show Boss” of Lipservice Cabaret at the Townhouse). Based on a handful of drag performances, I would describe her as an electronics master, a puppet artist, a pain artist and a searingly funny political performer. I was particularly taken with her sketch on Barbara Walter’s 1999 interview with Monica Lewinsky this week. Barbara Walter’s lisped questions (which are annoyingly psychological at best and degrading at worst) are piped in to an innocent and eager looking Monica played by Gordon. Monica’s replies come in the form of a series of lip-synced clipped pop songs giving the stock reply she is expected to churn out (e.g. “I’m sorry, so sorry…”). Beyond being a fantastic and technically tight drag performance, this number made me think about the slimy intersections of sex, confession, politics, media, and patriarchy.

Of course these were only 3 of the 22 acts offered that night in a long history of performances. I am leaving out countless burlesque acts, lip-sync numbers, dance performances and presentations that defy categorization. I am not mentioning a slew of performers that light up my fan-girl heart from month to month. I can only give a tiny taste of what inspires me so much about DDD—its morphing multiplicity of drag and cabaret acts that shape a kind of utopic present. If you want to see for yourself, the next performances will be June 20-22.