The Bay Area’s Drag and Queer Performance Festival returns online
“Drag has pushed me outside of my comfort zone, taught me about chasing my passions and being my most boisterous, most glamorous and most annoying self,” says Mama Celeste, co-creator of Oaklash, the Bay Area’s Drag Festival, which returns Memorial Day Weekend for its fourth year. “That’s a beautiful thing.”
While she enjoys performing, Celeste and her co-founder Beatrix LaHaine’s truest passion is fostering the drag community. To quench many thirsting queers, this year’s festival will stream online for over 50 continuous hours beginning at 5:00pm on Friday, May 28, and featuring more than 100 artists from Oakland and beyond. Undeterred by Covid-19, Oaklash moved to an online-hybrid format last year, where it faced a few technical difficulties but also wound up on the front page of the streaming platform Twitch and reached a quarter of a million viewers. Celeste and LaHaine are confident that this time even the tech will be as seamless as a lace-front wig.
The festival lineup officially kicks off on Friday, May 28, but the month has been peppered with Oaklash events, including last Sunday’s special edition of Rollin’ with the Homos, a roller disco party that arose at Township Commons after some local drag performers took up the popular pandemic hobby of roller skating.
While Rollin’ had a live audience, Oaklash’s core programming will be presented to viewers digitally via live shows that stream from Oasis, in San Francisco, to online audiences everywhere. For vaccinated viewers eager to be social, El Rio will host a nightly viewing party. Despite the fact that the streaming is all happening in San Francisco, Celeste says the festival’s energy is East Bay.
“The magic of the East Bay is that it’s a melting pot of the rest of the world,” Celeste says. “A lot of San Francisco has become homogeneous, but Oakland has maintained its roots as a place that is diverse and beautiful and representative of all different types of people. So that’s what we’re bringing when we bring Oaklash to a different city—we want to serve the full range of what drag is and what being queer is and the spectrum of gender diversity and expression.”
Snaxx, a drag performer who also produces shows at Oasis, agrees. “The East Bay and the SOMA district of San Francisco are performance-focused in a unique way. These places really give an opportunity for entertaining performers of all gender expressions to do what they do,” she says.
Friday night’s primetime show is Reparations, Nicki Jizz’s monthly showcase which features an all-Black lineup. As a performer, Jizz is known for her raunchy humor, but she also uses her platform for social justice.
“I was doing a lot of digital drag shows in the summer of 2020 when the uprisings started and Black Lives Matter protests were going through the city,” Jizz says. “It didn’t feel right to just continue doing shows—I wanted to combine my drag with bringing people together on my platform [for the cause]. We did the first Reparations on Juneteenth, which is Freedom Day for Black people.”
With a cast of 17 performers, about half local and the rest from all over the country, Jizz says that her Oaklash lineup is beautiful, full of melanin and full of next-level talent.
For Oaklash’s founders LaHaine and Celeste, 2021 is about rebuilding the community as Oaklash prepares for a new stage of growth in 2022.
“There’s been a huge renaissance of performance this past year, with drag artists becoming content creators,” Celeste says. “Drag artists have been able to reclaim what’s been taken from us; for years, RuPaul’s Drag Race meant that there was basically one show you had to get on to be on TV, but [after 2020], we all have our own TV shows. That’s been amazing to see and I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
Part of Celeste’s mission with Oaklash this year is to demonstrate that even as venues re-open, there’s still opportunity to use digital technologies to spread Oakland’s drag scene to the rest of the world.
“If all these bars can do Drag Race viewing parties, why can’t we also have digital drag viewing parties?” Celeste asks.
With this in mind, Saturday and Sunday night will feature the Oaklash Green Carpet—referring to both the celeb-studded red carpets of shows like the Oscars and the green screens so many drag performers have set up this year to create their streaming shows. As performers arrive at Oasis before the show, drag correspondents will dish with them about their looks.
The Bay Area didn’t have a drag festival until Oaklash began in 2018. After a couple of years of joking about starting a festival, Celeste says the two realized they were serious about it.
LaHaine says that she and Celeste complement each other well. Celeste is meticulous, talking to venues, setting up contracts and keeping everyone on a tight schedule. LaHaine, who grew up in Oakland and wanted to create a drag festival in her hometown, contributes a lot to the festival’s aesthetic. When they came up with the name, LaHaine doodled the logo—the word Oaklash, with two of the letters wearing luscious lashes—on a coffee cup.
“Celeste is the strict mom and I’m the fun wine mom. We’re kind of like the Odd Couple, but it just works perfectly,” LaHaine says.
In 2020, Oaklash introduced panel conversations to the program, giving artists a platform to discuss many of the political and cultural aspects of their drag. This year will feature even more panels, with six taking place throughout the weekend and two more that happened earlier in May.
“Last year, we started mixing in panels and people were really receptive to it, so this year we’ve tripled our panels,” Celeste says.
Despite being someone who has physical and mental disabilities, LOTUS BOY says that before the pandemic, they personally didn’t feel confident enough to claim being disabled as a label, let alone be open about it with drag venues.
Last year’s influx of digital drag meant that many people who did not have access to physical spaces for drag were suddenly able to view and create online content, which led more nightlife producers to express an intention to make shows and venues more accessible. Throughout Oaklash, video performances will have closed captioning and most shows will have live ASL interpretation.
“I wanted to have the panel because I think conversations around accessibility need to be happening all the time … and then I wanted to give disabled performers a space to either celebrate or not celebrate their disabilities, because for a lot of folks, disability is a source of pain and inconvenience and trauma,” LOTUS BOY says.
Vera Hannush serves on the board of Oaklash and has a day job fundraising. By night, Hannush becomes VERA, a drag king with the Rebel Kings of Oakland. VERA and drag brother Jota Mercury will be co-hosting Saturday’s Green Carpet.
“Drag has been a delightful way to enjoy the gendery-bendery part of myself; I really feel myself in drag, which is why I keep my name … it’s still really me,” Hannush says.
VERA has performed at every Oaklash festival, but Hannush only recently joined the nonprofit’s board of directors. It’s been an eye-opening and challenging experience to solicit funds for the organization. Hannush and Celeste agree that it’s difficult to find funders who take drag seriously, despite that many funders seek to support causes that aim to combat gentrification and sustain local artists.
“I have a lot of experience both writing and reviewing grants, so it’s been hard to work on grants that I know as a professional are good, and then to see them not get funded,” Hannush says.
“Drag is 10,000 arts; it’s visual art, comedy, improv theatre, activism, poetry in motion,” Hannush says. “It shocks me that it doesn’t get funded, especially [when funders express] the desire to lift up art with legacy—especially queer legacy, protest legacy—that’s drag!”
Says Celeste, “Drag performers are the people who made me feel empowered to be myself. Oaklash is my little way of giving back to that, because we’re making space for all the up-and-coming drag children and queer babies who need these spaces.”
Nicki Jizz says, “Oaklash brings together a community of performers. And then sometimes people are pissed because they didn’t get booked, but then those performers can also come together and bond over that and that’s community, too.”