Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” and Mika’s “Grace Kelly” pour out of the speakers. Purple, pink and blue neon lights drench the white stage. Slowly, the audience — some seated, some standing — fills up for Sasha Velour’s monthly Nightgowns show at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9 winner started Nightgowns in August 2015, long before her appearance on the show, though at the time the show was at a petite bar in Bushwick called Bizarre Bar. Nightgowns got big enough that it made the jump to National Sawdust, a concert hall and events venue that holds up to 300 people. The night I attend, there are two shows: one at 7 p.m. and one at 10:30 p.m., the latter of which sold out online in four seconds.
Despite her Drag Race win, Sasha says she spent years doing individualistic, emotive drag that didn’t always resonate with her audiences. So the performances at Nightgowns are not just fierce renditions of pop ballads with death drops and splits, but sensitive, thoughtful numbers many performers challenge themselves to create anew each month. This experience comes from Sasha herself, whose first Nightgowns was performed after her mother passed away. She wanted to turn the sadness she felt with into something powerful for people who felt similarly, to create a place where people could feel safe and connected to a “stranger up in drags.” If the viewer saw this “stranger up in drags” turn pain into beauty, maybe they’d think they could do it, too.
Sasha’s point of view caught on. “People started bringing their own personal work to Nightgowns and that’s really when it started to become a really distinctive show. The truth is, a lot of people go to drag shows really for very light entertainment and I think sometimes maybe we don’t even give the audiences enough credit as to what they’d be down for. The good thing about this crazy, personal show is that people knew the audiences would be here for something emotional.”
The idiosyncratic nature of the show, and the audience’s receptivity to it, makes it a different experience than one encounters at most drag shows. Where at a typical bar there might be a bubbly drag performance to pop hits in between DJ sets, lots of cheering and dolla dolla bills being thrown, at Nightgowns the audience is silent during performances, but in a good way: they’re open to seeing whatever these queens might put onstage and they’re expecting new and interesting ideas, whether it’s Dragula season 2 winner Biqtch Puddin’s love scene with a mop and bucket or Los Angeles-based performer Vander Von Odd’s salute to queer icons Leslie Feinberg, Audre Lorde, and Sylvia Rivera, performed while lip syncing a rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” and wearing a lavender Bride of Frankenstein wig.
In this way, the show puts drag at the level of theater — noise is reserved for the (often explosive) applause at the end. “The reason that people connect with Nightgowns is you’re getting to see inside drag performers and the way that they think and the emotions they’re going through in a way you don’t get to see in other shows,” says Olive D’Nightlife. Olive also runs logistics for the House of Velour and is a resident artist, meaning she performs every month.
Nightgowns came about because of Bizarre Bar. Sasha says she had been begging for opportunities to perform at other shows but had been offered a booking at Bizarre. If she had her own show then she’d get to do whatever numbers she liked, but she’d also get to feature the work of performers she adored. Plus, having spent time doing drag in Brooklyn, she knew the diversity of experiences she encountered but she hadn’t seen a space where that diversity was at one single show. She wanted her show to exemplify this range of experiences. “The way I’ve always looked at drag has been a little bit different maybe than other people because the drag community that I started doing drag in is full of trans people and women and people of various educational backgrounds, of different ages,” she says. “My goal with Nightgowns was to try to have as many different types of drag within a single show as possible because I feel like the most juicy drag [show] would be one where everything is a completely different flavor.”
And flavors abound. Olive D’Nightlife opens the show singing live accompanied by a pianist. Sasha is a whirligig of white and blue fabric and hair as she swings her body across the stage to Allie X’s “Alexandra.” Gilda Wabbit sings opera. Untitled Queen built herself an elaborate pair of arms from wire and felt that she moves to Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer.” Boston-based drag queen Violencia! towers atop a ladder in a black feather headdress and gown that reaches the floor, while her Boston sister Neon Calypso, whose performances experiment with topics that “stress people out,” crawls out from under her and begins lip syncing Nicki Minaj’s “Your Love.” The legendary New York drag icon Lypsinka performs her elaborate lip syncs of famous female film performances, walking back and forth across the stage answering a phone as she delivers lines from Mommie Dearest, Chinatown, The Best of Everything, and more.
Performers feel they have room to experiment and are challenged to come up with new work. “[Nightgowns] really sets you up to fulfill these dreams and for me I’ve been able to just dream wild,” says Untitled Queen, a Brooklyn-based queen who’s also a Nightgowns resident artist. Another Nightgowns resident, Vander Von Odd, feels the show has allowed her to think about drag in a new way. “I think when you’re surrounded by so much creativity and so many loving people, it inspires so much more creativity,” she said.
As discussions around gender change, so too do those about the state of drag and what it can be. Nightgowns is one of the shows at the forefront of these changing discussions, allowing performers and audiences to access both emotion and glamour in the same night, often at the same time. There’s a sense of history, as well as a taste of the future of drag. Ultimately, the show’s goal is to create and carry community. “It’s so important that any community have a safe space that we can go into and, for a lack of a better word, have church,” Olive says of Nightgowns. “I don’t believe in organized religion, but [people] do have a need to congregate with each other and feel safe, uplift one another, sing songs, tell stories. It’s just very empowering…maybe it’s a good thing that we reclaim this idea of church and community. We as humans have a need to come together and celebrate and to revel in everyone’s happiness. There’s not enough of that in the world right now, so that’s why it’s really important.”