Atlanta's Mo'Dest Volgare continually astounds me with her drag. If I were to name the top 10 drag performances I have ever seen, Mo'Dest would certainly take up half the list. What I enjoy about this queen is her ability to use drag to deal with tough issues, challenge her audience and provoke conversation. I know that most people think drag is just about looking pretty, being glamorous and maybe doing some fancy dancing. Certainly, for many queens it is simply that. But what Mo'Dest Volgare creates is not just simple drag performance; she makes art. She is a brilliant artist who consistently makes performance pieces that go far beyond what I ever imagined was possible in drag. Mo'Dest breaks all the rules of drag and I love her for it.
One thing Mo'Dest does extremely well is address political issues through drag. During the most recent cycle of Dragnificent at Jungle, she turned a Disney princess into a warrior woman through drag, and used her to take down conservative America. While lip-synching to "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas, Mo'Dest takes a rifle from Sarah Palin and disembowels her, strangles Ann Coulter with the flag the blonde bitch waves and scalps Donald Trump (blood and all). Mo'Dest created a wild fantasy where a true Native American destroys those who tout hatred, bigotry and terrible acts as being "American." It's a shocking, powerful scene to watch, and it had the audience cheering strong.
Most recently I saw Mo'Dest do a number on gun violence. Yes, Mo'Dest Volgare was able to cover an issue as heavy and emotionally charged as our American gun homicide crisis. A series of Republican presidential nominee soundbites on gun control and mass murder opened the number. We hear Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and Donald trump all shrug off our country's 10,000+ yearly gun homicides. The curtain opens to reveal a pile of dead bodies, with bloody bullet wounds in their heads. A jazzy female version of Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" starts playing. Mo'Dest sashays out in a silver sequined gown; the opening lyrics sum up the entire scene: "That's life, that's what all the people say; You're ridin' high in April, shot down in May." As Mo'Dest mimicked a machine gun mowing down the victims, a chill went through me. She bends down to pick up the lifeless body of a man in front of her and plays with him like a puppet. Mo'Dest completely captured the essence of American gun violence -- our ambivalence and dismissal of a huge problem right in front of us. My jaw dropped in disbelief; I could not believe that I was watching drag.
Sometimes what seems like a fun, wacky number by Mo'Dest reveals a deeper meaning the more you pay attention to the performance. Her "Tarzan and Jane" number starts off with Mo'Dest in the typical banana-yellow, big-bustled dress Jane wears. The song "Extraterrestrial" by Katy Perry comes on. Two hot, hairy muscle men in gorilla outfits romp around on stage teasing Mo'Dest. As soon as the chorus hits, Mo'Dest begins to have sex with the monkey-men. At first I wanted to be in that same moment Mo'Dest was creating, having sex like a wild animal with these beautiful men. I could see myself in rapturous ecstasy having uninhibited sex with these creatures... until I realized what this Mo'Dest Volgare performance was truly about.
As Mo'Dest gives herself over to the monkey men, Katy Perry sings "Kiss me, ki-ki-kiss me, Infect me with your love and fill me with your poison." Suddenly, the performance makes sense... It's about AIDS. Mo'Dest creates an absurd depiction of a virus that went from ape to human. Not everyone is in on the joke -- but if HIV effects your life (like it probably did for most of her audience), you understand what Mo'Dest was saying. Mo'Dest orchestrates a surreal vision of where the virus comes from -- in both the big and little picture. She rips the most uncomfortable truths about HIV from our viral narrative and shoves them in our face. This is who we are.
The judges of Dragnificent didn't take too kindly to this number, and said HIV was too sensitive an issue to cover in drag. Of course, I disagree. As Rupaul says: "Drag is punk rock. It's a big F-U to the status quote." What better medium to transgress our comfort level with HIV than drag?
Not everyone likes Mo'Dest Volgare's drag, which is a shame. I love the "shock and awe" approach she takes, and I believe it's a refreshing reprieve from the titty queens we see so much of. People don't like art that challenges us to think and examine the world; mostly they just want something pretty they can look at to distract them from everyday life. I get that people think drag should uplift us from a dreary, sometimes homophobic world we live in. But I think there's room for something else -- drag as revolutionary theatre to shake us up and make us question life. When it comes to making drag performances that are more than just pretty lip-syncs and are true pieces of Art, Mo'Dest Volgare is the reigning queen.