I was bound to end up here sooner or later.
Lucky Cheng’s, the nearly 20-year-old drag cabaret, was not initially on my list of drag shows to see. I don’t, as a rule, come within spitting distance of Jersey Boys if I can help it, and the old-timey geisha gags on Cheng’s advertising didn’t do much to convince me to make the trip. But! It was a friend’s birthday, I am cheap and uncreative when it comes to gifts, and there was a Groupon.
It was a pleasant surprise. The Sunday night dinner & show was laidback, as you might expect on a Sunday. The food was decent and there was a lot of it. The drinks were not skimpy. The performers were also the wait staff, and they walked a thin tightrope of a line between “serviceable enough to get a nice tip” and “snarky enough to give you the full drag queen experience.” The costumes and wigs were simple, nothing over the top. Which makes me wonder where my life went wonky, that a golden beaded bikini top and thong has become weekend loungewear.
The performances were short and not especially noteworthy. I had already seen two of the four songs (one a Jennifer Hudson lip sync and the other a raunchy R&B sendup) performed by other queens at other clubs, but I cannot say who, if either of them, could claim to have performed it first. Maybe Jennifer Hudson is just in permanent rotation in drag clubs around the country. It would neither surprise me nor upset me to learn that was true.
Audience participation made up more than half of the evening’s entertainment. While most of America was, I assume from seeing my Twitter feed, making faces at the spectacle of the VMA’s, the audience of Lucky Cheng’s was fist pumping to the sight of two complete strangers being goaded into simulating oral sex on each other. I don’t know who this Ms. Cyrus is, but if she would really like to shock middle America, she might want to take lessons from the bachelorette party from Queens and the elderly Dutch tourists in the corner booth.
The gentleman, in particular, was quite spry and his wife was a good sport about the whole thing.
But it’s impossible to talk about the Lucky Cheng’s experience without taking about race. Cheng’s is decorated, in the words of my dinner companion, “like the Tiki Bar at Disney: you know it’s not real but it feels like something out of the ’50s.” The evening’s hostess, one other performer, and a few other staff were Asian. Our hostess, who called herself Japanese Fucking Bitch, maintained an accent throughout that may or may not have been authentic. There were a few Asian audience members, all of whom were included in the audience participation round. Black and Latino men were also plucked from the crowd to be embarrassed, which is not so unusual for a live show. White men were nicknamed Sugar Daddy and Big Boy, I think. I’ve talked and written about how race is used in drag performance before, but I thought this was an unusual venue because it identifies itself (rightly or wrongly) as a space operated by queens of color. The Tiki Bar-kitsch may turn some people off but can you really say no to a giant bowl of vodka punch with a little flaming ceramic volcano in the center? There is something nostalgic about this show.
It was also the first time I’d seen performers who were proud to announce their (seemingly advanced) ages. Our hostess began the night by pointing out the other Asian performer, who was busy serving drinks. “She’s 58 years old,” she said and we all gasped and clapped, because it did seem pretty unbelievable. Older drag queens are not that unusual (RuPaul is 52) but like most performers, they’re held to a pretty high standard of staying fit. At the end of the finale (a frantic gymnastic routine wherein she did several headstands on a gentleman’s thighs) our hostess told us she herself was 50. I had guessed 40 at the beginning of the night, privately and snidely. My dinner companion had lowballed it at 33. There seemed more to this than merely being proud of their youthful appearance (which, I don’t know, may have played into Asian stereotypes?); it was a way to engender a tenderness toward their performance which I might have otherwise not felt. After Miss Bitch finished her plea for generous tipping, I found myself feeling protective of her soft, bared stomach and fleshy bottom (did I mention the beaded thong?) as I would feel protective about my mother or older sister.
This year I will be 30. I cannot do a headstand. I tipped. You would have to be the most heartless yahoo in the world not to.
This was not the most polished drag I’d ever seen, or even the most entertaining. But there was something comforting about the show, like watching a rerun or rubbing a lucky pendant between your fingers. I’m not a superstitious person but it’s hard not to imagine your folded dollars going into the side of a beaded bikini top as alms for a prayer: Dear Jesus, please let me be able to wear rhinestones like that in two decades.