The audience at Urbanite Theatre’s opening night of At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen seemed as excited as co-artistic director Brendan Ragan to be back in the theater as he welcomed them after an 18-month gap due to the pandemic. (You could tell even with the masks everyone was wearing.) And they also seemed to wholeheartedly embrace the story told in this play by Terry Guest, a two-character piece that mixes some sharp comic dialogue with truly touching and angry moments—all with a fine sprinkling of drag queen costumes, wigs and lip syncing music numbers.
Wake introduces us first to a young Black drag queen working in the heart of Georgia named Courtney Berringers (real name Anthony Knighton), played by Donovan Session with a blend of bright-smiled confidence and an undercurrent of long-simmering hurt. Courtney is practiced in the drag queen style; after all he’s known what he wanted to do and be since he was only about 7 or 8. The other character, a white newbie to the trade named Hunter (Shea Petersen), is less sure of him/herself, but knows they definitely don’t fit in the Southern male macho mode where fixing cars is the normal avocation.
Hunter (performing onstage as Vickie Versailles) turns to Courtney for some tips, and along the way, the two begin a sexual relationship (as you might expect, there is some frank talk and action here), but one where Courtney warns they are really “just friends.” Complicating matters: Both have tested positive for HIV/AIDS, although so far Hunter is without any symptoms or illness.
Not so with Courtney—that’s the reason we’re at a wake. But Courtney is determined, even after death, to play his/her life up with glitz, while Hunter begs for the more somber truth to be told.
The two performers, under the direction of Damian Lockhart, are as natural with each other as can be. In their dressing room scenes, as they apply makeup or effect costume changes, we feel like we’re eavesdropping as they swap trivia about movies, reveal a little about their upbringings, and mention the (female) role models they each admire, from Judy Garland to Cher. (Near the end, there’s even an extended sequence where Courtney dances along to “Get Happy” with Garland onscreen behind him, in the film Summer Stock; starting off gleefully, it gradually switches to a much darker tone as Courtney’s illness worsens.)
It’s easy to be engaged by the sassy, direct Session as Courtney, but it’s also impressive how Petersen displays true vulnerability in a role that wouldn’t work without it. The two actors never miss a beat as they navigate the changing and emotional road ahead of them, and the result is a show that’s bound to hit your heart.
Not to mention it’s got some fun and outrageous costumes by David Covach (that Marie Antoinette getup Petersen wears while trilling an operatic aria is too much, complete with a laundry-basketed hoop skirt) and some convincing queen wigs by Susan Haldeman. The visuals really help to pull off the right atmosphere here.
At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen continues through Dec. 5 at Urbanite; call (941) 321-1397 or go to urbanitetheatre.com for tickets.