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In The Temple of Drag

July 19, 2017 1:26 pm0 commentsViews: 67
Photo: Magnus Hastings

Photo: Magnus Hastings

by Steve Desroches

RuPaul’s Drag Race is no doubt a major cultural phenomenon, taking an art form long kept underground and on the fringes to a larger audience than ever before, if not right into the mainstream. A recent cover story in Entertainment Weekly, skits referencing the show on Saturday Night Live, and eight Emmy Award nominations just announced are some of the latest nods from the establishment for the show that excels in showcasing the creativity and imagination that go into this type of performance, long an integral part of LGBTQ culture.

Of course for Provincetown drag has been a rock solid pillar in the town’s storied theatrical and live performance history. Through the years it may have been called a variety of things—female impersonation, drag, camp— but the genre has been present in one way or the other for almost 100 years now, arriving in earnest in the 1920s. Prior to “lip synching for your life” and “sashaying away,” Provincetown was, and continues to be, one of, if not the creative capital for drag in the United States, as it continually draws the best and the brightest from around the country to perform here each summer. That historic legacy is what brought Raja here. Winner of season three of the hit reality competition show, Raja, also known as Sutan Amrull, has toured the world. But the one accomplishment he didn’t have was a feature-length show and a summer long run in Provincetown, which after a five-year process he has now achieved with Gawdess! at the Post Office Cabaret.

“I feel like I am at a summer camp of great artists,” says Amrull. “I’ve performed in front of 2000 people in Brazil, but the nervousness and fear in front of the 100 people at the Post Office takes over me even more. I want to honor the legacy here in Provincetown. I am completely honored to be performing here. I’m always aware of the legacy I’m joining by being here.”

The reverence Amrull has for not only the history of drag in Provincetown, but also the current scene, is palpable. He runs through a list of those that came before him with an encyclopedic knowledge. From the moment he stepped off the ferry 10 years ago on his first visit to Provincetown, he knew that Raja needed to part of it all. And now he admits the idea of his very first full-length show frightened him as much as it motivated him to get out of his comfort zone. As a top makeup artist in his native Los Angeles, Amrull worked on nine seasons of America’s Next To Model, with everyone from Tyra Banks to Iman to Pamela Anderson, and of course there’s snatching the crown from his fellow drag racers. But this summer in Provincetown fills him with a sense of adventure and accomplishment.

Amrull himself looks like a model, regardless of what gender he presents as; he carries himself with a distinct elegance and poise. But he also has a down-to-earth charm, sly sense of humor, and an endearing humility. Fans of Raja, though, tend to be attracted to her sense of high fashion, initially. As an artist, Amrull draws from so many inspirations. Born in California to a Dutch-Indonesian mother and an Indonesian father, Amrull is the Obama of drag in that his family moved to Indonesia when he was very young, forever changing his worldview and opening up his mind to different cultures and perspectives. On his paternal side Amrull comes from a long line of important Islamic scholars, and when his family lived in Jakarta he frequented the city’s mosques with his father. Later, the family moved to Bali, a predominately Hindu island. The colorful imagery of the gods and goddesses there made an immediate impact on the young Amrull, laying the seeds for Raja.

“Being the sponge that I was at that age, it really quite stimulated me,” says Amrull. “I created this Hindu deity of myself. When we moved back to the States when I was around 9 in the middle of the 1980s, I played catch up. It was sort of that Leeloo experience in The Fifth Element, where she watches all that she missed. You name it and I sat there and absorbed all this American pop culture.”

Shortly after high school in the early 1990s Amrull immersed himself in the Club Kid culture of the times, as well as becoming a student of the advent of the supermodel. Stirring the palette of his mind’s eye helped him create Raja, a drag persona that incorporated all of his passions with both a sense of the divine and the real Divine, a performer Amrull says he knew of long before RuPaul. And the show Gawdess!, a nod to Raja’s spiritual roots mixed with the pop culture spellings and pronunciations of the day, is a celestial mix of story telling, performance, and style.

Despite the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the frequency with which alums of the show appear on the stages of Commercial Street, Provincetown’s drag scene remains independent of it, still drawing talent not appearing on the show. While the show provides an unarguable boost to most anyone who appears on it, television has its limitations and does not always allow for all of a queen’s talents to shine in the way a live stage show can. And that is the major strength of Provincetown, with its culture of shows not found in many locales around the world. It is also why landing a gig in town is so competitive and difficult to do, adding a heavy dose of gratitude toward Amrull’s approach to this opportunity. That and always striving to entertain his fans by showing them you continually need to push yourself to be your best self, never just resting on one achievement, but constantly seeking a state of evolution and liberation.

“All I want to do is to not do it like everyone else,” says Amrull. “I went into drag to rebel, to be my authentic self, and to do it my way.”

Raja presents Gawdess! at the Post Office Cabaret, 303 Commercial St., Provincetown various dates through September 3 at 8:30 p.m. For tickets ($25) and information, including schedule, go to the box office, call 508.487.0006, or visit postofficecabaret.com