A King Among Queens

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Gina Carmela Butches Up the Drag Scene in Provincetown

by Steve Desroches

Growing up in Eastham Gina Carmela felt the rigidity, and sting, of a strict gender binary. Carmela, who uses the pronouns they and them, would go to McDonald’s with their male cousin and would prefer the “boy” toy with the Happy Meal, but the fast-food chain stuck firmly to enforcing gender-specific toys. Luckily, their cousin would give them his toy. As they got older things just became more confusing and harder to navigate. While a student at Nauset Regional High School it seemed no matter what Carmela did, it was wrong. They’d be told they were too masculine, but then when they wore a skirt they were told they looked “ridiculous.” It was a constant dance to try and find the right gender expression to make everyone else happy, an exhausting and ultimately futile pursuit.

Then around the age of 15 or 16, Carmela shaved their head, deciding to set their own terms for gender expression and identity. And things began to change for the better, in part because it’s hard to make someone feel bad about themselves when one is happy with who they are in the first place. Now, at age 23, and just about to graduate from the University of Massachusetts Boston with a degree in theater, a self-confident Carmela, who identifies as genderqueer and non-binary, has already found their niche in Provincetown’s storied theatrical legacy as a burgeoning drag king.

“It wasn’t until I found the intersection of my gender identity and studying theater that I started to consider what could be done drag-kinging,” says Carmela. “I’m writing an article titled Dawning of the Drag Kings, and in it I look at why there’s no space for drag kings in Provincetown. Then I thought, ‘Why not be the person I’m looking for?’”

Exploring la vie en drag began in September 2020 for Carmela, but really took off the summer of 2021 when they began performing at Showgirls, Ryan Landry’s weekly variety show that’s become a Provincetown institution. Like so many performers before them, it gave Carmela a chance to experiment, in their case with performing as a drag king. Having lived in Provincetown for several summers driving for Arts Dune Tours, Carmela became more deeply enmeshed in the community and met David Kaplan, the co-founder and curator of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. Kaplan in turn introduced Carmela to New Orleans-based burlesque performer Lefty Lucy, who was preparing the show Tennessee’s Latest Peep Show for that year’s festival. A loose retelling of A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Blanche DuBois is given more agency and control over her situation, the production needed someone to portray the brutish Stanley Kowalski. Enter Carmela, who wowed audiences with their drag-king-meets-burlesque performance, singing James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

As an actor, Carmela still needed to find the humanity in the character to make it their own. Reading the play, and referring to Marlon Brando’s performance in the 1951 film adaptation, Carmela connected to Kowalski’s emotional manipulation, showing vulnerability only when it benefited him, and constructed their performance from there. When it comes to portraying toxic masculinity, Stanley Kowalski is the Mount Everest, or perhaps it’s better to say the Death Valley, of such behavior. This was an enormous challenge and opportunity for Carmela, in this case, to create a masculinity-based villain with a comedic and playful edge.

Photos: Images by Lisa, LLC

“To perform masculinity people have to have the realization that it is drag, as for so long it’s been about femininity,” says Carmela. “It’s been about femininity as performance because it is. Because gender is a performance. But masculinity as performance is becoming more a part of drag.”

Carmela is reprising their 2021 performance as King Kowalski at this weekend’s Tennessee Williams Festival Spring Performance Gala, which includes an aggressive burlesque stripping down of clothing to communicate an assertion of power Carmela explains as men can take their shirts off in public, sometimes in a show of power, but women cannot, or more accurately are not allowed to do so. The joy in Carmela’s voice is palpable as they revel in the artistic opportunities and queer journeys available in Provincetown, a place that has pulsated with such an energy force they could feel it all the way down in Eastham growing up.

This summer Carmela plans to continue honing their drag king craft at Showgirls, now back at the Crown and Anchor. Having appeared in Landry’s holiday production of Mrs. Grinchley’s Christmas Carol last December, they’re now officially a member of the Gold Dust Orphans, Landry and company’s drag-infused theater troupe. And they’ll be doing carpentry work and driving dune tours again, where they end every excursion singing Patti Page’s 1957 hit “Old Cape Cod.”

Carmela is also at work on two separate hour-long classically Provincetown stage shows, in hopes to produce and perform them soon. Like many artists before them, it’s Provincetown that feels right to begin a career and explore a unique artistic vision. And last summer Carmela received what in other towns might be considered an insult, but here it was encouraging: After one performance at Showgirls, an enthusiastic audience member said, “You are so weird! I love it! It’s exactly why I come to Provincetown, and Showgirls. You’re just weird.”

“I took it as a big compliment,” says Carmela. “Given the history of Provincetown I know when someone calls you weird it means you’re successful.”

The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival Spring Performance Gala is Saturday, June 4 at 3 p.m. in the Bas Relief Park on Bradford St., behind Town Hall. Tickets ($250) are available at twptown.org. For more information call 866.789.TENN.