Glitter and Concrete

(by Elyssa Maxx Goodman)

This book, which looks at the history of drag in New York City from the 1860s to 2023, was an interesting introduction to a subject I didn’t know a lot about. I’ve seen performances that incorporate drag and drag aesthetics (Justin Vivian Bond as Kiki in the cabaret duo Kiki and Herb, Taylor Mac and Matt Ray’s “Bark of Millions, with costumes by Machine Dazzle), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. And I was only slightly familiar with a lot of the other aspects of drag history and drag performance over the decades, from morale-boosting/comedic performances by male soldiers in the military during WWI and WWII to the ballroom scene of the 1970s and beyond.

The book is organized chronologically, with each chapter mostly covering a decade, though some chapters cover longer time periods. In each chapter we learn about what drag was like at that time in NYC: we get biographic details of key performers/figures, and we also learn about broader LGBTQ history and the larger cultural landscape at a given moment, and how drag was perceived, and who its audiences were. It was interesting to read about how “gender impersonation was a beloved genre of theater” in the mid/late 1800s, with male impersonators like Kitty Doner and Florence Hines and female impersonators like Julian Eltinge (who performed for the king of England in 1907!) and Andrew Tribble. I learned about early Harlem drag balls and how Mayor La Guardia banned drag between 14th and 72nd streets in 1933, and about Phil Black and his long-running Funmakers’ Ball, and about the Theatre of the Ridiculous and how it used drag as part of its rebellion against realist theater.

While the chronological organization of the book made it easy to follow, there were aspects that felt somewhat repetitive, and I sometimes wished for more emphasis on the overarching themes/larger context and fewer biographical sketches, which sometimes felt a little disjointed from the narrative. But at the same time, telling untold stories and talking about individual people and their contributions to drag history and/or queer history and/or activist history is important, so I understand the choice to structure the book this way.






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