Arts & Culture

What a (spirited) drag

Performers Kristyn Kuennen/Topher Wright (from left), Ethan Balk/Dr. Cool Ethan, Mara Balk/Twinkerbell (hidden), and Corey Williams/Anisa Love onstage at Radcliffe’s Knafel Center.

Photos by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

3 min read

Live performance and transformation accompany deep discussion at Radcliffe of gender and identity

As faculty director of the Humanities Program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Shigehisa “Hisa” Kuriyama organized “Beyond Words: Gender and the Aesthetics of Communication,” the institute’s flagship conference on gender, held this week at the Knafel Center.

But he also embraced the role of experimental specimen live on stage as part of the upbeat, often poignant opening program on drag culture.

“Harvard professors in drag — who’d have thought it?” he asked the audience during “Communication Can Be a …  Drag,” which kicked off the two-day conference. “And then, why not?”

Kuriyama, who is the Reischauer Institute Professor of Culture History, was joined by Robin Bernstein, Joy Foundation Fellow at Radcliffe and Dillon Professor of American History, who was transformed with the assistance of drag king Jayden Jameson KA St. James (Quyen Tran). Bernstein, who is also professor of African and African American Studies and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, prepared for the role by getting a haircut and finely chopping her shorn locks to be used as facial hair.

“This is definitely the most makeup I’ve ever had on my face,” said Bernstein, as Jameson shaded more masculine brows and a more pronounced nose. Midway through the application, Jameson was asked about creating facial hair.

“It’s coming,” said Jameson, as he got set to affix a mustache.

Shigehisa Kuriyama, director of the Humanities Program at Radcliffe, has makeup applied for his gender makeover while onstage. Performer Anisa Love (Corey Williams) finishes a song during the “Communication Can Be a … Drag” at the Knafel Center.

Kuriyama and Bernstein’s reveal as Queen Shigehisa and Warren Peace came at the end of an evening that was equal parts entertaining and poignant. Sisters Jennifer Burton ’86, Ph.D. ’97, and Gabrielle Burton ’92 brought clips of their 2017 documentary Kings, Queens & In-Betweens, about drag performers in Columbus, Ohio, as well as several stars of the film. And Anisa Love (Corey Williams) took to the stage for her lip-synched rendition of “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman.” In a crimson-glitter evening gown, she poured emotion into every gesture, pulling off her wig in the final dramatic flourish.

Shigehisa Kuriyama after the makeover. “Harvard professors in drag — who’d have thought it?” he asked the audience.

Shigehisa Kuriyama, Faculty Director of the Humanities Program, Radcliffe Institute, takes a bow after being given a gender makeover on stage.

“It’s a business for me. I bought my home with drag. I paid off college loans with drag,” the 19-year veteran later told the crowd. “I still get this connection with all of you. This is the best part of it.”

For Dr. Cool Ethan (Ethan Balk), though, drag has allowed him “to become so much more about me.” The husband and father of two took audience questions and shared aspects from starting to take testosterone to the political and economic dynamics of tipping drag performers at shows.

A sketch comedian, he got a big laugh after beginning to interrupt Gabrielle Burton. “I don’t mean to interrupt you,” he said, grinning. “I have to be careful, because now I present as a white guy.”

But he was serious about celebrating the culture that allows him to feel complete in a larger society that has rigid constructions of gender and identity. “There is so much gray in the questions that are expected to be answered in black and white,” he said.