By Sharon Eberson
Joe King got a call at just the right time. Sheree Goldstein wanted a recommendation to put on a drag show at the Square Cafe in East Liberty, and he wanted to try something new.
The King of Queens – you have to go there, don’t you? – has been serving Match Gayme to Pittsburgh audiences for 14 years and counting. That’s his live game show based on TV’s The Match Game, where he is the host to local actors and drag queens as celebrity panelists. An example is the upcoming The Shady Bunch, June 9 at the Oaks Theater in Oakmont, with sing-alongs, all the Bradys (including barebones’ Patrick Jordan as Greg) and prizes for contestants chosen from the audience.
Match Gayme has served audiences well, but King wanted something more. And not the same ol’ drag brunch. (“It’s almost difficult now in this city to go to a brunch without a drag show!,” King said, laughing.) Something different.
“I realized the extent of the drag talent in our community, not just with drag queens, but drag kings and AFAB [assigned female at birth] queens – the city is rich with it,” King said. “I’ve seen so many great drag shows where the general public doesn’t get to see some of these amazing performances with elaborate costumes that the performers put together for one night, and so I wanted to look at ways to highlight that other than watching what you can see on social media.”
Enter the Square Cafe, which also was looking to showcase local drag talent.
King had been “toying with the idea” of something that involved the songs most associated with drag – such as Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” or Cher’s “Believe” – and a wheel of chance.
That evolved into the Wheel of Drag showcase, performed during happy hour and debuting at Square Cafe on Thursday, and repeating on the last Thursday of the month at least through September. Three contestants vie to be the audience favorite through performances determined by spins of a carnival-sized wheel, found “of all places” on Amazon.
The wheel had 12 slots, which helped KIng develop the new game, or rather, the competition that became Wheel of Drag. Each slot is assigned a category, with four of the slots titled “Set List.”
“This will be a predetermined list of more than a dozen songs that will be sent out to the queens. So you may spin the wheel and you land on ‘Set List.’ So then you have to then draw from our set list fishbowl what song you will be performing. And, you know, we’re talking classics, like ‘Last Dance’ or a party anthem … bangers that everybody knows.”
Those will be changed monthly. Two slots on the wheel will declare “Queen’s Choice’ – each queen will submit two songs ahead of time, and if they land on “Choice,” they have the option of saying, ‘This is the song that I pull out every time, and it makes me the most tips.”
The “Prop” category promises to be a lot of fun, with queens having to incorporate “a wacky prop” into their performances.
‘I’m talking like things like a pool noodle, bongo drums, maybe a puppet. We’re just sort of like looking for wacky, obscure, crazy little things that could, you know, sort of make or break a performance,” King said.
One slot on the Wheel of Drag is “Broadway,” with three predetermined songs that the queens must be prepared to perform, and another slot is the secretive “Mystery.”
And then there will be “Audience Choice.” Be kind. Stump the queens might mean you are out of luck.
Performer/host Kat De Lac of Steel City Kitty Burlesque asked if queens may ask for a pass if audience members come up with something they don’t know, and King’s answer was, “Absolutely.”
Kat De Lac is a “bio queen,” a biologically female performance artist who performs in female drag.
King thought it was important to have as many different queens represented as possible, and veteran performer Kat De Lac not only helped fulfill his ideal, “I incorporated her help, and she in turn gave me a great suggestion for the Queen’s Pass.”
Queens advance or drop out through audience voting, although the performer jettisoned after the first round will have an opportunity for her own chosen swan song, and a final opportunity to make some tips.
Along with the three contestants, there will be one established, “OG” queen serving as King’s cohost
There’s more, such as “a choose your drag name” exercise, sing-alongs and “just ways to keep the game show spirit going and keep the audience engaged and entertained.”
King pitched Goldstein with the happy hour time slot – doors open at 5:30 p.m., the show runs from 6 to 8 – that would not interfere with the cafe’s usual strong breakfast-lunch crowd. The Wheel of Drag menu will include summer cocktails and mocktails, hardy appetizers, and desserts.
Co-hosting the first show will be Kierra Darshell, “Pittsburgh’s First Lady of Drag” and a queen for more than 30 years. “Her Diana Ross is the gold standard,” King said, “and she’s been a longtime supporter of me and the Match Gayme. She’s so lovely and gracious to be appearing for us for this first one.”
The contestants for the first Wheel of Drag are Kat De Lac, Vivian Spice and Chi Chi de Vivre. They will be at the whim of the wheel, but this show is all about them, and those who will follow.
“The show,” said King, “is designed to highlight the top drag talent in the city. And don’t worry – you don’t need to know the words to have a good time!”
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Wheel of Drag debuts at Square Cafe, 134 South Highland Ave., East Liberty, on Thursday, May 25, at 5:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $15 at https://www.showclix.com/event/wheel-of-drag-may23.