To some, drag belongs under the strobe lights of the tiniest gay clubs. Such halls, they say, are the arbiters of a necessary queer counterculture, spaces that keep phenomena like drag authentic and pure. But for Cesar Hawas and Carly Usdin, drag has the potential to be so much more. They insist it should be on the big stage, the center of a massive audience's attention, accented not by the often-harsh lights of a nightclub but by the production quality seen in large theater works. Their event, "Le Bal: A Drag Extravaganza," at the Theatre at Ace Hotel downtown on Friday night, aims to do just that.
"It's not just boys dressing as girls. It's so much more complex than that, more interesting than that," Hawas says. "We want to take drag out of the nightclub and put it on the legitimate stage, giving it the same love and tenderness that we would a show on Broadway."
"Because drag is art," Usdin adds. "It's performance. It's worthy of this."
Hawas and Usdin met on the first day of freshman orientation at the University of Central Florida nearly 20 years ago. The two bonded as Orlando's queer nightlife scene became a sort of surrogate home for them, during the earliest stages of their coming out and coming of age. As they fell in love with drag and the queens of the city, they were tasked on campus with the responsibility of putting on a fundraising event for the school's gay student union. The two formulated the idea on which "Le Bal" is based: putting drag on display in an environment that reflects the actual talent and work that goes into the art form.
"We never saw drag queens as anything other than rock stars in this world we were just becoming a part of," says Hawas, who works with New York's McKittrick Hotel, home of the immersive, haunted-house-style show "Sleep No More," loosely inspired by "Macbeth."
Their wish in creating those campus shows was a space where drag would be the focal point, not an interruption, to the usual drinking and dancing in clubs.
"We wanted to take it out of that environment," Hawas says, "and let it just be the thing that it is."
The event they started in 2001, when they were barely 20, was called "Diva Invasion." It attracted nearly 500 students, enough to become a campus staple in the ensuing 13 years and to be held in the school's' largest event space.
"Le Bal," 15 years later, is a grown-up version of "Diva Invasion."
An attempt to re-create the vibe and authenticity of a traditional drag show, but on a larger scale, "Le Bal" was designed with vintage cabaret performances in mind. The event borrows its name, meaning "the dance," from Moulin Rouge-era period pieces, which fits with the pair's goal of staging a similar "jubilant, nonlinear theatrical experience," says Usdin, a filmmaker who's "Suicide Kale" won an audience award at Outfest earlier this month.
Featured in the 90-minute show are comedy acts, female impersonations and lip syncing to chart toppers of today and yesteryear from six of drag's biggest performers.
Darcel Stevens, a 30-year veteran of drag known as the queen of Orlando (she hosted Hawas and Usdin's "Diva Invasion" all those years ago), is a staple of the city's Parliament House, where she is director of entertainment.
Manila Luzon and Thorgy Thor are former fan favorites of reality competition show "RuPaul's Drag Race." Luzon finished second in 2010, while Thor was on this year's season.
Then there's Brendan Jordan, the 16-year-old who became a viral sensation after a video of him stealing the spotlight from a Las Vegas newscaster with choreography from Lady Gaga's "Applause" swept the Internet in 2014.
This is "Le Bal's" third performance since its debut in October debut. That frequency and success are evidence of drag's evolution and its attractiveness to more than just a gay clientele, says actress and drag performer Candis Cayne.
"It shouldn't just be something for the LGBTQ community," adds Cayne, who hosts "Le Bal." "It should be seen on an international level as an art form, and it is. It's nice to have drag come to a place where it can have a mass appeal and book an entire theater like the Ace Hotel's."
Much of that credit goes to RuPaul, whose Emmy-nominated "Drag Race" on the Logo network has helped to bring drag out of clubs and into living rooms worldwide.
But despite its increasing popularity, drag remains a deeply political expression, a critique and interrogation of societal ideas about gender and identity. In the aftermath of the shooting at Orlando's gay nightclub Pulse, where nearly 50 people were killed, it's perhaps more important than ever.
"All aspects of queer culture are charged with this responsibility of remaining as earnest and as unapologetic as we have always been," Hawas says. "Drag is an opportunity to say … the boxes; we define ourselves. And at the same time, [it's] being able to laugh at the absurdity of having to define ourselves in the first place."
Because, in the words of RuPaul, as quoted by Usdin, "You're born naked and the rest is drag."
"Le Bal: A Drag Extravaganza"
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: The Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway, Los Angeles