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Theater Review: At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen

SARASOTA – On Friday night, Urbanite Theatre in downtown Sarasota came roaring back to life with its first post-shutdown production, the regional premiere of Terry Guest's At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen.

The groundbreaking play, which debuted in 2019, uses unconventional narrative structure and devices that, while creating a high level of surrealism, nonetheless result in an audience experience that is all the more reality-like.

We're essentially being told a ghost story, by the ghost, in what amounts to something close to a fever dream. Yet, after a couple of hours with the play's two characters, one feels as though they've actually spent time with and gotten to know two very real human beings who are navigating a somewhat hopeless path as HIV-positive gays in a typically-backward Southern town.

Guest says he wrote the play about his uncle, a gay drag queen in Albany, GA (where the play is set), who died of AIDS when Guest was a teenager. He hadn't yet thought of himself as a playwright, per se, when he began the project in college, intending it to be a one-off, the only way he knew to tell his uncle's story in a way that would honor his memory.

Donovan Session is nothing short of spellbinding as Courtney/Anthony, the stand-in for Guest's uncle. Courtney, who is Black, is already in a losing battle with the disease when he meets Hunter, who drags as Vickie, a poor white gay who's also HIV positive and new to the drag club where the two work. Hunter/Vickie is played by Shea Peterson who matches Session's intensity, creating palpable onstage chemistry between the two actors.

While their lives in drag take center stage, so to speak, this isn't really a play about drag, so much as one that is about AIDS, race, and the unique way in which both dynamics interplay with life in the American South. Guest manages to mine some extremely thought-provoking and timely drama from the story, which, as dour as its premise may be, still has many moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity.

At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen is everything you've come to expect from an Urbanite production: edgy, progressive theater, well-executed, while making incredibly inventive use of a very limited black-box space (bravo to Jeff Weber's set design). Directed by Damian Lockhart, it runs through December 5. Visit the theater's website for ticket and schedule information.


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