It was a founding out of a fairy tale.
In 1993, Ben Schatz corralled a few friends and organized an outing to a Bette Midler concert in San Francisco. They dressed in drag, as they so often did.
The evening would change the course of the Harvard-educated attorney’s life.
At the time, Schatz was working at an organization he’d founded that advocated for HIV positive health care workers. “I did a lot of interviews on TV and for newspapers, and part of my job at that point — because so many people in the midst of the AIDS crisis just wanted as many gay people as possible to die — was to be an earnest, respectable homosexual,” he says. “But deep down, I’m not respectable.”
As an “antidote to respectability,” Schatz would “organize drag outings with my friends.” For the Midler concert, “eight of us — five gay men and three lesbians — went in drag, the women in jackets and ties and mustaches, and the men in Andrews Sisters drag.”
Schatz had figured the crowd would be packed with men in drag to see The Divine Miss M. Turns out, they were the only ones. As they entered the venue, they were met with thunderous applause. During intermission, the men were approached by a woman who asked if they’d sing at an upcoming party. They declined. “We don’t sing,” Schatz told her. Yet, on the way home, “inspired by Bette’s fabulousness,” they found themselves singing in rapturous ensemble.
“We sounded really good,” says Schatz. “So we stayed up until three in the morning singing. And decided right then and there to start a drag a cappella group.”
The Kinsey Sicks was born.
“If you had told me when I graduated from law school that at this point I would be a singing drag queen, I wouldn’t have possibly believed it at all,” laughs the 57-year-old founding member, and the last of the originals to be part of the four-person ensemble. Apart from their clever arrangements and vibrant, precise vocals,` the secret to the group’s popularity lies in its biting, satiric take on everything from sex to politics. Their songs are funny, filthy, and often unexpectedly poignant. Margaret Cho called them subversive. “She was the first person to use that word to describe us,” says Schatz, who writes the group’s lyrics and original music. “I was so delighted when she used that word.”
Schatz notes that, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s, subversiveness was part of the natural terrain of gay performers. “Identifying yourself as gay or lesbian at that point was inherently political. You were closing off ninety nine percent of your career opportunities in order to have personal integrity. I was at that point an activist, so I’m going to be writing lyrics that reflect who I am. When I was a gay rights attorney and would go to national meetings, I often used a lot of humor at meetings, which was often looked down upon by some others who were, I think, perhaps a little short on the humor gene.”
The Kinsey Sicks may be the world’s longest-running “dragapella” group, but they weren’t the first gay men to perform a cappella in a popular context. “When we started the group, there was already a well-known and beloved gay a cappella group called The Flirtations,” he says. “The driving force behind that group, Michael Callen, eventually died of AIDS. They were pretty pointedly political. At that point, in the early ’90s, you know, Ellen hadn’t come out, there were virtually no out queer performers, except in the gay and lesbian circuit. By definition, that made you political on a certain level. But it also made sense. We were literally fighting for our lives at that point, so people were kind of grim. For me, humor was a form of asserting my own right to joy and survival.”
The Kinsey Sicks existed as “a hobby” for six years. Then, in 1999, Schatz “talked the group into allowing me to quit my job and devote myself to trying to see if we could make this a full-time job for all of us.” An off-Broadway producer came calling, but the deal fell through. So the four men, having left their day jobs behind, decided to produce an off-Broadway show themselves. They raised money and relocated to Manhattan.
“Our first scheduled business meeting in New York, after we’d all moved there,” says Schatz, “was September 11, 2001.”
He continues, his naturally buoyant tone turning somber. “I had moved to New York three days before, and the only good thing about my six-story walkup was that I had a view of the Twin Towers. I woke up [on September 11] and I looked at the World Trade Center to remind myself that really I was in New York. I actually saw the plane hit the tower.”
The Kinsey Sicks made their off-Broadway debut not long after 9/11, and “got amazing reviews.” But, Schatz says, “nobody was going to see off-Broadway, and we — like everything else at that point — closed.”
It did not deter the Kinsey Sicks from pursuing what was now a dream. Schatz worked hard to get the group bookings around the country. Slowly, steadily, they built a following.
“It has been one continuous struggle after another to keep the group afloat,” he says. “I love this group. Number one, it’s more fun than anyone should be allowed to have in a job. It really is. But I really believe what we do has importance, and the recent election has reminded me of that and strengthened my belief in that.”
Oh, that election. It has not gone down well with any of the members of the Kinsey Sicks.
As Shatz tells it, on the night of the election, the group was on a plane, en route to perform in Boise, Idaho.
“I’m a cheap son of a bitch, so I never pay for wi-fi,” says Schatz. “But we got on the plane, the polls are still open and I was fully optimistic. For the first time in my life I was like, I’m going to pay for wi-fi on the plane. Let me tell you, that was the worst five dollars I have ever spent in my life, because I could have had another hour or two of blissful denial. The poor woman who was there to meet us at the airport, she didn’t know what had happened yet, and we were all just desolate. We could barely say hello.”
The troupe was forced to amend their show, which had been geared toward a presumed Hillary Clinton win.
“When we performed in Boise the day after the election and then two days later in Whitefish, Montana, we had absolutely dejected, despondent people in our audience. We turned the scripts around to recognize what had just happened. So many people came up to us and just said, ‘Thank you so much. I really needed this. I cannot tell you how important this was.’
“I felt the same way about them,” he continues. “They think that we saved them, but they — the audience — saved us. We’re not world famous or even country famous. We’re somewhere in that middle level between fame and obscurity. As the LGBT community has gotten more respectable, there’s the question of what function do we serve, apart from making people laugh? People sometimes come, they see drag queens, they expect us to be sort of fake and maybe a little naughty. But there is greater need for subversiveness now than there has been in a long time. It’s the same need, with sincerity, that existed when the group was founded in the midst of the worst of the AIDS crisis.”
“With the rise of Trump, a lot of us on the progressive side, are using comedy as an outlet to vent our frustrations,” says Jeffrey Manabat, who has portrayed Trixie for the last 14 years, following in the footsteps of two Trixie’s before him. “Our fears about the incoming administration, what they may do to our country, our safety, our standing in the world. All the progress that we’ve made in the last few years, if not decades, on so many different levels…. It is terrifying to think about what can happen. But for us, the terror feeds our art, our comedy, our music, our scripts, our shows. We’re able to turn that into something that hopefully alleviates some of that fear. It gives us some levity, and brings communities together.
“We needed to laugh after the devastation of the election. I think there’s going to be a lot more devastation headed our way, and our role now is being more clearly defined by what is coming up against us.”
“It’s very satisfying to both echo what our audiences are feeling and thinking, particularly now,” says 35-year-old Nathan Marken, the newest member of the group, having joined two years ago to step into the heels of Winnie, after Irwin Keller, a founding member, retired in 2014. “It’s also good to challenge a lot of the perceptions they may have about political and social topics, particularly with respect to racism and religion.”
“In every show we tend to have a few songs that are meant to really provoke the audience, to really make them think,” says Spencer Brown, who has played Trampolina since 2008. “We have a song about religious tolerance in the current show, Oy Vey in a Manger, that is very, very thoughtful. It comes out of one of the characters that you would least expect. The reaction of the audience at the end of that song is one in which I almost feel the whole audience give a sigh of relief. It’s another instance in which they feel that they’re not alone and it’s, ‘Thank you. We’ve been saying this the whole time. Why is nobody else saying this?'”
For Schatz, it’s the group’s comedy that matters, and its many shows — including Manger, which starts an eight-day run at Theater J on Tuesday, Dec. 20 — often feature a modest narrative arc punctuated by songs performed by the four Kinseys: Rachel (Schatz), Trampolina (Brown), Trixie (Manabat) and Winnie (Marken).
“If you were to think of us as the Golden Girls,” says Schatz, “Trampolina would be Betty White, Trixie would be Rue McClanahan, Winnie would be Bea Arthur, and I’d be Estelle Getty as Sophia. My character is pure id, and she’s never met a boundary that she recognizes. Winnie is kind of a lesbian Miss Jean Hathaway — although that may be redundant — from The Beverly Hillbillies. Trampolina is an absolutely lovable fool. And Trixie is glamour personified, at least in her own mind.” He chuckles that they’re “all naughty,” but insists he’s the naughtiest. “I do unforgivable things. It’s amazing what I get away with…. We’re not Up With LGBT People. It has to be funny, it has to be biting. I want it to shake people up. I want to make people a little bit uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.”
Even though all bemoan the Trump win, the Kinseys do acknowledge it will be good for business.
“Comedy is often a way of pointing out the absurd,” says Schatz. “And when you are feeling clubbed over the head, the ability to laugh at the person doing the clubbing is empowering. One of the things I felt back in the early ’90s is if we could take a roomful of grieving, emotionally wounded gay men and we could make them laugh, giving them joy is a wonderful gift to them, to us, to our community, and the world.”
“In times of feeling despair, in times of great political disarray, of things not making sense anymore, there’s a way in which comedy can bring people together again when we’re feeling far apart,” says Manabat. “Art, which I think comedy is part of, is our light in the darkness. Without it, we really may as well just be animals. But art and laughter unites us. It keeps us sane, keeps us human.“
The drag lends credence to the group’s comedy. While the Kinsey Sicks are playing characters, they are very much attuned to the sensibility of drag within the LGBT culture.
“As much as people may want us to be lip-syncing queens or catty, biting, acerbic drag queens who will bite your head off, or want us to be a fierce RuPaul’s Drag Race queen, we don’t fit into those boxes,” says 32-year-old Marken. “The box we do fit in fits very nicely for us in that we’re a comedy a cappella drag troupe. There’s really nothing else like that anywhere on Earth.”
“I do not consider myself an entertainer,” insists Schatz. “I consider myself a provocateur who is entertaining. I get really tired of the defense that many comics use when they say things that are offensive or hurtful: ‘I’m just being funny. Can’t you take a joke?’ It shows a lack of imagination and a lack of creativity. There are many things that we talk about or joke about in the dressing room that make us crack up, but we would never say them on stage because they are genuinely hurtful to people we don’t want to hurt. So we don’t say them.
“Comedy is just another form of speech,” he continues. “It doesn’t blanket you from responsibility for the content of what you’re saying. There are a billion unthought of jokes in the universe. Trillions of them. So think of something original. You don’t have to make fun of Latinos or blacks or women or Jews. You don’t have to. And if that’s all you can do, then you’re not very smart.”
“We have a funny, irreverent show that also has a large heart, and a lot of smarts, and says things in a way that I think wouldn’t be possible if we were not in drag,” adds Manabat. “There’s this way in which our drag allows us to speak our political minds, and have that heard and accepted, and reflected in ways that otherwise it wouldn’t be.
“Everyone on both sides of the aisle can appreciate comedy, and absorb the truth, but some people, you can’t reach them that way because they are so self centered, so insecure about where they stand and who they are, that when they see the mirror brought up on them, they’re not able to look at themselves. I think that if you’re so thin-skinned when comedy is referring to you, then something truly is wrong.”
One of the most thin-skinned, obviously, is Donald Trump, who has attacked Saturday Night Live and Alec Baldwin for the actor’s brilliant, razor-sharp parody of the President-elect.
“His skin is so thin, the man is translucent,” says Schatz.
“If he’s tweeting against Saturday Night Live, can you imagine what happens when he’s actually having a real diplomatic crisis?” wonders Manabat. “It’s just not a man who I think this world is prepared for. A lot of people are doing their best to get ready for what’s to come.”
On election night, like his colleagues, Manabat “felt incredible despair in a way that I have not felt before…. There’s a way in which an election of a man like that is a danger to not just this country, but to the world. I thought, ‘This is not the way the world should be,’ but to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of history bends toward justice. I think that we will prevail. Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of people will be crushed when that arc is bending.”
Brown takes a glib approach to Trump. Momentarily assuming the vivacious persona of Trampolina, he says, “I feel like his hands aren’t big enough to press down on the nuke button! And it’s not him that I worry about so much as everybody else around him. I feel that the world needs more people in Trump’s cabinet. And probably a really good padlock to put on that cabinet.”
“The thought of starting a nuclear war over something that can be fixed with diplomacy is now a real danger,” says Manabat. “This is a person who is only looking at national security briefings once a week, and he should be looking at them every day. He is holding victory rallies around the country when he should be studying up on how to be president. I’m flummoxed over how this man can operate this way and how his supporters can turn a blind eye to what seems to be obviously bad behavior from someone who should be a shining example of the United States, for not just our citizens, but the world.”
Manabat has another reason to despair. As a Filipino, Trump’s not-so-coded messages of ill-will toward immigrants have resonated in the White Supremacist community, giving them perhaps their strongest voice in a generation.
“As someone who is not white, my experience travelling across the country has been eye-opening,” he says. “I grew up in San Francisco, which has a tremendously diverse population. In the Asian American community alone, there’s Chinese American, Japanese American, Filipinos, Thai, Vietnamese — it’s just as diverse as it is in Europe. A lot of people don’t think of the Asian American community that way. When I go outside San Francisco or L.A., the big metropolitan areas with large Asian population, I’m just Asian. Even more than that, when I go even further out, I am just not white. It’s different, being who I am visually, in San Francisco or L.A., than it is being in, for example, Whitefish, Montana, or Salina, Kansas. I am, many times, the only person who is not white in the room.
“Before the election of Trump, it wasn’t something I thought that was dangerous, but after the election of Trump, now I do. It’s unnerving to think that in my own country someone who doesn’t look like the majority of its citizens is automatically suspect, and is seen as…a danger to the entire country.”
“Having an anti-Semite [like] Steve Bannon as one of the key chief White House advisors is quite a frightening prospect,” says Marken. “As for the rest of the cabinet posts, my goodness. Having climate change annihilists, people who have never had a child [and] who attended public schools in charge of education, CEOs in charge of labor — it really is the foxes ruling the hen house. And I feel sorry for all of those hens out there.”
There is no greater proof that Kinsey Sicks are a tonic to the world’s woes than the diversification of their audience.
“When we started,” says Schatz, “we had a much more gay and lesbian audience. But now we have sort of a collection of marvelous misfits and outsiders and bedraggled progressives, I would say. The key to our success is not ‘What’s going to sell? Let’s do that.’ We’ve always been about what do we want to say, what do we want to do, what do we think is funny? So we’ve always attracted people who are looking for something that’s different. There’s nothing else like us. For better or for worse, there’s nothing else like us.”
Asked if he ever regrets leaving his law career behind for a life of singing, a cappella, in heels and makeup, Schatz lets loose a laugh.
“As much as I regret not taking cyanide this morning.”
The Kinsey Sicks in Oy Vey in a Manger opens Tuesday, Dec. 20, and runs through Dec. 28 at the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $47. Discounts available. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.
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