“I’ve never had drag queens in my drug-induced dreams before.”
Synopsis: Winner of The Doric Wilson Award Dublin Gay Theatre Festival . Winner of Fringe Encore , Cincy Fringe .The true story of William Dorsey Swann , former slave who became the Queen of Drag in the 1800’s
Tweet review: #mnfringe The Real Black Swann, Confessions of America's First Black Drag Queen:
@leskurkendaal continues to challenge himself, making each new solo show better than the one before it; fascinating mix of the historical and personal - 5 stars
Les Kurkendaal-Barrett has, rightly, always been the center of his one-person shows. Of course, there’s always a colorful cast of characters around him, but they are firmly in the supporting player category. With The Real Black Swann, Confessions of America’s First Black Drag Queen, Les has created a show where, even though it’s a solo show, he’s got himself a co-star.
“I always felt protected when I was wearing a dress.”
The co-star is Les taking on the persona of William Dorsey Swann, a former slave who took on the drag name of The Queen. Swann hosted parties in the 1800s for the queer community of that time. He also went to jail for it, and in the process of advocating for himself and his continued freedom, he became the first gay activist on record. The personal story Les choses to tell this time is bound up with the story of Swann. At first Swann is just a voice, but halfway through the performance, Swann puts on his first dress and stylish hat, and Les remains in this garb for the remainder of the show, whether he’s playing Swann or not.
“When you’re owned by someone, you’re not really living. It’s like you’re dead. So no, I didn’t feel anything.”
A friend made Les aware of Swann (“I found your new solo show. You’re welcome.”), but Swann’s presence takes the stage when Les goes under anesthesia for surgery to remove a tumor from his leg. Les and Swann meet in Les’ unconscious mind and Swann takes Les on a tour of moments in his past - from childhood to adulthood - when Les either learned to stand up for himself, or just keep quiet and not make waves, even if he was being treated poorly as a gay black man in American - something Swann knows a lot about. Swann’s guidance is to help Les’ abandon old strategies of avoidance and to start speaking up.
“Anger is always good. Always.”
We get almost as much of Swann’s story as we do of Les’ (sort of like Swann doing his own version of a Les Kurkendaal-Barrett show). And in a pivotal moment of Swann fighting back (in a dress) against the police who are raiding his party and disrespecting his guests, Swann’s voice drops away, and it’s Les’ voice shouting down the police. Les is also off to the side watching this fight take place, but it’s a fascinating moment of the two men merging into one - Swann getting the benefit of Les’ fighting moves that he learned from his dad as a kid, and Les channeling Swann’s fighting spirit as he comes out from under the anesthesia in recovery after his surgery. Les takes that fight into his life going forward, and we see an example of him no longer tolerating bad treatment before the lights go down on him, still in that dress and flowery hat.
“You got me. You got me this time. But you ain’t stopping me.”
I often feel like a broken record when I say things like “Les has done it again” or “This show is even better than the one he performed just last year, and I thought at the time that one was his best to date.” But both those things are true, yet again (except for the ‘last year’ part - last time I saw Les was virtually in the 2020 Fringe with Climbing My Family Tree, last time onstage was 2019’s Adventures While Black in Great Britain). I'm always grateful for the fact that storytelling is the way Les chooses to process major events and transitions in his life, because it means there’s always another great story around the corner for those of us in the audience. The Real Black Swann, Confessions of America’s First Black Drag Queen is just the most recent example of that fact. It wouldn’t be a proper Minnesota Fringe Festival without the man.
The Real Black Swann has two more performances: Friday 8/12 at 5:30pm, and Sunday 8/14 at 2:30pm.
5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended
(You can click on the following links to see a set of links to reviews of all the 5 and 4.5 star shows (VERY highly recommended), 4 and 3.5 star shows (highly recommended) as well as other shows, plus the full Top 10 list, the Top 11-20 list, a list of returning favorites, and the full coverage of the 2022 Fringe on this blog.)
(Side note: The primary may be over, but the midterm elections are coming up soon. Early voting for the election starts Friday, September 23 (so, not much more than a month after Fringe is over). You can check out what's on your ballot ahead of time on the Minnesota Secretary of State website, as well as other voting services and information - like handy links to all the candidates who have websites so you can learn more. In Minneapolis, not only do we have the Governor and Lt. Governor on the ballot, but there's our U.S. Congressional Rep., our MN State Senator, the MN Secretary of State and MN Attorney General, as well as our County Sheriff and County Attorney, and two members of the Minneapolis School Board. These are the people who decide what laws we live under and how they get enforced. These are the people who decide whether or not we have voting rights. These are the people who decide how our kids learn. This is how we change things. Personally, I'm alternately furious and despairing that my goddaughter and her little sister now have fewer rights over their own bodies than they did when 2022 began. There are things we can do, voting in the general election is one of them - if you're looking to volunteer, here's a place to learn more.)
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