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‘Priscilla’ encapsulates Pride Week’s theme of love and inclusion

Washington and Lee’s annual musical coincided with Pride Week, reinforcing and enhancing its ideas

The+main+characters+and+Priscilla%2C+their+bus.+Photo+by+Claudia+Schwab.
The main characters and Priscilla, their bus. Photo by Claudia Schwab.

The main characters and Priscilla, their bus. Photo by Claudia Schwab.

The main characters and Priscilla, their bus. Photo by Claudia Schwab.

Grace Mamon

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“Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,” a fun and sentimental story about three drag queens, celebrated the LGBTQ community during Washington and Lee’s Pride Week.

Washington and Lee’s Generals’ Unity hosted Pride Week last week. This is an annual event that usually coincides with National Coming Out Day and is intended to raise awareness for the LGBTQ community.

Rainbow flags lined the walkways of Washington & Lee during Pride Week. Photo by Grace Mamon, ’22.

This year, Pride Week included an ice cream social, movie night and the production of “Priscilla.” The week also provided opportunities to discuss coming out and campus climate.

“[Pride Week] is a celebration of being queer and the things that individuals overcome to embrace that, and it also acknowledges things that, historically, queer people have overcome,” said Kat Oakley, ‘19, LGBTQ Peer Counselor and Generals’ Unity president.

The LGBTQ Peer Counselor organization is intended to provide a confidential and non-judgemental resource for students who want to discuss LGBTQ topics. Most LGBTQ Peer Counselors are also part of Generals’ Unity, a student organization that promotes equality for all people, regardless of gender identity or sexual identity.

Oakley and Generals’ Unity Vice President Ginny Johnson, ‘20, talked about why it’s important for Washington and Lee to
have Pride Week every year.

“I think this is a place where a lot of people can feel isolated from the rest of queer community,” Oakley said. “So this is a week where we’re celebrating.”

“[Pride Week] is so people feel like this is a place where they can belong.” Johnson said.

Thursday of Pride Week, Oct. 25, marked the opening night of W&L’s first musical of the year.

“Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” is an adaptation of a 1994 movie and follows the story of three drag queens who travel across the Australian desert in a bus they name Priscilla.

Daniel Wetterhahn, ‘21, Mike Bracey, ‘20 and Robb Zahm, ‘13L, are the three leads in the production, which was chock-full of glamour, emotion, comedy and some of the best music of the 20th century.

From left to right: Mike Bracey, ’20, Zahm, ’13L, and Daniel Wetterhahn, ’21, stand behind the three divas as the final musical number begins. Photo by Claudia Schwab.

Jenefer Davies, Associate Professor of Dance at Washington and Lee and Artistic Director of the university’s Repertory Dance Company, directed the show and de- scribed why Priscilla was chosen for this year’s musical.

“The national discourse being what it is right now, I wanted to do something that celebrated marginalized groups and I felt like Priscilla was a story that gave insight into the characters as real people,” Davies said. “You learn about their strengths and their weaknesses and their challenges….and their eventual triumphs and successes.”

The overall message of inclusion from the 1994 movie was reflected in Washington and Lee’s musical adaptation, but the cast was very conscious of the shortcomings of the movie’s depiction of drag queens and the queer community. The cast worked to compensate for these limitations.

Wetterhahn plays Adam/Felicia, who is an outgoing, party-loving drag queen who masks personal trauma under a witty and innuendo- filled sense of humor, according to the director’s notes.

“In hindsight, there are a lot of things about Priscilla, the movie, that are not ideal in 2018, especially regarding gender relations,” Wetterhahn said.

He said that one of the biggest challenges of playing Adam was making sure his character was not reduced to a stereotype.

“In my opinion, my character Adam sometimes comes a little too close to just being a stereotype, ending up as a punchline instead of a person,” Wetterhahn said.

He combatted this challenge by trying to better understand Ad- am’s actions in regards to events in his past.

“I had to really dig into his character,” Wetterhahn said. “I had to think about why Adam might find it comforting to cleave to certain stereotypical behaviors, and what about him is still separate from that.”

Bracey, a theater major, played another lead role alongside Wetterhahn. According to the director’s notes, Bracey’s character, Bernadette, is a transsexual woman who contributed to the initial popularity of drag shows and is now searching for true love.

Bracey explained that, although he identifies as genderqueer and often does drag, there were still challenges to playing Bernadette.

“Playing it on stage was very new for me,” Bracey said. “When I do drag, it’s normally at something like Friday Underground or in very small settings…I wear dresses and skirts already but it’s not necessarily performative. Being on stage as a female-identifying character was definitely a challenge mentally.”

Bracey said his main concern was doing his character justice and trying to find a way to convey to the audience that Bernadette is more than an on-stage adaptation, but rather a fully-rounded person who happens to identify as transsexual.

A lot of the extravagance and charm of the musical is conveyed through the performances of the golden sequin-clad divas, played by Lauren Hoaglund, ‘22, Grace Pelosky, ‘22, and Keren Katz, ‘22, who initiate many of the musical numbers.

Hoaglund said that it was comforting to work with Pelosky and Katz, two other first-years. The trio worked tirelessly to perfect their roles.

“We spent hours outside of rehearsal going over harmonies,” Hoaglund said. “I practically lived in the Lenfest practice rooms. I’m pretty sure people were tired of hearing me practice those songs.”

The members of the cast expressed their hopes that Priscilla had a profound effect on Washington and Lee, and conveyed a message of inclusion, love and acceptance.

“I think that seeing groups of people represented on stage that don’t normally get represented on stage is really important,” Hoaglund said. “I think that it’s really important for people to see themselves in characters, even if it is kind of over-the-top. It’s nice to hear parts of your story and see parts of your identity played out on stage.”

Bracey also said that he believes a lot of hate stems from ignorance, and hopes that Priscilla has given people an opportunity to learn more about this community.

“I think a lot of people on this campus have never seen a drag show,” Bracey said. “So giving that story to people who wouldn’t normally have access to it now gives this community more of a jumping-off point.”

Davies shared that she was uplifted by the fact that Priscilla had a full audience every night and received a standing ovation after every performance.

“[That] gave me hope for our community, that love with- out judgement is being shared and being understood and accepted and projected into the community,” Davies said. “Not just Washington and Lee but Lexington and Rockbridge also.”

Wetterhahn echoed these sentiments: “Priscilla’s message of accepting people for who they are and not having a knee-jerk reaction to things that may seem alien, I think that should be a universal message.”

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‘Priscilla’ encapsulates Pride Week’s theme of love and inclusion