Drag Ball Goes to Hell and Back with New Theme, RuPaul Performances

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

Drag Ball has been one of Oberlin’s most iconic annual events since the 1980s. A celebration of the queer community and drag performance and culture, Drag Ball will take over the basement of Wilder Hall — encompassing the ’Sco, the Rathskellar and DeCafé — on April 22.

This year, Drag Ball will feature a lineup of nationally recognized musicians and drag performers, along with local talent. Latrice Royale, of RuPaul’s Drag Race season four and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, will be performing. Rapper and drag queen Big Momma will be performing, as will M. Lamar, who, according to College senior and Drag Ball organizing committee Head Em Westheimer, is a “radical queer Black afrofuturist neo-goth singer, pianist [and] installation artist.” Local artists include DJ Zoë Lapin, former Head of the Drag Ball organizing committee Andrecia Patrón, OC ’14, and performer Sasha Mizrahe.

At Drag Ball, performers are given a stage that showcases the history and culture of the performance art, while students can experiment with gender expression and performance in their own drag practice. College senior Jasper Clarkberg, also a member of the organizing committee, spoke about what he recalls of the atmosphere in preparing for the event his sophomore year.

“It was really fun, specifically because I was experimenting with my own drag practice — so, [things] like finding shoes that fit me and figuring out makeup,” Clarkberg said. “It was very educational, very useful life skills. We had some cool artists. … It’s cool seeing queer icons that I respect actually come to campus.”

This year’s theme and event title is “Drag Me to Hell.” The posters and décor will reflect different visions of the afterlife, with DeCafé as heaven, the Rathskellar as a post-apocalyptic vision of purgatory and the ’Sco as hell. The organizers are using the various spaces in Wilder to play with this theme and make the party more accessible for attendees who don’t want to spend the entire time in the ’Sco.

As much as Drag Ball is meant to be a party and a celebration, it is in conversation with a larger history of queer art and oppression.

“Drag has a history, and there are so many people who, regardless of whether they’re trans or gay or a drag performer or cross-dressing or whatever the situation is … [being] actively persecuted for leaving the house wearing gender non-conforming,” Westheimer said. “So for someone to treat that with flippancy is … offensive.”

Students hoping to attend Drag Ball should plan in advance since tickets cannot be purchased at the door. Since 2012, when the event was resurrected after a two-year hiatus, Drag Ball attendees have been required to attend at least one workshop approved by the Drag Ball planning committee in order to purchase a ticket. This year, the preliminary list of authorized events includes the Drag Ball Student Showcase taking place April 7 at 10 p.m. at the ’Sco — though only students who perform in this event will be eligible for a ticket, not audience members — the Drag Ball decoration committee meeting April 15 and Sex Talks April 19.

The requirement of attending a workshop to become eligible for tickets is a reflection of the Drag Ball organizing committee’s commitment to creating a safe, supportive and fun space for marginalized students and performers whose art and culture are often tokenized or co-opted as the punchlines of jokes.

“These mandatory workshops are … meant to be more serious and educate folks about queer history and politics and culture so that they don’t come to Drag Ball and disrespect the space, disrespect the community and disrespect the performers,” Westheimer said. “I remember [in my first year], it was mostly white cis guys in bad drag, in ratty wigs, with balloon titties, disrespecting the culture. They were lucky enough to come to a college where there is brilliant marginalized talent, which is creative and out there and exciting and invigorating. … And then they made the space unsafe for … queer folks and marginalized folks who might or might not be queer.”

Though Drag Ball is always intended to be a celebratory, fun event, a large part of the committee’s work is about making sure that the history and artistry of drag are front and center.

“[Drag Ball] is bridging the gap between a lot of people who — queer or not queer — might not necessarily be exposed to the segment of queer performativity that is drag,” Westheimer said. “You can literally see things in drag performances — dance moves, songs, emotions, concepts — that have rooting in … a history of oppression, but also in a history of resilience and combating oppression and surviving oppression and thriving. Making something beautiful about something ugly.”

“Part of the mission of Drag Ball is to be something more than just a big party,” College sophomore and Drag Ball Treasurer Marina Schwadron agreed. “We want to acknowledge that drag and other types of queer performance have played a huge role in the history and culture of the LGBT community and activism.”

The event is by no means exclusive to people who are already experienced drag performers. Drag Ball is meant to be a space where people are free to experiment with how they present and perform gender.

“We want it to be a space that is, for that night, super welcoming and accepting of any person who is experimenting with their gender expression, so you can wear whatever you want and walk in and be respected,” Clarkberg said.

The building excitement for “Drag Me to Hell” is palpable with only a few weeks remaining before this year’s event. With many key members of the organizing committee graduating at the end of the year, however, questions about Drag Ball’s future have also been looming large. Westheimer’s most urgent hope is that Drag Ball will continue after their graduation, but they are also hoping that the nature of the committee will change to reflect the impact that Drag Ball has on the many community members who participate in the event. While many enthusiastic cis people attend Drag Ball every year, Westheimer sees a lack of straight cis allies who are willing to step up to the plate when it comes to organizing the event.

“What I’d like to see is a bigger committee, with not just queer people — obviously, queer folks should be pitching in and can be pitching in,” Westheimer said. “But also, allies, where the f— are they? Start pitching in. You want to come to the show. It’s a 700-person capacity. A lot of people enjoy it every year. A lot of people get a lot out of it every year. Pitch in, damn it!”