Countless spaces and shows are billed as “diverse” and “inclusive,” but not all of them actually live up to these descriptors. If you ask Burmese drag performer Emi Grate, this culture is reminiscent of “vanilla ice cream,” where whiteness prevails and other identities are tossed in occasionally, if they are convenient or commercially appealing. In an effort to subvert this supremacy, she began A+, a pan-Asian drag revue produced monthly at Brooklyn bar Bizarre Bushwick that’s “of the Asians, by the Asians, for the Asians.”
The seeds for the show were planted in a conversation she had with longtime drag queen Mocha Lite, who is mixed race with Japanese heritage. They spoke of queer Asian drag performers they knew, how they often perform but rarely all in the same place. Though Emi Grate had never formally produced a show before, she felt the time was right to start, recruiting Taiwanese-American drag king Wang Newton to provide hosting duties.
“A show like this, I would say, has always been necessary,” she tells me. “In American culture, there is always talk of embracing and celebrating diversity, but people of color are very often mere tokens or the butt of some cruel jokes, even within queer circles.”
While there are few shows exactly like A+, Emi points to several queer shows and collectives she considers predecessors to the show, including Chicago-based shows Black Girl Magic and Bad Beti, showcasing Black and Asian-American drag performers respectively. She also mentions Bubble_T, an “Asian/Pacific/Queer collective” that throws a recurring dance party in Brooklyn.
Another show that provided inspiration was Sasha Velour’s Nightgowns, which formerly happened in the very same venue A+ now takes place in. At Nightgowns, Velour would introduce performers by having them answer a question about drag.
Performers at A+ typically perform two numbers each. For the first act, they are introduced with their bio, but for the second act, they answer a different question each month related to queerness and identity, such as speaking about the first queer person of color they met. At October’s show, an excerpt of a documentary by the show’s videographer Patrick G. Lee about queer and trans Asian people coming out to their parents screened, and the entire documentary will be shown at the show in December.
Emi explains this focus on identity was motivated by her own experience growing up. “When I first came out in college, I got no help communicating about my queerness with my family because there were no resources available for cross-cultural conversation on queerness. And when I first moved to New York, I had immense fear approaching the Burmese immigrant community because I am queer, and I still have some fears to this day,” she says.
In additional to showcasing exclusively performers of Asian descent, Emi tells me she makes it a priority to book a diverse lineup of performers across the Asian diaspora. She notes she had “no queer Asians to look up to growing up,” which only strengthened her commitment to the representation and visibility of individuals from all over the continent. Even in 2017, a survey done by scholars indicated that people of all races were far more likely to categorize East Asian ethnicities as “Asian” than South Asian groups like Indian and Pakistani communities. By consistently booking lineups that aren’t entirely East Asian, A+ inherently works to counteract this.
“I seek to turn the audience’s attention to the unknown by showing them something familiar,” Emi says. At A+, this includes DJ Accident Report playing familiar anime tunes, and having the friendly firecracker of a host (drag king Wang Newton) teach the audience expressions such as the Mandarin cheer “Jiayou!” And of course, the drag numbers themselves consistently provide entertainment for all, from acts dealing more explicitly with Asian cultural identity to more out-there numbers involving video art or lip-synching to bird calls.
This push for diversity has given the producer herself a wider knowledge of other Asian cultures and new performers in her community. “It also helps me keep track of which Asian communities have more support and resources for queer folks,” she says, noting as an example, she’s booked multiple Filipino performers each month, but remains the only Burmese person to be involved in the show in any capacity, even as an audience member.
“When I started out, I was almost sure I wouldn’t be able to do more than 3 shows without opening up the stage for non-Asians or non-drag performers. So far, it seems like it could stay exclusively Asian and exclusively drag for a while,” she remarks, but says she’s interested in opening up the show to queer Asian artists and performers working in mediums outside of drag, including raffling off visual art by Asian artists.
“The Asian diaspora is huge, but there are some common struggles and similar soul-searching that we have to do as Asian queers,” she adds. “I try to highlight that in each show.”