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Two drag queens and an Elvis impersonator walk into a bar. That’s not the set-up for a joke—it’s the premise of The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew López, currently onstage at South Camden Theatre Company’s (SCTC) Waterfront South Theatre, just over the bridge in Camden.
Meet Casey (Ken Sandberg), an Elvis impersonator (yes, in the 21st century), and Jo, his pregnant wife (Shawneka Ponder). Casey’s shows aren’t proving much of a draw at Cleo’s Bar in Panama City, Florida, so Eddie (Craig McClaren), who owns the bar, decides to switch things up. He brings in drag queens Ms. Tracy Mills (Donyl Allen) and Rexi (Bastion Carboni) in the hope that they will bring in bigger crowds. Casey agrees to stay on at Cleo’s as a bartender until one night when Rexi fails to show up, and Casey gets pulled back onto the bar’s stage, not as Elvis but as Georgia McBride, the newest drag queen in town.
It’s not a particularly complex or challenging plot. It’s pretty easy to see where it’s going and how it’s going to end from the first time Tracy walks onstage. And that doesn’t matter, because The Legend of Georgia McBride is a funny play with a lot of heart that works because of this, not in spite of it.
Camp beyond the club
As you enter the SCTC theater, there’s a sign posted on the door encouraging the audience to tip the performers—not something you usually see when attending a scripted play. But this is a play set across six months of drag shows, and it is in that spirit that tipping is encouraged.
I can’t speak for what SCTC’s usual audience is like, but among your average Philadelphia theatergoers, I’m sure there’s a healthy number—perhaps even a majority—who have never attended a live drag show. Camp is king for many drag performers, but it is usually discouraged from more “serious” theatrical endeavors. Dropping not just drag queens but full-on, lip sync-for-your-life drag numbers into your show is a great way to make sure audiences get a feel for the art. And the drag numbers in this production, which Allen himself choreographed, are divine.
A political act
It is possible to enjoy The Legend of Georgia McBride without deep knowledge of queer history and culture, but the story hits on a different level if you’re familiar with some of the subject matter.
Although the circumstances laid out in The Legend of Georgia McBride aren’t exactly common, many of the themes are. As a straight man, Casey is conflicted about his alter ego. He loves being Georgia McBride, but he also changes out of costume before mingling with the crowds. He’s a born performer, and he is hiding his work from his wife for fear she won’t understand or approve.
As Casey, Sandberg’s full-body performance gives voice to these troubles, and while Casey’s masculinity is sometimes played for comedic effect while he is in (or getting into) drag, it’s clear it is also the source of deep conflict. He has mastered an inherently queer art form, but as Carboni’s Rexi points out in a truly fantastic monologue in the play’s second act, Casey doesn’t have the personal or cultural history to bolster his role. He is a tourist in the LGBTQ community, one who has never had to worry about the sorts of things other drag queens—not to mention gender nonconformists of all stripes—have to worry about. He does not understand drag is a political act as much as it is an act of artistic expression.
SCTC’s home venue is tiny. But The Legend of Georgia McBride, despite its over-the-top lip sync numbers, is actually an intimate play, and the space is well-suited to it. Under director Damien J. Wallace, the actors—Allen, in particular—are highly expressive, and the combination of small stage and small house leads to large appreciation of the actors’ physical subtleties. It helps that the production’s scenic designer, Robert Bingaman, created a surprisingly versatile stage that allows the company to really explore the full space even if there is not, in reality, that much space to explore.
I saw The Legend of Georgia McBride in 2016, when the Arden (a much larger venue) produced it. But that doesn’t mean the Arden’s show had the advantage; it just means the SCTC cast must be much more conscious of occupying each other’s space. For a play that asks whether a straight man should take up space in the drag community, a small space makes a perfect metaphor.
What, When, Where
The Legend of Georgia McBride. By Matthew López, directed by Damien J. Wallace. $5–$20. Through February 26, 2023, at South Camden Theatre Company’s Waterfront South Theatre, 1782 S 4th Street, Camden. (856) 409-0365 or southcamdentheatre.org.
SCTC checks Covid-19 vaccination cards and temperatures, but masks are not required.
The Waterfront South Theatre is completely wheelchair-accessible and service-animal friendly. Patrons who wish to read the script in advance or who require a large-format program may call SCTC in advance at (856) 409-0365.
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