Myranda Thomas & Gilda Wabbit perform songs from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo: Zac Campbell-Hoogendyk

SB115 Threatens Theatre In Kentucky

Opinion by Zac Campbell-Hoogendyk

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Zac Campbell-Hoogendyk. All rights reserved.

I wish that I could just put everyone into a pew and make them listen to Gilda Wabbit preach. We’d all be better off for it.

Full transparency: this is a review and it’s not, because we live in Kentucky. 

On Sunday, at Play! Louisville, the second iteration of Slay! was performed. The event opened with a MTV unplugged style sing through of Drag Daddy’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, followed by drag performances hosted by Sydni Hampton, and concluded with beats by DJ Syimone.

If you haven’t been to Play! to see one of their drag performances, you’re missing out. Each performer shines in their own fabulous way, whether that be with intricately handmade costumes, unbelievable athleticism, or a stirring mixture of pathos and joy that is truly awe inspiring. On Sunday night, while lip-syncing their way around the crowded room, every performer brought something unique and worthwhile to the experience. Champagne LaVey brought the show to a standstill with her stunning murdered angel costume. Vic Leon delivered thoughtful, moving performances. And can someone please explain to me how Uhstel H. Valentine moved like that? Awesome. Of course, much credit is due to Sydni Hampton who kept the evening moving with her delightfully dry wit and obvious love for each of the performers.

But the absolute highlight of the evening was listening to Gilda Wabbit and Myranda Thomas sing through the score of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It made me truly regret not seeing that production when it was produced last year. As a man of a certain age, I remember when the original production was done. I remember when the movie was first released. John Cameron Mitchell, the writer, director, and star of the original, has a deservedly rabid fan base. For me, from now on, Gilda Wabbit will be who I think of when I hear those songs.

“I’m so excited to perform Hedwig right now,” Gilda said, “because the show is about all the ways we cannot look at ourselves in the mirror and how do we come to terms with who we are. The good, bad, ugly, all of it together.”

Unfortunately, a proverbial sword of Damocles hung over the event.

“I’ve tried so hard to be a full-time performer my entire life and I’ve had that in my grasp 7 of the 8 years I’ve been doing drag. The thought of that being taken from me, sucks,” Gilda told me. She and the rest of these fabulous performers are in danger of losing their jobs.

Last week SB 115 was introduced into the Kentucky State Senate. The bill, if passed as currently written, would make it illegal to have Drag performances within 1,000 feet from any residence, park, school, church, library or recreational facility. I dare you to try and find a location to perform drag in Louisville that isn’t within 1,000 feet from any of those places. I’ll wait.

Not really, there’s no time.

“If the drag bill were to pass, virtually every venue that has drag in the state of KY would stop being able to have drag. I would lose my job.”

Gilda is obviously concerned. She’s become a staple of Play!’s regular lineup, and hosts the Sunday show “Church”, but Drag is more than just a job for her.

“As a person of trans experience,” Gilda says, “Drag was a gateway for allowing me to embrace a femininity that I was taught to put away for 25 years of my life. Drag was a gateway to a space where I no longer felt boxed in, and I no longer felt like I had to shave pieces off of me to be welcomed and to be celebrated. It has allowed me to further and further and further step into the fullness of who I am, and to celebrate each and every piece of me.”

Gilda found a home in Drag while she was living in New York. Unhappy with her life managing a restaurant and performing in Opera, she was looking for more than just a different creative outlet. She was truly still looking for herself.

“The audience reaction was the reaction I always wanted,” she says. “I realized in this context people understood who I was. They understood more about what was going on with me than I even realized at the time. The energy was so delicious. There’s a place in my back that relaxes when things are going right. My shoulders just relaxed, and I was like, ‘Ok, I have to do this,’ and I just dove in and haven’t looked back.”

Since taking over the Sunday show at Play!, Gilda has worked to infuse her experience of Drag into the show, and it’s paid off. Performers in the Sunday show are making twice what they made at this time last year.

“My goal is to build a space that feels genuinely safe and comfortable for people, so that in this moment, right now, we are setting aside our interpersonal conflict as a community. That vibe sort of permeated into the community and people started to come on Sundays…I want to curate content that helps people feel enabled to be more themselves, and to do the self-reflection of looking in a mirror and not being scared and not being ashamed, but saying, ‘I’m great the way that I am.’”

And it’s not just Play! or Drag shows that are in danger of being shut down by SB 115. Here is how they define a “Drag Performance.”

“Drag Performance means a performance in which a performer, sings, lip syncs, dances, reads, or otherwise performs before an audience for entertainment while exhibiting a gender expression that is inconsistent with the biological sex formally recognized on the performer’s original birth certificate using clothing, makeup, or other physical markers, and this gender expression is a caricatured, advertised, or featured aspect of the performance taken as a whole.”

As written, no production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch could be performed in KY. Those big touring shows at the Kentucky Performing Arts Center? Musicals like Hairspray, Chicago, and Mrs. Doubtfire will have to skip the Bluegrass State. Shakespeare may be in trouble too. Did anybody see Kentucky Shakespeare’s productions of Twelfth Night or The Merry Wives of Windsor last summer? I’m pretty sure the cross dressing in those plays qualify as a “featured aspect of the performance taken as a whole.”

Allie Fireel, Clarity Hagan, and Tory Parker have recently formed Three Witches Shakespeare, “a queer, feminist theatre company focused on innovative classical theatre.”

“Just get out of the way, Shakespeare gets real queer real fast,” says Fireel.

In May they will stage their first production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Louisville Nature Center. Taking place in a park (a now forbidden locale), the production will see men play women, women play men, and trans people play whoever the hell they want to play.

“The original Shakespeare plays all involved drag,” says Hagan. “There is gender performance baked into classical plays, and there’s no (performance) rights, so you can play around with them and do what you want. So, if you’re looking for a playground for queer and trans and non-binary artists to have a place to explore and create exciting, entertaining theatre…classic plays are one of the best places to turn.”

“We’re playing in the real world with gender performance,” says Fireel. “We do that as we go out every day. And so do all the people who don’t do theatre. All the trans non-binary people that don’t get to do theatre are also out there navigating and playing and exploring, and sometimes stumbling and sometimes being harassed. I feel like by having these more purposefully playful interactions with gender on stage we are creating road maps for people that are struggling in their everyday life to understand how they want to interact with their gender. That to me is very important.”

Both Hagan and Fireel are upset that SB 115 exists, but neither feel that it’s likely to pass. Although Hagan has expressed increased concern after seeing a similar bill move through the legislature in Tennessee. They also feel that even if SB 115 did pass, it would be difficult to enforce on a large scale.

“Queer issues are put on stage by a lot of theatre companies now,” says Fireel. “It’s no longer a world where we have one queer company in town…it’s going to hit everybody. And hopefully that’s why it will fail. You can’t be the morality police everywhere all the time.”

They also think the pushback from the theatre community in Louisville would be substantial.

“There may even be a more concerted effort to show queer theatre than there has been because theatre people don’t like it when you tell them what to do. They love standing up to authority. Even though we don’t do that very well, we all like to think of ourselves as constantly ‘I-am-Spartacus’-ing.”

Gilda Wabbit is more concerned, “I do think it’s possible. I think it’s probably a 50/50 chance it’ll pass.”

It’s a very personal, palpable fear for her.

“That definition is specifically written to align drag and transness,” she says. “Based on how that could be enforced, I could lose my ability to perform at all, as a trans woman. Doesn’t matter if there’s an ‘F’ on my license because of a letter from my therapist. Doesn’t matter if I’ve gotten breast implants and had facial feminization surgery and gotten a faux uterus installed. It doesn’t matter… I could go do boy roles.”

Wabbit, Fireel, and Hagan all agree, however, that SB 115 demonstrates a tragic misunderstanding on behalf of state legislators with regards to the queer community.

“The goal of queer advocates is not to turn straight kids into gay kids,” says Hagan, “it’s to turn gay kids into adults that don’t hate themselves or their life.”

“Historically, Drag has been a tool of the oppressed queer classes,” adds Fireel.

“It infuriates me that people think that keeping drag away from children keeps them safe,” says Wabbit. “Because if people can understand that Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams have raunchy adult comedy specials and make great money and can also be beloved actors in children’s movies, and that they are a whole person, and they’re allowed to do that, then I don’t understand why people cannot understand that sometimes at 11 pm, on a Friday night, in an 18 and up venue, I want to wear an outfit that shows 2 inches of my butt cheek while I perform a pop song from 1998, and also when I go and visit my brother and see my three nieces that I know how to have an appropriate, supportive, and helpful conversation with them. That when I go to Pride, and there are children that are so excited that I’m dressed in a fancy costume, that I know how to interact with them in a safe way.”

I’m going to let Gilda take it away for a moment, because truly we should all be disciples at her Church.

“And it’s all making us a bogeyman. They have made us a bogeyman. And if they make us a bogeyman, they can keep kicking the can down the road and never solve the problems we face. When it comes to education, when it comes to health and wellness of children, when it comes to the f***ing economy. You know what I mean? You can just pick a new bogeyman any time and blame that person. And we are the bogeyman right now. And it’s not just us. I was reading about how in Florida they are stripping schools of real, authentic black history being taught. Not the bulls**t I was taught in elementary school. Real history about the way these people have been subjugated to build up our country. Instead of ‘our country is so great, we freed the slaves, blah blah blah blah.’ No, we built this country on the backs of those people. They are trying to take away education about that because black people are also a bogeyman right now. Just like immigrants are a bogeyman right now. Just like the Chinese were bogeymen during the pandemic at the height of it. It’s so easy to point the finger instead of doing any actual work.”


On Sunday, part way through the score of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Gilda took a moment to plead with the assembled crowd.

She said, “The least we can do is to speak to our legislators and to call our congress people and our senators and say, ‘Hey, this is f***ing annoying.’ You can also donate money to people who are doing that kind of work. And, of course, I think even more importantly, because so many of these things are out of our control, is to look around the room and look around your community at your neighbors who are queer and trans and black and brown and working class and say, ‘Hey, what can I do for you? How can I support you? How can I have your back?’ Because at the end of the day all we have is each other.”

Drag Daddy’s Slay! 3 is in the works. Keep an eye out for more information.

Three Witches Shakespeare’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will perform May 11-14 at the Louisville Nature Center. It’s free.

And Play!’s Sunday show Church, is weekly at 9pm and 11pm.

Gilda also told me that, “There are a million factors that go into healing, but I think theatre is healing work.”

I’ll see you all at Church.


Zac Campbell-Hoogendyk has an MFA from Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Play House and a BA from Pepperdine University. His play Ossietzky: A Peace Play was a semifinalist at the O’Neill’s National Playwright’s Conference. He will be playing Macbeth this summer in the park with Kentucky Shakespeare. His greatest accomplishments are Kasey and Luna.