‘The Real Black Swann: Confessions of America’s First Black Drag Queen’ in review
Les Kurkendaal-Barrett (he/him) writes and stars in 'THE REAL BLACK SWANN: CONFESSIONS OF AMERICA’S FIRST BLACK DRAG QUEEN,' directed by Tom Trudgeon and now playing at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre in Los Angeles. / Photo by Zev Rose Woolley

LOS ANGELES — Ever hear of William Dorsey Swann? Me neither.

Another of those many buried figures in the history of Black and queer liberation.

Now he’s poised to become a household name, although unless and until further and much deeper research is conducted on him, he will remain as much a legend as a real, documented life. The truth is, not all that much is known about him.

The few references to him can’t even agree on his dates. Was he born in 1858 or 1860? Did he live to 1925 or to 1954? Several citations refer to him as an 18th-century figure—but that’s probably just because their arithmetic is lame. Born into slavery, Swann was not granted the right even to know his own birthdate.

In any case, “The Queen,” as he was known to friends and admirers, is now considered among the forebears of, if not the first leader of the organized queer resistance movement in America, who suffered numerous arrests and jail sentences for his unapologetic embrace of drag culture.

Now in its Los Angeles premiere, The Real Black Swann: Confessions of Americas First Black Drag Queen, written and performed by Les Kurkendaal-Barrett, will tell you just about all we know about its subject. Faced with this conundrum—how to construct an evening-length stage work out of such thin evidence—the writer/actor fuses Swann’s story with his own. Much of the drama concerns how Swann’s existence came to Kurkendaal-Barrett’s attention (I’m gonna call him Les from now on, okay?), how he basically had an anesthesia drug-induced hallucination that announced this project to him, and how current and unchanged the issues remain from a century or more ago until the present day. Les’s rapid, fluid delivery inhabits his three characters—The Queen herself, himself as an actor and, in an number of poignant interjections, the personal Les whom we can relate to as a Black and queer cultural activist.

Swann came into the world as the property of a white slaveowner named Ann Murray on her “plantation”—many now prefer the term “forced labor camp”—in Hancock, Washington County, Maryland. The site would soon be found on the Southern side of the Mason-Dixon Line that divided the state between North and South. Hancock occupies the tightest pinch of Maryland’s western panhandle, less than two miles wide at that point, equidistant between Hagerstown to the east and Cumberland to the west, with Pennsylvania just a stone’s throw to the north and West Virginia to the south. The Potomac River and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal flow through the town on their course down to Washington, D.C., and out to the Chesapeake Bay.

Swann remembered the day when Union soldiers stood at Hancock and reassured the Black population that they were free now. Afterward, many of Miss Murray’s former slaves (or “helpers,” as some of the new anti-woke textbooks are going to educate us) remained in her employ. It was on one occasion, when the mistress of the house was away, that young Will espied one of her elegant dresses and, mesmerized by it, and by her shoes, he tried them on.

And thus began the career of America’s first acknowledged drag queen. He moved to the nation’s capital, where for decades he held court as The Queen over her retinue of both Black and white queer folk who flocked to her parties. Rejecting lowly job offers, Swann dedicated himself to a career, as a businessman, promoting these parties where men and women who were laborers and maids by day could parade in their finery, in male or female drag, and enjoy a few hours’ respite from the world. There they strutted the popular “cakewalk,” perhaps an early version of voguing, which satirized the stuck-up manners of the élite classes—the winner won (what else?) a cake!From time to time, of course, police raids would break his soirées up. “You motherfuckers ruined my party,” he’s reported to have shouted at them. “You are no gentlemen!”

Rose Elizabeth Cleveland (1846-1918), Pres. Grover Cleveland’s sister, served for 15 months in 1885-86 as the first LGBTQ First Lady when her then-unmarried brother was president. An author, feminist, and suffragist, she was later romantically attached to the wealthy widow Evangeline Marrs Whipple, and they are buried side by side.

Escorted out in handcuffs, Swann was convicted of running a “disorderly house” and sentenced to 10 months in jail, whence he wrote a letter to President Grover Cleveland asking for a pardon, but was refused. And the president “had an out lesbian sister!” Les tells us, “Google it!”

Les’s 70-minute show is directed by Tom Trudgeon, with “cultural consultation” by Brittney S. Wheeler, the newly installed artistic director of L.A.’s longstanding Celebration Theatre, in co-production with the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Les has previously presented Swann at the Dublin International Gay Theater Festival, where it garnered the Doric Wilson Cultural Dialogue Award; the Cincy [Cincinnati] Fringe Festival, where it picked up the Fringe Encore Producer’s Pick; and the Prague Fringe Festival, where it won Best of Festival—Audience Pick. Les was both surprised and excited to see how audiences, even abroad, could resonate with such an unfamiliar topic.

Les (he/him) is a Los Angeles-based actor and writer who has been touring theatre festivals around the world since 2000, and also does stand-up comedy. His weekly podcast “A Lifetime of Hallmark” pokes fun at movies on Lifetime and The Hallmark Channel. In the course of the play Les relates well-known incidents involving Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and others by way of demonstrating the ongoing necessity for demanding Black Lives Matter, and includes shaming, racist treatment he has received himself since childhood.

Photo by Zev Rose Woolley

Glenda the Good Witch’s big pink bubble, from The Wizard of Oz, became for Les a numbing mental protective device arming him against his own feelings, until the avatar of Will Swann, with his courageous, uncompromising fight-back attitude, corrected the error of Les’s ways. The dress became, for Will, his armored suit. The free man told himself, “The only person who was going to own me was me!” even though his freedom came at a cost.

Photo by Zev Rose Woolley

The bare-bones show with but a few simple props brings together an award-winning design team: Scenic and props design by Michael O’Hara; lighting design by Matt Richter; costume design by Wyndell Carmichael; sound design by Becca Kessin. Rich Wong is the Production Stage Manager. The producers are Zachary Davidson and Nathaniel Mathis, associate producer Parnell Damone Marcano.

Drag is under vicious attack now, both physical and legislative, in many parts of the country, as part of the right wing’s assault on democracy. The movement is largely manufactured, with scary visions of drag artists “grooming” young children to question their sexuality, as a faux populist corollary to fascism. Today’s queens are on the front line, warriors who can’t, or don’t want to hide. The Real Black Swann informs, educates, inspires and resists. It’s right up there with the best of current activist theater.

“Maybe hearing my story,” Les suggests, “is gonna help you with your story.”

The Real Black Swann: Confessions of Americas First Black Drag Queen plays through Sun., Sept. 24 with performances Fri., Sat. and Mon. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 7 p.m. (the Sept. 24 show, however, will begin at 3 p.m.). A “Black Out Night” performance will take place on Sun., Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. It’s on stage at the intimate Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center, 1125 N. McCadden Pl. For tickets or further information, please visit www.celebrationtheatre.org.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.