Marking Kumar’s 50th year alive, and the start of Dream Academy’s 2018 season at the Capitol Theatre, Kumar50 is a celebration, a retelling of history, but most of all, a show meant to entertain — Kumar is the undisputed queen, and star, of the Singapore drag scene. Kumar50 is also here to make some money: Dream Academy is, notably, one of the very few arts companies in Singapore that runs on a for-profit model.
This is not, by far, the first time the two entities have worked together. Kumar50 is the fifth show (eighth if you include re-runs) headlining Kumar that Dream Academy has produced, so in a lot of ways, this is a seasoned relationship. And if nothing else, they’ve had some time to figure out how to translate the magic that is watching a drag queen late at night, and slightly drunk in a club, into a stage show for a ticketed and seated audience in a large theatre — at an 8pm show, or even a matinee, which is what I attended.
For the most part, in Kumar50, it works. The show is built around stand-up comedy sets by Kumar, and where she’s allowed to just do her thing — tell jokes that speak topically to race, politics, queerness and gender — Kumar shines. At its sharpest, the comedy is merciless: she’s got killer timing and within minutes, the audience is eating out of her hand.
But we are not merely gathered to watch a bunch of stand-up by a fabulous drag queen. We’re here, ostensibly, to mark a milestone: Kumar is 50. Perhaps that’s a gimmick, a hook to say that this show is different than the last one, and you should buy a ticket. But 50 is important. This is the performer who has essentially defined the contemporary Singapore drag scene, and against whom we are all judged, whether we like it or not, and whether the comparisons are appropriate or not. Kumar is 50, she’s selling out multiple houses at the 900-seater Capitol Theatre, her weekly residency at Canvas sells out weeks in advance — and not to get unduly macabre, but there are gay men of his generation who are not with us anymore.
It is this remarkable life and career that forms the narrative structure of the show. It is what the show is sold on, and it’s also where the show runs into the most problems. In part, I suspect, because this way of organising content is basically foreign to stand-up or, at least, it’s foreign to how Kumar does stand-up.
One of the greatest pleasures of Kumar’s work is the way the comedy seems to meander — it’s almost a series of jokes that are stacked on top of each other by association. Sometimes not even so, like when seemingly out of nowhere, she says: “And another thing…” — and you know we’re going some place delightfully and totally unrelated. It works because we all know Kumar. Her very presence means power will be skewered and we will laugh. It works because we trust her instincts. Nay, because we trust her.
But then, this is a scripted show, and there are writing credits for a bunch of people. Kumar, however, is strangely absent from the list, and every time Kumar has to stay on course and come back to the script’s organising principle of milestones in her life in chronological order, it feels like an imposition. That place she was taking us to, that delicious place of comedy that’s naughty, that points at power and says it holds no sway here — all of a sudden, that place gets shut down, because we have to move on to Haw Par Villa, or Cheers, or whatever else, and frankly it’s irrelevant, because what we want in the moment is to trust where Kumar wants to go. But the show won’t let her.
Eventually, Kumar reaches what is probably one of the most important milestones of her professional career — The Boom Boom Room. She talks about how she found drag showgirls to perform with her, how they all had hard luck life stories, and then we get a taste of what that was like.
She’s joined by four of Singapore’s hardest working drag queens, Elnina, Helda, Sherry and Lisa Dolmat, all still performing today. As a chorus of queens, they present a mini lip-synch revue of songs by pop divas, Madonna, Dolly, Tina, The Pussycat Dolls and THAT song from The Greatest Showman, all mixed into a medley by DJ Shigeki. Costume changes and dance routines are presented at breakneck speed in a style that is quite specific to the revues of the Boom Boom Room, the signature being fabulously evocative costumes, and quick sight gags rather than faithful celebrity illusion; after all, performers are playing across race. For those of us who remember the Boom Boom Room and have seen drag in Singapore before the advent of the global juggernaut that is RuPaul’s Drag Race, it was really nice to see a style of performance that grew out of a specifically Singaporean context.
It is really beautiful to see performers who clearly have genuine affection for each other, sharing a stage, doing what, to borrow a term from contemporary drag slang, gives them life. But in the show, this goes a bit further. They are also actively performing their social dynamics, little eyerolls at each other, and playfully checking each other’s choreography.
Are these moments real? As in, are the girls genuinely over each other? Are these moments performances that are authentic to the performers? As in, do the performers just incorporate this kind of subtle throwing of shade as their default way of performing because they think it’s amusing? Or are these moments something that perhaps happened in a rehearsal room and there was a conscious decision to “keep it”? What are we actually watching? Is this show Kumar and the girls celebrating 50 years of an incredible life, or is this show about Kumar, just that the cast includes her and people from her scene? These questions nagged repeatedly throughout the two hours of Kumar50.
Since Kumar burst on the scene, drag in Singapore has grown in many different directions, but perhaps the most heavily felt forces on the scene in recent years have been the arrival of Lady Gaga and her coterie of gender-fucking Little Monsters, and at the same time, the emergence of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Drag in Singapore has gotten a massive shot of (mostly) American influence. As is the case globally, drag in Singapore, which has largely formed around specific local contexts and idiosyncrasies, is now also dealing with the forces of globalisation. This isn’t merely in terms of the music that is performed, but in terms of aesthetics, gender politics, and references. Marry this with a seemingly endless well of Singaporean cultural cringe, and what has emerged is an unfortunate narrative of imported drag acts (mostly alumnae of RuPaul’s Drag Race) somehow being more progressive than or superior to what was born here.
But is it? Kumar identifies as a gay man, in what would generally be thought of as classically glamorous feminine drag. But it’s not that simple. Kumar’s drag name is also his very masculine legal name. She stands on stage and refers to herself as a gay man. Kumar wears neither hip pads nor breasts. There is a constant and consistent reminder that the illusion isn’t real, and indeed an insistence on a kind of gender-queerness about her gender presentation. She’s been a gender-fucker long before Lady Gaga had a poker face. That’s actually quite radical.
Near the end of the show, the stage goes dark and we watch video interviews with the four showgirls out of drag, during which we discover that three of them apparently live as women. Trans women performing in drag has always been a part of the scene in Singapore. It has to do with how drag in Singapore came to be the form that it is today (that’s another essay entirely). But consider for a moment that just as Kumar50 opened in Singapore, RuPaul ignited a firestorm (which he’s since apologised for) by saying in a Guardian profile that transgender and cis-gender women were not welcome to compete on his show, justifying the position in a tweet comparing transitioning to taking performance enhancing drugs. Having said that, and seeing that we obviously think these Singaporean performers are brilliant individuals, could we at least respect them enough to light them properly in the videos?
Singapore’s drag scene has always been trailblazing, brave and radical, and the 50th birthday of the scene’s leading light is absolutely an occasion for huge celebration. I just wish it was entirely on her terms.
Kumar50 runs at the Capitol Theatre from 28 February to 11 March 2018.