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Ypsilanti drag group takes performances online during pandemic

Boylesque entertainers host virtual bingo, benefit shows for local causes

Boylesque CEO Jadein Black during a virtual performance. Photo courtesy of Boylesque Drag. (Austin Moan / Boylesque)

YPSILANTI, Mich. – With the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic having closed entertainment venues, musicians, artists, theater groups and performers have had to find new ways of connecting with audiences.

With some creative thinking, Ypsilanti-based Boylesque Drag has taken its high-energy shows online to support the community and raise money for frontline workers and local causes.

Fundraising isn’t new for the drag troupe, which has been regularly hosting benefit shows for many years, but performing online is.

According to Boylesque CEO Jadein Black, the troupe’s last live show was the day before the Michigan-wide shut down in March. Once venues closed, members were left wondering how they could continue their performances, some of which raised over $130,000 for nonprofits in 2019, according to Black.

“I looked at my partner and was like, ‘Let’s see what we can do virtually,’” she said.

Since then, the group has done over 150 virtual shows.

Boylesque entertainers Jadein Black (left), Maxi Chanel (middle) and Hershae Chocolatae (right). Photo courtesy of Boylesque Drag. (Austin Moan / Boylesque)

Boylesque’s first virtual benefit show, hosted through YouTube, helped raise money for a community member with Multiple sclerosis. Black said that at the time, the troupe didn’t even have the right show lights; nevertheless, the show was a success.

Performances have evolved over time thanks to generous donors who helped the group get green screens, backgrounds, lighting and props, which help to emulate in-person shows.

Hosting each show live from her living room, which she now does cartwheels and flips in, Black said that entertainers still interact with audience members with the same energy they would at in-person shows.

“We were not going to give the audience anything less than what they were getting at an in-person show,” she said.

Typically, half of the money made during a benefit performance goes directly to nonprofits or causes. The other half is split among the Boylesque entertainers. This means that they may only make $20 each, but Black said making money isn’t the point of those shows, building a supportive community is.

“We had to make sacrifices in order to keep our group alive and making positive changes in the community,” she said.

Organizing a show takes up a lot of time, and being high-energy without an in-person audience is hard, but Black said it’s the connection and friendships with audience members that drive the shows.

Donations from community members have helped the group be able to give back to the community in various ways, like buying coats for local area children or buying gift cards for frontline workers.

“It’s that human-to-human interaction and that personal life changing that we can do as people looking out for our community,” she said.

Performers Maxi Chanel, Ani Briated, Jadein Black, Hershae Chocolatae. Photo courtesy of Boylesque Drag. (Austin Moan / Boylesque)

Because shows are done in her home, Black said the performers have to be very diligent with their health and safety. They want to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, so they regularly get tested and self-quarantine for 14 days if they have been around friends or family that aren’t in the troupe.

Despite being careful, Black tested positive for COVID-19 back in September, which forced the group to get creative with recording performances, Google Drive and online shows.

Boylesque is the only group to do virtual shows at least three nights a week, according to Black.

In addition to benefit concerts, held on Friday nights, the troupe hosts virtual bingo, a family-friendly Saturday morning “Learning with the Drags” educational series (consisting of a music lesson, book reading and dance lesson) and private events.

Over the course of the past 10 months, Boylesque has done themed shows for holidays, monthly benefit shows for Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels and shows for political causes. It also worked with Ann Arbor Pride for the annual pride festival’s first-ever virtual event in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Instead of tipping or donating with dollar bills, like they would at live shows, audience members can send money through popular mobile payment services including CashApp, PayPal and Venmo.

Learn more about virtual performances on the Boylesque Facebook page.

Ani Briated and Jadein Black from their Snatch Game Show performance. Photo courtesy of Boylesque Drag. (Austin Moan / Boylesque)

About the Author:

Sarah has worked for WDIV since June 2018. She covers community events, good eats and small businesses in Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from Grand Valley State University.