Queens of style

Drag returns to the Rep with “White Hot Winter”

For Knate Higgins, drag is an art form, a “fun form of expression” that he’s been working in for close to a decade. Higgins is an actor and the special series curator at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth, but Seacoast audiences might better recognize his drag alter-ego, Bunny Wonderland, the saucy co-host of the Rep’s Let’s B Reel film series and other events.

“It’s a fun art form to go and see; each queen is completely different. They’ll all have their own sort of style,” Higgins says.

Local audiences will have a chance to see some of that style on Friday, Jan. 16, when the Rep presents “White Hot Winter,” a drag revue featuring Jujubee, a contestant on the second season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” along with Boston-based drag performers Delta Miles, Rainbow Frite, and Lili Whiteass. Bunny Wonderland, otherwise known as Higgins, hosts the event.

“Attitudes toward drag have completely changed, and standards for drag have completely changed in the past few years. ‘Drag Race’ helped … push people to push freedom of expression with the medium,” he says.

“Drag Race” is entering its seventh season on the Logo network. Each season of the reality show pits 12 of the country’s top drag performers against each other in various contests, with RuPaul presiding over the contests. Its popularity with audiences is due, in part, to changing attitudes about gender and gender expression, Higgins says. Drag shows, and TV shows about drag performers, aren’t new, but they’re becoming more mainstream.

“I think it’s something people have always been interested in. … It’s why, whenever you see bachelorette parties, they always go to a gay bar or the drag bar. But there’s something to be said about the safety of television” as a way to experience that culture, Higgins says.

There are more drag performers now, and the medium is more accessible. “Drag shows are being used as platforms to raise money for Planned Parenthood” and other groups that might not necessarily have a connection to the queer community, he says.

“Attitudes toward drag have completely changed, and standards for drag have completely changed in the past few years.” — Knate Higgins

Both Boston and Portland have thriving drag scenes — in fact, Higgins lived and performed in Portland before moving to the Seacoast. Performers throughout the region keep in touch and hire each other for shows.

“It’s a really strong community,” Higgins says. “Everyone has their own style; it’s not as bitchy or catty as people think. It’s pretty tight-knit.”

It’s a community Higgins knows well. He developed Bunny Wonderland as a character almost 10 years ago. He was 18, and, instead of college, had plans to go to India to work on AIDS relief causes.

“I thought I’d raise money by doing a drag show,” he says.

A friend who owned a hookah bar in Portland let him stage the show there. He didn’t raise enough money to go to India, but he did catch the eye of someone from Southern Maine Pride, who asked Higgins to work as the group’s youth ambassador.

“I had to make the decision to really make Bunny a thing, and I did,” he says. “I had been working in Portland before that; from age 15 to 20, I ran ‘Rocky Horror’ at Movies on Exchange … the drag thing was never a far cry from what I had my heart set on.”

Bunny’s character is an amalgamation of women from B-movies and cult classics — a little bit of Patricia Arquette’s character from “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors,” a dash of Jennifer Connelly’s character from “Labyrinth,” a pinch of horror movie host Elvira, and others. She is, by turns, innocent and saucy, always ready with an outrageous quip.

“Bunny is just an extension of myself,” he says.

STAGEdrag_bunny_wonderland_photo_by_michael_wintersBunny Wonderland (photo by Michael Winters)

Last summer, the theater’s Red Light series hosted a series of drag shows called “Midsummer Night Queens,” which also featured stars from “Drag Race.” The response from audiences was “overwhelming,” Higgins says, with many of the shows nearly selling out.

“I was so surprised. I knew it would do well, but I didn’t know it would do that well. I think people like them. (The drag revues are) fun, they’re a little dangerous, and something different that’s not going on here,” he says.

“White Hot Winter: A RuPaul’s Drag Race Revue” takes place on Friday, Jan. 16 at 8 p.m. at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre, 125 Bow St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $25 and available online at seacoastrep.org or by calling 603-433-4472.

At top of page: Jujubee (courtesy photo)