‘Diva Practice’ review: self-made magic

Pepper Pepper's solo dance-drag performance takes audiences on a ride through the life cycle of a drag queen

by ANTHONY HUDSON

Being a diva is exacting and it’s lonely. Look at the tragic lives of Maria Callas, Judy Garland, and Edith Piaf. The life of a diva is one of expectation, work, and the pain that comes with it. For a freelance artist, drag queen, and dancer, the same is true – but with an obligation to say yes to any and every opportunity that could mark a big break or financial well-being. To become a diva takes practice – maybe even enough to break your back – and unless you’ve gone viral on social media or hit reality TV gold, you’re going to do all the hard work yourself. Luckily the perks of being a diva include champagne.

Pepper Pepper’s ‘Diva Practice (Solo).’ Photo: Chelsea Petrakis from 2017 Risk/Reward Festival.

Following last year’s Diva Practice duet with Mr. E and a months-long residency tour this spring and summer across the United States, Portland diva-in-the-making Pepper Pepper’s solo dance-drag piece Diva Practice presents the fruit of Pepper’s research into what it takes to summon the heightened feminine, the Diva. Think of it like a drag queen Consumer Reports, only as a dance piece complete with its own fragrance (for real: you can purchase OLO Fragrance’s “Pepper Spray” – it’s like poppers but Pepper! – in the lobby).

Sharing the stage with a suitcase, a webcam, a ring light, and a golden cape that would put Liberace to shame, Pepper summons the Diva and takes us on a ride through the life cycle of a drag queen. Equally dance and drag-based, the show takes on an earworm of a sonic element as well – throughout the piece Pepper only says “yes,” repeatedly, constantly, as many queens who have not yet ascended into RuPaul’s Gender Illusionist Correctional Institute must do to get by.

In fact, Pepper’s constant “yes”-es and the DIY nature of the stage itself speak to the self-made magic of any artist without institutional support (see: soon to be all of them, in light of the defunded NEA – unless the government resurrects the WPA and employs artists to build the border wall). Pepper runs their own tech from a computer downstage right. Their video components are processed live in the moment through Isadora software, alternately sourced from a handheld phone and the webcam just downstage center – yes, there’s even a “take out your phones and follow Pepper on Instagram” moment as this self-made Diva is forced to steer their own marketing and brand without the help of a publicist.

A one-person traveling circus, Pepper pulls bits of drag, clown noses, and whole scenes from a huge suitcase like a magician pulls rabbits out of a hat – remember, they lived out of a suitcase during that residency tour. Saying “yes” all the way through the exhaustion and elation of multiple drag numbers and their accompanying dances, we see the Diva go through states of high glamour and absolute malaise, forcing the audience to even undress them when they’ve expended all their energy opening a bottle of champagne. The physical and emotional cost of performing – and that’s not including the financial cost – comes to life as we watch Pepper sweat and shed layer after layer of tights and foam padding so their skin can breathe after performing a high-energy mash-up of Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli.

Pepper Pepper’s Diva Practice (Solo)’ plays through Sunday night at Portland’s Headwaters. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis from 2017 Risk/Reward Festival, June 23-25, 2017.

As we watch this Diva fall apart, one can’t help but wonder if we loved other divas like Garland and Piaf solely for their talent – or were we also drawn to the Coliseum-like voyeurism of watching their lives and bodies fall apart? Divas were our original reality shows, and Pepper’s constant use of video reprojecting their own image in contorted and obscured forms drives home the very old nature of selfie culture and new media.

Once the Diva has had it and the champagne has been imbibed and shared with the audience, the Diva disintegrates into sheer self-care, stripping off all the drag to put on an iridescent baby bonnet and diaper, and the yes-es come to an end for a moment of rest. Then the baby puts on a Trump mask, and the newborn Diva Baby – for the first time expressing true self-involvement that doesn’t directly benefit the audience – shifts their yes to an impetuous and bratty “no” under ominous red lights and monstrous video playback. This “cheap and violent” portion – as Pepper describes it – serves to remind that only a select few of us with country club memberships are allowed or financially equipped to say no outright, and the childlike “Trumplestiltskin” takes self-care to its ultimate conclusion as the epitome of populist selfishness.

Pepper Pepper’s ‘Diva Practice (Solo).’ Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

Diva Practice isn’t just for those acquainted with RuPaul’s Drag Race or contemporary dance – honestly, I wouldn’t know a plie if it pirouetted right past me. Instead, watching this performer tirelessly move and lipsync and dress and undress, revealing glued-down wig under glued-down wig among an endless litany of “yes”-es should speak to anyone who has ever had to perform or suck it up and just say “yes,” whether at a job or a social function or even in a relationship. Diva Practice reminds us that our divas – in Pepper’s case, Marina, Barbara, Liza, Mariah, and Patti – are all human at their cores and the rest is drag. And you aren’t going to see drag like this anywhere else.

Diva Practice closes its two-weekend run this Sunday, November 5 at 8 PM at the Headwaters Theatre in North Portland (55 NE Farragut St). Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com or at the door. 

Read Jamuna Chiarini’s ArtsWatch interview with Pepper about Diva Practice.


Diva Practice (Solo) Judy Excerpt from The Pepper Pepper on Vimeo.

Anthony Hudson is a Portland-based artist, performer, and filmmaker who doubles as the human avatar for Portland’s premier drag clown Carla Rossi. She was originally asked to write this review, but for insurance purposes she’s illiterate. You can see her bimonthly hosting Queer Horror – the only LGBTQ-exclusive horror screening series in the country – at Portland’s historic Hollywood Theatre. Find out more at TheCarlaRossi.com.

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