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Chicago’s Drag Scene Takes Center Stage in Kings and Queens

The online series debuts its first episode this weekend at Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival.

Last summer, comedian and filmmaker Rachel Relman entered the Crash Landing Comedy Cycle drag competition at Berlin nightclub as her persona, Evan Escence. Since then, Evan Escence has been retired, and most of Relman’s involvement with Chicago drag has happened offstage — or, more recently, on the small screen. Her new comedy pilot Kings and Queens follows Polly Glamory (Bambi Banks-Couleé) and Stevie Stars (Amber Thomas), aspiring drag performers who skip out on their college graduation to compete in their first drag competition. Fans of the local scene will recognize Chicago drag royalty in the pilot, including Banks-Couleé, T Rex, Aunty Chan, and Abhijeet Rane. 

The episode screens this weekend at Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival and will subsequently stream online at Open Television. We spoke with Relman and two of the pilot’s stars, Bambi Banks-Couleé and Aunty Chan, about filming Kings and Queens and what makes Chicago’s drag scene an ideal subject for a comedy series.

Amber Thomas and Bambi Banks-Couleé play aspiring drag performers. Cinematography: Paige Hochstatter

How did Kings and Queens get started?

Rachel Relman: I wrote the first version of the script in 2016 when I graduated college, but I’ve been a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race since I was a teenager. So I started going to bars and seeing drag, and I was inspired by the drag community I found myself in. I wanted to write a scripted, fictional TV show about drag — I love Drag Race, but it’s very limited in its representation of drag. There’s a lot that needs to be showcased beyond cis gay men doing drag: There’s drag kings, nonbinary drag performers, and transgender drag kings and queens.

Bambi Banks-Couleé: Rachel, Jamie [Aunty Chan], and I all met working at Jeni’s [Ice Cream] together. Rachel supported us when we started drag and we supported her. As an actor in the production, I felt that a lot of the characterization was up to us. The script was left open enough for the drag characters to have a lot more personality than a normal theatrical script.

Did you write the script with specific drag performers in Chicago in mind?

Relman: It’s inspired by the people around me, but none of the characters are directly based on anyone. I always wanted Bambi, Aunty, and T Rex to be in it. The script itself was more inspired by the Chicago drag scene as a whole.

Aunty Chan: I don’t really play my drag character in it, which is fun because I enjoy just being myself. When I’m in drag, I have to present my character — someone who’s very social and speaking as though they’re hosting a party. 

What is it about Chicago’s drag scene specifically that makes it such a rich background for a fictionalized depiction like this?

Banks-Couleé: In Chicago, you really do have every and all types of drag — it’s versatile. We work through a lot of differences, but we work together. It’s [also] one of the most professional scenes. If you’re a younger queen, it shows that you really can be whoever you want to be and you’ll still be accepted. I think that’s depicted in this pilot.

How does the pilot reflect the experience of trying to break into a competitive scene?

Relman: There’s always a story when you’re a young queer artist trying to break into any kind of art form — I’ve experienced it in my standup career. It helps to have other people trying to do it with you. I wanted to showcase a duo trying to break in [together] instead of competing against each other.

There’s a strong sense of place and familiarity in the pilot, grounded in Boystown — there’s Scarlet, there’s The Alley, there’s the use of Chicago musicians like Emily Blue and Glitter Moneyyy. How did you all work together to create that sense of place?

Relman: This was my first time directing and producing anything; I literally learned filmmaking making this. I got to use all the locations for free because people were stoked about the subject matter and being involved. [General manager] AJ Miranda let us use Scarlet, which was really great. It was important to me to have the nightclub scene be in an actual gay bar, and I think Scarlet is a very recognizable Boystown staple.

There’s a line in the pilot about how “there’s a queer community beyond Boystown” — there’s only so much you can show in 17 minutes of a pilot, but how would you want to show that queer world beyond Boystown?

Relman: There’s a drag scene beyond Boystown — [for example], in Logan Square and on the South Side. Some more specific examples would be places like Reunion Chicago, located in Humboldt Park, where they host parties and community events prioritizing queer and trans people of color and women, parties like Slo ‘Mo and Peach Party that happen in various locations downtown and on the West Side, and A Queer Pride, which is an event collective that recently started hosting events at Le Nocturne in Uptown. In future episodes, I would love to show scenes in those spaces and the types of intersections that they hold.

What’s next for Kings and Queens?

Relman: I submitted it to a lot of other festivals, so hopefully it will get into a couple out of state. I love showing it in Chicago, but it hasn’t shown anywhere else yet. I have a whole season outlined — right now I’m pretty heavily working on another web series called Down, but I’m hoping to make more of it after I’m done with this other project.

What do you want people who watch the pilot online or see it at Reeling to take away from it?

Banks-Couleé: You can absolutely do whatever you want and your family will flock to you. Don’t be scared to make a change in your life because if people leave your life, there will be people there to replace that space you need.

Relman: Go see drag live and support these artists. As for the queer community, queer creators and filmmakers — we’re getting better representation, but if you think something is missing, go out and make it, even if it’s on your iPhone. We need it.

Aunty: I think it’s really cool for a young person who is curious about their life or other forms of life to see something like this and know it exists. Everyone deserves to be seen.

DETAILS: Lakeview. Landmark Century Centre Cinema. September 21 at 3:30 p.m. $13 general admission. reelingfilmfestival.org.

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