A local performer has retired his popular drag character, but is writing plays, doing improv, and teaching yoga
Have you ever sat in a Mellow Flow yoga class and pondered the mystery that is your yoga instructor? Behind his perfect warrior’s pose, there must be a history that involves either a supernatural understanding of the universe or a zenlike upbringing in the mountains.
For Chris Daniels, a.k.a. the redheaded yogi, this assumption is only half right. Although Daniels seems to have a firmer grasp on the universe than most, his background is not zenlike by any stretch. As Ginger Devine, the playwright and actor has been voted the best drag queen in Reno by the readers of this newspaper. Growing up gay in mid-’90s Detroit is not an affirming environment. Daniels describes it as “kind of tough.”
“Like most gay kids, there’s a through line with the story,” said Daniels. “You knew you were off and a little bit different. I was always flamboyant, I always hung out with girls and liked feminine things—things that, as a child, I didn’t know it was incorrect for me to like.”
But Catholic school has a way of correcting these kinds of misunderstandings, and soon Daniels created a barrier between his inner identity and the life he led. On the surface, he was a “socialite” who made friends easily, but on the inside, he was a severely depressed young man with suicidal thoughts and a talent for suppressing his identity.
“I spent so much time doing this song-and-dance routine, trying to convince everyone that I was OK, when secretly I’m dying on the inside because I’m trying to figure out who I am,” said Daniels.Queen and country
Eventually, Daniels figured out who he was and came out as gay in high school. He spent his first two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campaigning against the Same Sex Marriage Amendment, which—contrary to its name—would put legislative barriers in the way of same sex marriage.
The amendment passed. “We lost,” said Daniels. “Madison and Milwaukee were the only two [cities] that opposed the amendment. For two years, that was our life. The day afterwards, it was kind of like, ’What do we do now?’”
Most people would wring their hands. Or take a pottery class. Instead, Daniels went to Amsterdam to study “Drag Queenery.” There, he traded one form of activism for another as he learned about the role of drag queens in LGBT history, developed a persona named Ginger Devine, and debuted on stage.
“Everyone has an origin story, and I experienced a second coming-out where it was so freeing to dress as a woman,” Daniels said. “I went through the process of deciding ’Am I transgender? Do I want to transition?’ And I didn’t. It wasn’t about being a woman; it was about being a queen. And they are two very different things.”
Comparing your average woman to your average drag queen is a lazy analogy. It’s also a common critique of drag queen culture as a caricature of femininity. But things the two might have in common—makeup, clothing, pop diva preferences—take opposite aims. Where one conforms, the other exaggerates and subverts. The effect is more poking-the-bear-of-gender-normalcy and less parody-of-womanhood.
Drag celebrates self-identification. This was the premise behind Daniels’ first play last summer, a revue billed as Undressed: a One Weave Show. In it, Daniels paraded Ginger Devine through a series of autobiographical events, ending in a theatrical semi-retirement of Daniels’ alter ego—an absence that continues to this day.
Why did Ginger go back in the closet? The answer is more pragmatic than dramatic. Although Daniels assures fans she’ll return at some point, his focus is elsewhere for the time being.
“It’s hard work being a queen!” he said. “Ginger was great. I love her. She was and still is the greatest role that I’ve ever played in my entire life, but for so long I was these separate people … what I’ve been trying to do since retiring Ginger is infuse the two into one. … How can I be a queen every day without necessarily putting on the makeup and the garb?”Good night and good luck
In the past year, Daniels has done a lot to answer this question. He threw himself into his longtime role with Reno improv group The Utility Players. He started teaching yoga. He became managing director of the Goodluck Macbeth Theatre Company. And he wrote another play. It's titled Last Call at the Old Southwest and is presented at Goodluck Macbeth through Aug. 1.
Last Call, directed by Bill Ware, is a sweeping look at the central role of the gay bar in queer history and its diminishing presence today. The play spans four decades, casting drag queens as the lead in this civil rights narrative.
“When the HIV virus broke out, the drag queens were out there educating, doing safer sex practices and demos,” said Daniels. “Before smartphones and Facebook and instant access to real-time information, you had to go to a safe space and learn what was happening in your community.”
The play’s timing feels relevant, not just in Daniels’ evolution, but also in the context of gay rights advancement. Written before the recent Supreme Court decision that legalized same sex marriage nationwide, the play puts the audience in the bizarre position of knowing how a major plotline turns out before the playwright or characters did.
At one point, a character turns to his partner and asks, “What do you think will happen the day after [equality]?” It’s the flipside to Daniels’ question nearly nine years before in Madison. But this time, the answer is less clear than dressing in drag.
Much like Daniels’ quest for inner healing, the next public edge in LGBT rights may come down to recognizing and reconciling its many faces. Daniels names a few—leather daddies, dykes on bikes, queens, kings, people of different races and sizes. Not just poster children for gay marriage, but everyone. There’s still work to do.
“You’re never done—you’re never, ever done,” Daniels tells his students at the end of Mellow Flow yoga.