Although he usually performs in drag (save a recurring role in HBO's prison drama Oz), Charles Busch would be happy to be labeled a writer/actor. It's how he's made his living since the breakout success of his 1984 show Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.
Busch accepts that "drag" is a fair and unavoidable term to describe his performances, but don't call him a drag queen.
"Call me a drag legend," Busch says with a laugh. "I bristle when someone calls me a 'drag queen.' If I didn't feel like there was the slightest edge of patronization in it, I would be more likely to accept it. It's so wide sweeping."
Busch is not a female impersonator, though some of the characters he has created are based on starlets. He's not misogynistic and sees his work as feminist ("I have prided myself on being almost a feminist on stage as far as the strength and dignity of the ladies I play," he says). What he likes is being comfortable in drag, as in two recent cabaret shows he performed at New York's 54 Below. He'll draw from both shows for his performance Tuesday at Cafe Istanbul.
"I show up looking impossibly glamorous dressed in drag, as beautiful as I can," Busch says. "But I really am myself. The thing I like about cabaret is that it's spending an hour with this person. It's different than being in a play, which is so formalized. I can tell stories about my life and actresses that I've worshipped, and I can sing songs from the American songbook. I am not the world's greatest singer, but I can really act them — interpreting the lyric. I am really quite revealing and try to be as honest as possible."
New Orleanians may recognize some of Busch's works, especially since they typically have racy titles. In recent years, local companies have produced his plays Psycho Beach Party, Die, Mommie, Die!, and The Divine Sister, an homage to films featuring spirited nuns. Busch starred as Mother Superior in the New York opening of The Divine Sister but was the only character in drag and the show isn't particularly campy.
Outrageous titles and being in the right place at the right time helped Busch greatly. He performed Vampire Lesbians and other shows at a time when New York's changing Lower East Side neighborhood caught media attention.
"I lucked out," he says. "In 1984 — those six months in 1984: Madonna had come out of the Lower East Side downtown scene. The artist Keith Haring had emerged from that milieu. It was this funky neighborhood that was kind of scary. You walked down the street and you could hear the crunch of crack vials underneath your feet. Many of the buildings were burned out, but the rents were still cheap, so there'd be some edgy art gallery or hip dance clubs — little oases in this rather depressing landscape.
"I lived in the West Village and didn't go there that often. But I saw a friend perform in this little art gallery/performance space/bar. I was so entranced by this 1920s Berlin atmosphere, that I arranged to put on this little skit there. We did Vampire Lesbians. ... We got so much publicity. We had zero budget. New York magazine, People magazine were doing articles on this crazy performance art scene on the Lower East Side and we had such crazy titles that we were always included as the punch line. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium."
Busch's biggest commercial success was the Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, which opened off-Broadway in 2000 and moved to a Broadway theater for nearly 800 performances. He didn't appear in the show, but it was based on a Medea-like/raging-New Yorker drag character he created: Miriam Passman. (A new Miriam Passman piece will be in the show at Cafe Istanbul.)
Other projects didn't work out as well. Busch was hired to write the script for Taboo, a musical Boy George created about his life and music (which was financed by Rosie O'Donnell). The experience dovetailed with one of Busch's own obsessions.
"I watch reality competition shows," he says. "I have not missed a single episode of Survivor in 22 seasons or whatever it is. Years ago when I was in therapy, I used to discuss it with the therapist. It's an incredible metaphor for group interaction. (Taboo) was like Survivor. They're firing people. It's like, 'We're going to tribal council,' and kicking someone off the island."
This is Busch's second trip to New Orleans and his first time performing here. Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson) has worked with Busch in New York and will make a guest appearance in the show.
After a performance in Atlanta, Busch returns to New York to begin rehearsals on his next show, The Tribute Artist. He plays a female impersonator whose elderly landlord dies. He tries to impersonate the landlord in order to sell the townhouse and keep the money, but as he develops an attraction to the woman's niece, he slowly sheds the ruse.
"I have to try to woo her (as part of the scam)," Busch says. "But my character finds that the more real he is, the more the niece falls for him. He stops talking in the woman's British accent, and stops dressing in drag, just throws the wig on. The niece doesn't notice. She just wants to believe."