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A Critic's Notebook: Children, legendary and otherwise

On drag, Tituba, and Debbie Harry

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  • Blane Bussey
  • LEGENDARY TROOPER: Blane Bussey's photograph of Atlanta drag queen Lavonia Elberton will appear as part of the group show "Legendary Children," opening September 1 at Gallery 1526.

I had a meeting with some of Atlanta's legendary children last week, and I'm pleased to report back: The kids are alright.

"Legendary Children" is a group show opening September 1 at Gallery 1526 exhibiting the work of five Atlanta-based photographers who document ten of the city's young drag performers. Though the show hasn't even opened yet, a few of the images have gone viral and generated some national buzz: Huffington Post, Out, Vice Magazine and several others have all featured the work in recent days.

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I got a sneak peak and had a chat with all of the artists and a few of the muses at Café Intermezzo last Monday. I think the photographs document not just "drag" per se, but more broadly, the defiant cultivation of interior poise and personal style within the toxic environment of a widespread cultural disaster. The artists properly contextualize drag as one of the healing professions: its best practitioners demonstrate the maleability of seemingly ossified constructed meanings.

The whole thing culminates with a performance of the queens at a closing reception at the gallery on September 28.

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Most performers, drag or otherwise, can tell a great story that begins "The worst show I was ever in..."

I was lucky enough to sit down with Atlanta playwright and actress Suehyla El-Attar last week. Her new play Third Country about the refugee communities of Clarkston, Georgia, opening at the Horizon Theatre on September 20, probably won't lead to the creation of any new 'worst show' stories. On the contrary, I suspect it will be one of the first don't-miss plays of the fall season. But I was surprised and delighted that midway through our talk, El-Attar shared a story about her very first show:

At the age of 14, El-Attar, who grew up in a small town in Mississippi, played the title role in The Witch Who Wouldn't Hang at her high school. The one-act 1972 play reimagines The Crucible and the Salem Witch trials as if the African-American figure Tituba were really making deals with the devil. "I played Tituba because I'm brown," she says. "Do you know where I got the dialect from? Whoopi Goldberg in Clara's Heart where she plays a woman from Jamaica. My drama teacher was like: Watch this." She says there is no video record of this misguided mess, but we suspect she may be lying.

In addition to her busy acting and writing careers, El-Attar frequently works with high school youth, often helping them to create their own scripts. "It might be because that's where I got my start, and I hated all of the scripts. The kids deserve better work." We're all about turning trauma into something positive.

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Image New York-based critic Wayne Koestenbaum will speak as part of the Decatur Book Festival this Saturday, August 31, at Eddies' Attic at 3 p.m. His essay "Debbie Harry at the Supermarket" from his latest book My 1980s & Other Essays was recently republished on the New Yorker blog.

"I stood behind Debbie Harry in line at Sloan's," he writes. "We lived in the same apartment complex, a behemoth. Sloan's, the unsavory supermarket around the block, was our common ground. One summer evening, a rat crawled past my flip-flop-clad feet while I waited in the checkout line. I vowed never again to wear flip-flops while food shopping. If this essay is an allegory, I'm the rat, scurrying along interpretive thoroughfares where my filth isn't wanted..."

I humbly hope to tread a parallel path. This column, "A Critic's Notebook," is a new weekly addition to the Creative Loafing Fresh Loaf blog.




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