Drag Performance as Fine Art

Published August 30, 2021

Mark Montondo as Ms. Golden Delicious.

Mark Montondo as Ms. Golden Delicious

Mark Montondo (he/him/his, she/her/hers) is a theatre maker, drag queen and writer based in Buffalo, NY, currently pursuing an MA in Theatre and Performance at the University at Buffalo. He holds a BFA in Musical Theatre, summa cum laude, from SUNY Fredonia.

As drag character Ms. Golden Delicious, Montondo took the New York City cabaret, nightlife and theatre scenes by storm beginning in 2016 after winning several amateur competitions. Performing as many as five nights a week, Montondo is best known for his hour-long solo work GOOD JOB! which premiered at the Duplex Cabaret before a month-long run at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In 2019, Montondo taught an original six-week drag comedy course offered through the Brooklyn Comedy Collective, wherein students conceptualized, developed and performed original drag characters. “My hope as I go through the academic world and get more training is to bring drag as a creative practice into a university theatre department,” he explained. “I think that theatre departments are uniquely equipped to teach students about it. Whether that means students who are interested in drag, as what is a pretty viable profession right now, or as a uniquely liberating experience for anyone whether they be in the queer community or not.”

Montondo decided to return to Western New York in March 2020 and was he accepted into THD’s graduate program last summer. “I’ve been confirmed in my assumption that coming back to the world of academics is more stimulating than the life I was living as a full-time performer,” Montondo explained. He eventually hopes to earn a doctorate and teach at a university, while continuing to perform.

“I feel that drag performance in nightlife is a fine art, and there’s enough of an oral history and theory of the practice and shared traditions between performers that it can absolutely be studied. I have the unique experience of working as a nightlife and theatre performer in New York City, so I'm able to bring a lot of that oral history into my studies. I find it exciting to be a voice for that community within the academic world.”

Montondo admires the commercial work being produced by his peers. He cited a recent television special created independently by popular drag performers Jinx Monsoon and Crème de la Crème. The show was then licensed directly by Hulu as a completed work. This allowed the artists to create the program free of studio influence, while still benefitting from licensing it for wide broadcast as the artists created it.

“It’s my hope that I can create work with a set of ethics and morals that I feel comfortable with,” Montondo added. “That’s why self-producing is so important to me. I think that’s just the way the best art gets made.”

The history of the art form is also important to Montondo. “Drag was born out of trans women—mostly trans women of color—who had the need to perform as their female self. I don’t know that the commercial world is necessarily ready to hear that story (yet). I think that there’s more work to be done to get the stories of trans women out there.”

Mark Montondo as Ms. Golden Delicious.

Montondo explained that the start of transgender activism is often tied to the Compton’s Cafeteria riot of 1966 in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. The event was a response against persistent and sometimes violent police harassment of drag queens and trans people in the city, preceding the famous Stonewall Riots in New York City by several years.

“There’s a lot of stories to be told about queer history,” Montondo continued. “While a lot of people are interested in talking about drag and its cultural influences on a lot of different communities, there’s a lack of historical documentation—especially from the 1980s, ‘90s and Aughts—because of the AIDS crisis,” he explained. “I think we lost a lot of the people able to tell those stories, but we’re fortunate that there are many videos and recordings from that era.” Montondo added that, as a result of the pause in live performance due to COVID, a growing number of drag performers have taken to podcasting to help detail the oral history of the art form as first-hand primary resources.

“A lot of the new scholarship about drag ends up stemming out of Queer theory and performance scholars who discuss nightlife traditions or drag performance,” Montondo said. He cited Dr. Kareem Khubchandani at Tufts University as an authority. “Dr. Khubchandani recently came to UB and did a lecture and performance as his drag persona LaWhore Vagistan. He does a lot of work about the impact of drag performance on the Desi subculture of gay men (in India) who have their own nightlife to celebrate their queerness. It’s a hot, emerging topic in academia, which means there’s a lot of directions to take it in.”

Last semester Montondo wrote a grant to support the creation of a work similar to his adult-themed GOOD JOB! show, but geared primarily towards queer families. “It would be for queer couples or those with a young child who has expressed any kind of queer identity, to help forge inter-generational queer relationships because of the devastation that the AIDS crisis had on the community. My generation doesn’t have queer models to look up to because so many of them died young.”

Mark Montondo as Ms. Golden Delicious.

“I’ve felt really at home at UB in my time there so far,” Montondo said. “There are a couple of generations represented on the (THD) faculty, so we do have young professors who have gone through their doctorate programs in a post-gay marriage and post-Black Lives Matter world. I’d like to be a part of a faculty theatre program so that it’s a more diverse space than the one I experienced in my early studies.”

Many people are curious about how long it takes Montondo to transform into his alter-ego Ms. Golden Delicious. In the beginning Montondo said his pre-show routine was a four-hour process, seeking “perfection,” but now he can get ready in an hour. “I had a Sunday brunch drag show that I did in Queens for almost three years and I was waking up at 8 a.m. Sunday every week, so I can literally almost do it in my sleep,” he said with a smile.

Getting into character, “It feels like it happens in steps. A lot of queens say they don’t feel like they’re in drag until they put their eyelashes on, because they’re so heavy and change the way your eyes feel. At first I definitely felt that if I wasn’t in heels or cinched in tight (via corset), I didn’t feel like a girl. The wig is another big one. Once you have that on your head moves completely differently. It is very interesting to feel the transformation happening.”

Montondo returned to the live stage as Ms. Golden Delicious this summer, performing at Buffalo venues like Nietzsche’s nightclub, Club Marcella and Breezy Burrito Bar. He also presented his paper “Moments in the Woods: Gay Cruising, Into the Woods and AIDS” on the Bruce Kirle Memorial Debut Panel in Musical Theatre/Dance at the 2021 Association for Theatre in Higher Education Conference. Montondo is now revising that work for publication in Studies in Musical Theatre in early 2022. “To return to the stage, as well as share my research this summer has been a welcome opportunity to put my work at UB into practice.”

For more information on Mark Montondo’s work as a performing artist, songwriter, and theatre producer visit: www.msgoldendelicious.com.