First or third Wednesday of any month and you and your friends found yourself in the North East Bay with nothing to do? Hop on the 6 and head on down to the White Horse, the oldest continuously operating LGBT+ bar in the United States. There you’ll find a packed venuw filled with cracking pool balls, the happy buzz of friendly people, and… someone thrusting their fanny pack at you. You look around but the eye contact is unavoidable.
You just met VERA, one of the members of the Bay Area’s largest drag king collective – the Rebel Kings of Oakland. From there, you’ll be eagerly ushered to the back portion of the bar where a large mass, small horde of patrons are gathered around a stage adorned which rainbow flags.
After that– who knows what you’re gonna get. From live singing to kings lobbing candy into the audience, burlesque, gender-fuckery, and more, Rebel Kings brings an open platform to performance artists of all shapes and sizes for what always promises to be a night of humor, intrigue, and quite probably some nudity.
Founded in 2010, Rebel Kings rose up after another king-based show had closed, leaving people hungry for more. Some troupe members reformed, regrouped, and reorganized to – naturally – have their new cohorts name left to fate in an audience-led contest! It now stands proud as the East Bay’s longest running drag king show (run entirely on donations, as their $5-15 door cover is No One Turned Away For Lack Of Funds).
We got to sit down and chat with the collective, which features many Bay Area familiars: Vegas Jake, Randy Puck, Mickey Finn, Joey Gelato, Jota Mercury, and VERA. Also representing RKO, but spreading the king love in other cities are performers International Mr. Leather 2019 Dante Demoan, Stevie Ray, Ray Chill, Andy Topser, Pepe Pan, and many more. The troupe celebrates the memory of brother Logan Cumswell.
RKO hosts an incredibly diverse cast of performers, rotating each show. Why, as a show run by drag kings, do you book burlesquers, vocal artists, dancers, and others?
Rebel Kings has always been about inclusivity and lifting up queer performance. We are proud we can be about drag kings and about creating a space for drag kings to be lifted up simultaneously, while also lifting up performers of all kinds – from live singers to burlesque performers, no matter what gender(s) or any other demographic.
We are also firm believers that all drag is valid; you don’t have to look or identify a certain way to be any kind of performer.
How has the show changed and/or stayed the same since you* started working with them?
VERA : If anything the show has become even more inclusive, loving, queer, creative, valuing of multiple identities, supportive of POC performers, etc. We as a troupe have become more dedicated and organized, because we understand more and more how special and safe our performance space is and how important it is to keep it that way in these times. We have become more popular, with longer waitlists, but also hold this in humility.
Vegas Jake : The show, in the beginning, use to run every Wednesday night each month – if anything, a big change was when we went to twice a month. I don’t know how we did it every week!
Our show has been running for 9 years and even as core members have come and gone, the one thing that was always solid is the show being all about having a safe queer, gender variant space for all to enjoy drag, learn to become a king and to just have fun doing it. New performers and troupe members have brought with them even more diversity than what we had in the beginning. We have grown to be a name out in the community, especially with the write up in the East Bay Express (and with the way that social media has changed a lot since we first started)!
Since I started, the Rebel Kings troupe has stayed the extended family I’ve always wanted in my life.
With the huge boom in interest for booking spots since the East Bay article, The Rebel Kings invite you to the stage, dropped, what has this meant for the Rebel Kings?
First of all, thank you to Melati Citrawireja!
The article has for sure brought more people to our shows, both as audience members and performers. It also emphasized that we are a safe, welcoming space. The fact that that was put forward has brought us more people searching for community as well as baby performers looking to step on stage for the first time, which is really beautiful. It’s an honor to have a waiting list for most shows, and to see the bar packed with diverse and often new faces, together with the regulars!
You’ve recently started a test run of a second show in San Francisco, Rebel Kings a Go-Go. What are some things that sets this show apart from your East Bay one?
It’s such an honor to be able to carve out a little space for kings in the Castro; this show is thanks to our Baltimore-based brother Jack Thompson, who made the introduction for us. This is an all king show because it’s a smaller cast. We also make a very conscious effort to have it be both East Bay and San Francisco-based Kings, especially since San Francisco-based Kings haven’t had a king show across the Bay since Dandy went on hiatus (which we are eagerly looking forward to the return of at the end of December). We also have drag king go-go dancers!
Any glimpses into RKO’s future you can give us? What can we look forward to in the coming months?
We have a lot of neat themes for the next six months, as we do one theme show and one non-theme show every month at our White Horse show. We are also doing drag king workshops now, so we’re looking forward to doing another one of them, as well as doing group numbers at different shows or “takeover” shows and bringing that Rebel Kings love to different spaces.
You can look forward to the same incredible quality of queer performance art that is currently at both our shows; we are cultivating some young kings and delighting in watching them succeed.
The Rebel Kings of Oakland have provided a long-operating home to new and experienced performers alike. The love and encouragement present onstage, offstage, backstage, and quite literally thrust into into the audience is enough to scratch any drag itch you many be having. After having seen with my own two eyes the creativity and comedic genius that this group brings time and time again, I can only leave you with one final word: GO!
Mads Leigh-Faire (he/him) is a freelance theatrical dramaturg, literary assistant, and drag performer. Mads hopes to use Queeries as a platform to educate and engage not only himself but the LGBTQIA+ community with a productive and empathetic dialogue surrounding our hopes, needs, dreams, fears, and accomplishments. They also have a lot of feelings about the sentience of droids in the Star Wars canon.