“I’ve done all of the tours, and I have never smelled this much cocoa butter,” Bob the Drag Queen told the Thursday night crowd at Brooklyn’s sold-out Roulette Intermedium. “We’re in fucking Nubia!”
The March 5 world premiere of Nubia, the all-new touring drag revue and celebration of “opulence, regality, and pure, unadulterated Black excellence,” attracted a racially mixed audience of LGBTQIA+ folx and allies. But up onstage under a projection reading “Black Queens Matter” stood six superstar Black drag performers best known from their time competing on RuPaul’s Drag Race: Nubia founder and season-one winner BeBe Zahara Benet; season-eight winner Bob the Drag Queen; season nine’s Peppermint and Shea Couleé; and season ten’s Monique Heart and the Vixen. Taking the mic, BeBe teasingly assured that while Nubia was by and for queens of color, “There are a lot of Caucasians behind the scenes making this shit happen. They’re working for us, okay?” The crowd — which included fellow Drag Race favorites Trinity the Tuck, Aja, Miz Cracker, and Jiggly Caliente — went wild.
After a show-stopping 90 minutes of original music, group choreography, video installations, live vocals and lip syncs, and narrative-driven performance art — a realized manifestation of eight months’ labor — it was hard not to share in the queens’ elation. When Bob implored the masses standing on the floor and sitting in the balcony to turn to their neighbors and say, “Welcome to Nubia,” the closing minutes of the show held a church-like, peace-be-with-you moment of communion.
In other words, Nubia felt special. It’s no surprise that it went on to have two more sold-out shows this weekend and has announced a Los Angeles transfer performance May 1 at the Teragram Ballroom, with a larger tour to come.
“I had always wanted to do a show of girls of color, a show that showcased diversity,” BeBe says, speaking with Vulture in the days leading up to Nubia’s premiere. “At the end of the day, I come from a culture and an upbringing where you create your own path. There is no seat at the table for you? You create your own opportunity.”
But Nubia really began coming together over a post-performance dinner in Minneapolis between BeBe, Monique, and Peppermint where the “sister conversation” soon turned to their shared roots in Drag Race, its fandom, and the opportunities afforded — and not afforded — to Black alum of the Emmy-winning drag competition series.
“We all quickly came to the conclusion that the spaces reserved for Black queens are very limited,” Peppermint says. She cites how in her and many others’ experience, the major drag tours book Black queens disproportionately less than their white peers, and that that imbalance is seen in various ways throughout the fandom. “The attention a lot of the time is not put on Black queens. And so this tour was birthed out of the frustration and the need to highlight talent in an equal way.”
Monique Heart says that while “queens of color generally in high disproportions don’t get booked for the same opportunities,” what attracted her to BeBe’s proposal was the opportunity to produce her own show from the ground up. The queens featured in Nubia this weekend cut out middle-man promoters like Voss Events, the agency behind Drag Race offshoots like the Werq the World Tour and DragCon, and put their own money on the line to get Nubia up and running, hiring their own dancers and technicians, booking their own space — the list goes on. Ownership as an entertainer, Heart says, is paramount.
“The whole end game for me is how can I make money when I’m sleeping —amen — and how can I work with my sisters?” Monique says, nodding admiringly to Drag Race creator and host RuPaul. “RuPaul is a genius. She is a lovely mother, and if you watch her and watch how she’s made these money moves, she’s had multiple streams of income coming in — and I can tell you that no other tour company is offering that to any of the Drag Race girls, but specifically to girls of color.”
Of course, a limited scope of opportunities for financial and professional growth based on race is not unique to the world of drag, but “it affects us in drag, too,” Peppermint says. “If we have a society where things are disproportionate in the workplace or in culture in general, it’s going to affect us in drag because drag is a mirror — it’s a distorted mirror, but it’s a mirror nonetheless.”
BeBe says that Nubia has plans to expand beyond Drag Race alum, to include creators without that national platform. But it bears examination that the first stage of the tour is coming at a point in the reality series’ legacy where wider attention is being brought to unconscious bias within the aired edit, and to explicit racism within sects of the fan base.
That’s in part thanks to the Vixen, a featured guest for Nubia’s Brooklyn outings as an extension of her own Black Girl Magic tour. During her season, the young Chicago queen unabashedly called attention to the racial dynamics among the contestants, the patterns of the “angry black girl” edit in post, and the hypocritical expectations of the call-and-response between white and Black contestants. (The latter had her memorably going toe-to-toe with RuPaul at the reunion before she walked off set.)
“When I kind of rung the bell on Drag Race, a lot of alumni and queens around the world were relieved and validated and came out of the woodwork and echoed my sentiments, which I wasn’t expecting. But it definitely proved that what I was experiencing was age-old and tried-and-true,” the Vixen says. “Even if you didn’t like what I said, you heard me.”
In the midst of season ten’s run, Bob the Drag Queen also drew attention to how there were no Black drag queens except for RuPaul with over 1 million followers on Instagram, tweeting that “a lot of the most popular queens fall into the thin white category … It’s not the show. It’s the fandom.” (Bob and others have since cracked the million follower count.)
And as far as racist online rhetoric from the fans, the queens of Nubia tell Vulture that they’ve experienced it themselves. “I don’t think any of us have not been subject to that,” BeBe says.
But while this is the world that Nubia falls into, as intended by its producers and stars, at no point does it bend to the “underdog black girl” narrative, as Monique puts it. “That is what’s always preached,” she says. “And what Nubia is is we are inviting you into our space and allowing you to experience who we are, which is Black royalty.”
Bob says that Monique’s assessment is “a true representation of what this show is. It’s not about, ‘We need representation because we’re black and people don’t like us.’ It is, ‘We deserve this attention. We work hard for it.’ And I’m glad that it’s happening. Everything that we do isn’t necessarily in response to white people. Some of it is just a celebration of ourselves in and of ourselves.”
When staged at the historic Roulette Intermedium this weekend, that celebration ultimately showcased an array of experiences, individuality, and at times touching sincerity from Nubia’s founding ensemble. Monique played fairy godmother to a young queer boy (with puppeteering to match); Peppermint sang of self-love before demanding audience members “put a dollar in my titty!”; Bob, naturally, walked into the room purse first; BeBe cast a full stage of joyous dancers while paying homage to her Cameroonian roots; Vixen rapped her way through an original Chicago Pride track while sporting a Bulls jersey and camouflage cut-offs; and Shea embodied Old Hollywood legends like Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, and Lena Horne while dancing to Beyoncé’s “Welcome to Hollywood.”
Shea says she relished the opportunity to bring such different queens under one roof to stand in solidarity.
“[Black drag queens] are often compared to each other. We’re not allowed to stand as individuals. We’re very much still put into certain boxes and they expect certain performance styles.”
While Nubia is “an opportunity for us to show a lot of variety without us having to rely on any type of archetype,” she adds that beyond the show, it shouldn’t fall to Black entertainers to solve the more deep-seated issues they’ve all been witness to.
“This is something that I do find myself thinking about a lot,” she says. “What’s happening is the responsibility of those questions are put on the people of color — and it’s not us that have the problem. So I think it’s really more so about white people and people with privilege understanding and speaking out on behalf of black and brown people, because we’re not the ones perpetuating negative energy that therefore oppresses people. We are the people who are trying to overcome these adversities.”
Bob echoes Shea, saying that step No. 1 for non-Black audiences to help the cause may well be to buy a ticket to Nubia and experience it for themselves. “You come and see the show, and if you like it, just celebrate Blackness wherever you are by having conversations about where we are and celebrate what it felt like in a Black space surrounded by Black people.” On a personal level, it’s a feeling Bob doesn’t take for granted.
“When you have these professional experiences that are mostly Black, it’s just such a great, positive impact. It’s a wonderful feeling. Honestly? It feels like Wakanda. It feels like Blackness is being celebrated for what it’s good at, not being talked about for what it’s lacking.”