When Kevin Billups—perhaps better known as drag queen Lala Luzious—first got interested in drag during his college days, he didn’t know any other Black performers. Really, he didn’t know any other performers.
“It was such a struggle,” Billups says. “I started in 2006, before RuPaul’s Drag Race came out—and the reason I say that is because now there’s so much material on how to do drag, and there’s resources now that I just did not have. So at first it was me and YouTube, but that was also a struggle because if there was stuff available, it was usually with a white queen, and I’m Black.”
Billups went to Wabash College, a tiny all-men’s school in Crawfordsville, Indiana—not exactly a thriving hub for drag in the early 2000s. Once he started, he craved a drag-centered community that wasn’t even close to existing.
“The funny thing was, I actually didn’t even want to do drag at first,” he says. “But we wanted to have a drag show at my school, and if the school was going to pay for it a student had to do it. And our Gay Straight Alliance was, like, two gay guys and a bunch of straight guys, who were very supportive but obviously weren’t about to do some drag.”
Billups ended up doing the show and falling in love with drag, eventually transforming into Lala Luzious and entering contests and performing professionally in Indiana and, later, the Twin Cities. A year ago, he founded Power, a BIPOC-focused drag group—something he wishes he had when he was starting out.
“I always felt that there wasn’t enough representation in drag communities,” he says. “I feel this way here now; I felt that way in Indiana. For such, such, such a long time, we were invisible.”
He says he spent the first few years of his career in Minnesota as one of the only entertainers of color in the shows he performed in, and wanted to raise up other performers who may not have had as many opportunities.
He founded Power in June of 2021, after a few regular drag shows that had consistently performed at LGBTQ soccer bar the Black Hart opted not to continue after pandemic closures. Black Hart had an open spot, and Power slotted in.
“Two and a half years into the Black Hart, the pandemic hit, and we had no shows,” Black Hart owner Wes Burdine says. “But perhaps most importantly, it was the uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder that prompted me to sit down with several of the Black performers at the bar. Almost all of our show leaders were white, and while we had a diverse group of performers, it was very evident that we needed to be proactive about elevating and giving platforms to more people.”
And it turned out to be the perfect fit. “That first Friday show came back in June 2021 was such an emotional time,” Burdine says. “We didn’t know if the bar would survive. We didn’t know if we would have any performers on our stage again. And suddenly we’re back and there were so many deep, conflicting emotions all coming together. Here we are, we’re back, we’re alive, and here comes Lala: big, bold, and so full of joy.”
Currently, Power performs monthly at Black Hart (every first Friday at 10 p.m.), but the group has also put on shows at Pride and is planning a drag brunch at downtown Minneapolis’s Ties Rooftop and Lounge in September. Lala Luzious hosts, and a rotating cast performs. “It’s pretty much whatever people want to do, whatever their best work is, that’s what I want them to bring,” Billups says.
The shows might include circus performers, burlesque, live singing, drag kings and male entertainers, and, eventually, standup comedy.
“Even if some drag shows share similar performers, each show takes on a different personality,” Burdine says. “Power isn’t just about Lala’s forceful personality, but it shares her confidence and really celebratory mood. It’s about projecting that beautiful, sexy confidence of drag.”
But behind that confidence lies a twinge of worry: Despite Power’s success at Black Hart, the group is struggling to succeed in other venues. Their first brunch at Ties, which was supposed to take place in July, was cancelled due to low ticket sales.
Billups wonders if the reason stems from being a predominantly BIPOC cast and team. “Power has been going on for a year, and I’ve been able to produce casts that are mixed, but primarily POC,” he says. “If you look at, probably, 12 months for most other performing venues in the city, you’ll see in the cast that there’s only one or two people of color, and sometimes their experience is tokenized. I don’t really know what the problem is, because if I did I’d have a better grip on solving it.”
The pandemic squashed months of competitions, shows, and other chances for people to learn about and get into drag, but Billups thinks the problem also lies deeper than that. Billups worries about the next generation of performers not finding enough support in Minnesota—especially entertainers of color, who predominantly created the ballroom culture that gave way to drag before it went mainstream, as depicted in the TV show Pose or the documentary Paris is Burning.
“I think where the problem comes in for an entertainer of color is when you look to the people that are, quote-unquote, successful, the ratio of POC to white entertainers isn’t necessarily reflective of all the talent that’s here,” he says. “And I’m a person who learns by watching, right? So if I’m looking around and I see mostly white entertainers, there’s less of an opportunity for me to learn and grow than there would be for someone else….If we aren’t creating opportunities and creating space within the community for them to develop themselves, there won’t be anyone left.”
But if Billups—and the rest of Power—has anything to say about it, that’s not going to happen. The group is committed to bringing more opportunities forth, and celebrating what the drag community could look like here in the Twin Cities: full of talented performers from diverse backgrounds, all of whom bring something new and special to the stage.
Catch Power at Ties Lounge and Rooftop on September 17, and at the Black Hart every first Friday. For more info, follow the group on Instagram, @powerdragmn.