Almost every American city now has an annual Outfest, which celebrates art about gender, sexuality and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex culture. But Philadelphia is where it all began.
In 1988, Dr. Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary founded National Coming Out Day to commemorate the second march on Washington for gay and lesbian rights. Outfest soon followed as a way to honor NCOD.
The mission of NCOD is to encourage closeted LGBTQI individuals to openly express their sexuality and raise awareness of the lasting inequalities still prevalent in the United States and worldwide.
Philadelphia was the first city to popularize NCOD with its mirthful block party extravaganza. Since then, the city has been home to the largest Outfest parties that attract more than 20,000 people.
When looking at the city’s arts scene, it’s no surprise that Philly’s gay denizens host the most populated Outfest. Philadelphia is renowned as a hub for the arts and for being obsessed with fringe venues. Outfest allows the gay community to showcase its multifarious talents in these already existing areas.
Amid the eclectic cast of performers and artisans participating in this year’s Outfest, one group in particular has forged a new path for performance art during the last 12 years. The Dumpsta Players, a trash-glitz drag troupe, comprised of both homosexuals and heterosexuals, has displayed its madcap style of drag at Outfest since 2004.
“Burlesque, vaudeville, sketch, improv, environmental, performance art – you name it,” said Ricky Paul, founder of the Dumpsta Players. “The Dumpsta Players borrow from the old, but they are way post-modern, like modern dance bringing camp and mixing genres.”
Like most good ideas, the Dumpsta Players’ conception was coincidental. It resulted more from the zany fringe tastes of Paul’s friends and groupies, than from any incubated idea of his.
“I started a DJ night at Bob and Barbara’s as DJ K-Tell in 1996. I had been spinning parties around town for a few years. I played all ‘70s and ‘80s music, so naturally, my freak friends showed up and wanted to play,” he said. “A few months later, we [had a mock theme party]. And thus, PromTrash and the Dumpsta Players were born.”
Since the Dumpsta Players’ first performance in 1997, its theatrical antics have evolved into over-the-top parodies that portray the joys and ills of society. Throughout it all, the troupe has kept music from the ‘80s and ‘90s alive and well.
Despite the group’s clamor, members are well-received by the community. At PrideDay in 2004, the Dumpsta Players won an award for best drag.
“Winning was really cool, when you consider we were competing with all that traditional drag,” Paul said.
This year, Paul and his troupe will perform a ‘90s drag show, titled Nine Inch ‘90s.
It’s a topsy-turvy show filled with hits from the ‘90s, which is pumped up with celebrity showdowns between starlet divas like Whitney Houston and Madonna and the grunge boy bands, like Green Day and Nine Inch Nails.
The Dumpsta Players is different from other drag troupes because actors address serious issues in skits, without squelching the glittery pandemonium expected of drag revues. They keep it classy, while also writhing wildly.
Members in the Dumpsta Players are exemplars of the trailblazing spirit for the arts that continue to define and evolve in the Philadelphia gay community.
“I’ve really noticed a big change in recent years where legit theatre companies are moving in this direction,” Paul said. “Did we pioneer something? Yes!”
Aaron Stella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.