World famous drag queen Jinkx Monsoon recently had the honor of meeting a very special fan: a six-year-old drag queen named Star Spangled Banner. “When I asked how old she was, she said ‘44,’” Monsoon recalls, beaming with maternal pride. Monsoon's response: "‘Are you and I the same person?’”
And where did this tender scene transpire? No, not in the nightmares of conservative Republicans, but rather Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre following a recent performance of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Chicago, where Monsoon is currently making her Broadway debut starring as Matron “Mama” Morton through March 12.
This anecdote illuminates why Monsoon’s star turn is not merely fabulous (though fabulous it is, to be clear). In a show accustomed to all sorts of celebrity stunt casting, Monsoon’s hits different in a moment that is seeing a disturbing trend of legislation and political action across the country aimed at hindering LGBTQ artists—specifically trans and drag performers.
An imaginary conservative narrative would have you believe that drag queens performing for children could warp them for life. In reality, a six-year-old got to see a world-class Broadway musical and was empowered to live their truth, to be exactly as fabulous as they want to be—no matter what “traditional society” has to say about it. What used to make kids feel lonely, weird, and othered has now, thanks to figures like Monsoon, become something to be revered.
“There should be more drag queens on Broadway,” says Monsoon emphatically. “There should be more trans people on Broadway. There should be more flaming, nelly, unapologetically queer people on Broadway. There should be more non-binary people on Broadway. I see from my limited scope that that’s the direction we’re headed in.”
Though the theatre industry certainly has work still to do, she’s not wrong. Theatre has long been pretty hospitable to the LGBTQ+ community and the art of drag, as anyone who’s seen the likes of Hairspray, La Cage Aux Folles, Torch Song Trilogy, Angels in America, or Kinky Boots (among many others) can attest. But Monsoon’s performance still feels different. Broadway is no stranger to drag roles, but having a real-life drag queen is far more rare.
But then Drag Race queens are not just drag queens. The competition reality show has become a surprise mainstream (and Emmy-winning) hit over its 14 years, propelling many of its contestants to international renown. None more, perhaps, than Monsoon who, as the recently crowned “Queen of All Queens,” holds the distinction of being the only contestant in Drag Race herstory to win both a standard and All-Stars season.
She’s not the first RuPaul girl to make it to the Main Stem. Monsoon’s performance in Chicago follows in the stiletto-heeled footsteps of fellow Drag Race alum Peppermint, who made history as the first openly trans woman to originate a principal role on Broadway, starring in the 2018 Go-Go’s jukebox musical Head Over Heels. Monsoon, who is non-binary, hopes that she and Peppermint are just the beginning—and she’s naming names when it comes to who she thinks should be next. “BenDeLaCreme, Bob the Drag Queen, Alaska, Trixie, Bianca—these are just some of the most talented performers I know and they all have different strengths and skills,” Monsoon says. “They’re drag queens. We do everything as good as anyone else—We just do it in drag.”
For Monsoon, this Broadway turn isn’t just a drag dream. It’s a true full-circle moment for a self-proclaimed “theatre kid.” “I started doing drag because I wanted more chances to perform,” Monsoon reflects. “I think that’s probably the connecting thread, that if you’re a drag queen or a theatre kid, you’re just looking for every chance to get on stage. And if you’re both, that doubles your chances.”
Now bear with us, but things are about to get meta. We’re talking about Jinkx Monsoon, who is the fabulous drag persona of Jinkx the non-drag person. And one—or both—are now playing the character of prison warden Mama Morton. Where does Monsoon draw the line?
“You still see Jinkx, because I’m in my Jinkx form,” Monsoon explains. “It’s like Jinkx the human is playing Jinkx Monsoon the persona, who then plays Mama Morton. If I’ve done my work right, you are not seeing anything but Mama Morton the character, but you are catching specific Jinkx idiosyncrasies that I bring to the character as a performer.”
In fact, Monsoon says there's no difference between drag and acting, a field that’s not foreign to her. This “theatre kid” starred as Moritz Stiefel in a 2012 Seattle production of Spring Awakening pre-Drag Race fame, and appeared in a concert presentation of Hairspray soon after winning her first crown—but not in the traditionally drag role of Edna Turnblad. Turns out, Jinkx was more of a Velma Von Tussle. “All my acting performances are drag,” says Monsoon. “I felt like I was doing drag when I was playing Moritz because I wasn’t a prepubescent boy. I wasn’t Velma Von Tussle, a middle-aged, female bigot. I had to create the persona that allowed me to step into that character. I feel like all acting is drag, really. You just gotta see it that way.”
Monsoon cites the commedia dell’arte training she received as a theatre major at Cornish College as instrumental in how she finds her characters. “A teacher said, ‘You can either start with the internal and it’ll inform the external, or you can start with the external and it’ll inform the internal.’ We would put on funny outfits and see how the outfits made us walk and see how that informed the way our character talked,” explains Monsoon. “I realized Jinkx is the same as that. When I put on the full costume, that’s doing 50 percent of the work for me.” When it comes to Chicago, Monsoon is getting to bring some of her trademark style to the part. “[The producers] hired my designer to create my corset knowing that this is a very important part of my drag body and thus part of my process.”
She also says that Drag Race fans might just recognize part of where she’s been finding her Mama: actor Natasha Lyonne. The Orange is the New Black star was one of the celebrities Monsoon hilariously inhabited in her most recent round of Snatch Game, the fan-favorite challenge that sees Drag Race contestants doing their best celebrity impersonations in an absurd, campy Match Game-style game show. Drag Race stars are regularly made from Snatch Game wins, and Monsoon is a bona fide Snatch Game legend. Beyond being one of only a handful of queens to win the challenge on both a regular and All-Stars season of Drag Race, her performances as Lyonne, Grey Gardens’ Little Edie, and film icon Judy Garland are among the most beloved in the reality show’s entire 14-year run.
That Snatch Game expertise makes playing Mama Morton a no-brainer (the character’s Mae West-inspired anthem, “When You’re Good To Mama” was already a favorite of Monsoon’s to perform at her drag shows). “I think of Mama as this very streetwise, scrappy survivor who also exudes femininity,” shares Monsoon. “She’s Mama. She’s matronly, but she’s also described as butch, and her nickname is Diesel. When I thought about all of that, I was like, ‘Who gives me Mama vibes? My pal, Natasha Lyonne!’ I just was so inspired by this person who I think is so multifaceted and so captivating, and so much of what I wanted to bring to my portrayal of Mama.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Monsoon is happy as a clam starring on Broadway, and hopes it’s the beginning of a long career there. “I would love to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd,” she reveals. “I just know that I could do really good things with that character. And then there’s The Witch in Into the Woods. Any witch, actually.”
Luckily, that might just be in the cards, as long as producers are paying attention to grosses. Since Monsoon made her debut in Chicago January 16, the long-running revival has seen a notable uptick in box office receipts—and butts in seats—even as much of Broadway struggles with the dreaded-but-inescapable winter slump.
Monsoon isn’t surprised. She’s been performing for what she affectionately calls “drag happy” audiences since beginning her drag career as an after-school job in high school—yes, while the rest of us were punching in at McDonald’s and The Gap, Monsoon was cinching her waist and picking out lace fronts. She’s well acquainted with screaming, often drunk, audiences—and she loves it.
“What feels really amazing is that Chicago gave me this opportunity—and then the audience has fucking showed up and delivered like I knew they would,” Monsoon kvells. “I am so proud of my community, and I am so proud that this production took a chance on me.” And she hopes producers are taking note: “Aren’t you glad you took the chance? See how we show up for each other?”
Monsoon says the new energy has been a happy surprise for the entire Chicago company. Broadway audiences are almost always loving and warm, but it’s no secret that the crowds at longer-running productions (Chicago is Broadway’s second longest–running show at 26 years and counting) tend to become less audible with their reactions. Suffice it to say, that isn’t the experience at the Ambassador these days.
“There’s a moment at the beginning of the second act before the entr’acte when I come out and I introduce the conductor and the band,” says Monsoon. “One night, I pull out my pocket watch to do this little bit I do in that moment, and someone from the audience yells, ‘Yeah, check that watch, BITCH!’”
And readers—she did.