The singer and actress Natalie Douglas welcomes increased attention to race, but said, “We’ll have to see going forward how much of it is performative. There are plenty of times where I get an email or release inviting me to an event where there are many performers but not a single person of color, or maybe one.”
Cabaret storytelling is often personal, and expanding its viewpoint only makes the art richer, explained Telly Leung, the son of Chinese immigrants. “I always find cabaret is best when people can share their own unique stories, and race is a part of that,” he said. “When you have people paying top dollar to see big names in high-end cabaret, you have to ask yourself why there aren’t more BIPOC among those big names.” (Douglas and Leung are both featured in the Birdland series.)
Representing a range of voices is crucial at Don’t Tell Mama, which has maintained an outdoor piano bar with a singing bartender since Phase 1 of reopening — and added a singing wait staff during Phase 2. “It’s our mission to be able to house emerging Latinx musical theater voices,” said its general manager Joshua Fazeli, citing the drag queen Lagoona Bloo and the nonbinary singer Castrata as examples. “Their message is urgent: We are not just here, we are queer and Brown, and we bring substantial value to the cabaret canon.”
At Pangea, the veteran performance artist Penny Arcade started developing “Invitation to the End of the World PT 2: Notes From the Underground” in February, and now considers its title prescient. “The situation under Covid is what we’ve been fearful of since the ’60s,” she said. “We knew if there wasn’t a roping in of corporate greed, of governmental disinterest, we’d have this kind of epic crisis.”
Pangea’s “The Ghost Light Series,” aiming to livestream this fall, will also feature the satirical singer Tammy Faye Starlite channeling the Trump spiritual adviser Paula White-Cain, and the queer song cycle “Different Stars: A Reckoning with Time, Trauma and Consequence,” for which the performer and composer Karl Saint Lucy crafted a narrative frame casting the Black artist James Jackson Jr. as a character who spends his time in quarantine watching Netflix and reflecting on a breakup.
For Douglas, “One benefit of all this is that we’re finding new ways to be creative, to get our ya-yas out.” While, like others, she greatly misses the presence of a live audience, she was inspired shortly before her Birdland session, when she watched the British drag artist La Voix perform an exhilarating concert online. “My husband said to me, ‘Do what La Voix did.’ The audience is there — they’re just on the other side of the camera.”