Alexandria has been in the Triangle drag scene for nine years. In this time, she has witnessed the rise and fall of various queens and clubs, but one problem has persisted: the exclusion of Black and brown femme talent. As curator of Body Party, a celebration for, by and about Black and brown trans femmes held at Ruby Deluxe in Raleigh, Alexandria often visits shows across the Triangle to scope out new talent.
Last year, Shipshowz caught Alexandria’s eye. Not only did this collective of Southern queers develop from the ground up in a matter of months and centers people of color, trans and nonbinary performers. Alexandria, who identifies as a Black trans woman, said she looks to support drag groups like Shipshowz whenever she can because they are essential safe spaces in a drag scene largely dominated by white cisgender male performers.
Founded by Duke alumna Miss B. Haven, Trinity ‘18, and Jaylan Rhea, Shipshowz is more than just an outlet for drag performances: It is a transcendental performance showcase and a symbolic statement — a vision of radical queer liberation and of a world unbound by capitalist self-gratification.
Miss B. Haven, who prefers they/them pronouns when referring to the past and she/her pronouns when referring to the present, described her years at Duke as foundational to her work with Shipshowz. Through their exposure to the queer community on campus, their involvement in Duke Men’s Project and role as Mezcla Chair for campus Latinx group Mi Gente, they explored their own identity and acquired the language to speak about issues of race, gender and class.
“I came to Duke from Fort Worth, Texas, and I had a very specific view of the world,” Miss B. Haven said. “When I got to Duke, just seeing other queer people was really beautiful for me … Duke was this bubble where I was able to explore myself in the ways I felt comfortable.”
Though their interest in their classes waned, Miss B. Haven graduated from Duke with a B.S. in Economics, ready to enter the nonprofit world. After difficulties finding a job, they decided to become an entrepreneur, running their own plant-based skincare business out of the Mothership, a now-closed co-working space in downtown Durham. During this time, Miss B. Haven developed a friendship with Rhea, a photographer who supported their blossoming drag career. However, the two soon noticed the exclusivity of the local drag scene.
“I wasn’t comfortable with the language used around [drag performances] and the idea of ‘amateur’ shows,” Miss B. Haven said. “And I wasn’t getting booked. As someone already on a journey as an entrepreneur, I similarly started thinking, ‘Well, I’m not getting booked anywhere, so I’m going to go ahead and book myself.’ The Mothership offered us the opportunity to plan and host events there.”
In September 2019, Shipshowz held its inaugural performance in The Mothership’s backroom. In successive shows, what initially looked like a garage was transformed with the help of local artists to create themes like “Holigays,” “Slumber Party'' and “Venus.” By the time COVID-19 halted in-person gatherings in March, Shipshowz had cemented itself as a popular Durham outlet for other-worldly drag performances.
But not every drag collective has a manifesto.
Shipshowz operates under a community-minded vision — a “manifesto” — drafted and relayed by Miss B. Haven. It states the “common desire” of the collective is “to bring light to the array of life possibilities available through radical queer liberation.” It also outlines principles such as “expansive creative expression,” “radical queer liberation” and “affirming community-building.”
The practice of open set is essential to this vision. Where many drag venues place barriers on performance (using labels like “amateur” and restricting performers to a narrow conception of drag), Shipshowz encourages newcomers to participate in open sets, where, according to the manifesto, they can practice “any and all mediums of performance, as long as they are respectful of others both inside and outside the space.” Rhea cited a New York City trip with Miss. B Haven last summer as the inspiration for open sets.
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“In New York we saw a different form of drag that was more free and less restrictive of what drag was supposed to be,” Rhea said. “It wasn’t a competition. It was a free expression. I wanted to create a space like that here.”
Since quarantine began in mid-March, Shipshowz has transitioned to virtual programming on Instagram live. Miss B. Haven is also working on the collective’s online branding and exploring how Shipshowz could potentially operate as a non-profit organization.
While The Mothership’s closing dealt an emotional blow to Miss B. Haven and other members of the Durham community, she described Shipshowz as independent of the now defunct co-working space. As their online 'Web Glam' series proved, Shipshowz has built a community that transcends physical boundaries. Whether located at The Mothership or another venue, Shipshowz will continue to provide, through its radically liberating, inclusive shows, a model of an alternative world, one led with empathy and unmarred by the inequalities wrought by capitalism.
But what does it mean for Shipshowz to take an anti-capitalist stance in a capitalist world? Performers and organizers, like anyone, still need to eat, pay the bills and have some disposable income left over if they want to live healthily and fully. They still need money. Shipshowz as an organization must exist within the framework of capitalism to keep its community alive and well.
However, the democratic, inclusive nature of Shipshowz and its active community engagement stand in stark contrast to today’s corporate model, where wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a select few. For the span of a showcase, performers and spectators, engrossed in outrageous imaginary worlds, can imagine a community outside of capitalism and its engrained structures — outside of the patriarchy, wage labor and constricting social constructs.
The impact of Shipshowz is personal too. Since quarantine began, Alexandria has started performing on Instagram live for Shipshowz. She expressed gratitude for the platform Shipshowz has provided individuals like herself.
“I can’t say it enough,” Alexandria said. “Black trans lives matter. It’s beautiful to see places that give trans people a chance to have that spark of joy — even if it’s only for a minute, five minutes or an hour. I want to thank Miss B. Haven for creating an environment where trans people of different color can showcase their talent and be themselves. It’s something that’s taken for granted.”
Editor's note: While this story highlights an emergent drag collective, Shipshowz, it fails to acknowledge the hard work and success of the many other prominent Durham drag collectives that have long fostered radical and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ BIPOC individuals, including the House of Coxx, which Recess has featured in the past. These Durham drag collectives have no doubt paved the way for the visibility of the Triangle drag scene and LGBTQ community and are integral members of the Durham community as a whole. The Chronicle regrets this error.