I think I’ve fallen in love. With Nebraska.
When I was invited to be a feature performer for Wayne State College PRIDE’s “Cancer is a Drag” show, I had no problem saying yes. I’d get to see a very dear friend who I haven’t seen face-to-face in nearly a decade and I would get to share the stage with one of my favorite celebrity performers, JuJubee from RuPaul’s Drag Race and Drag U. And let’s face it – I’m an attention whore. I’ll go pretty much anywhere. I’ve done a show at the armory in Crookston, MN; people in camouflage were cleaning their guns while we were doing the setup. If you have a ribbon you need cut, I’ll bring my own fucking scissors. I love it! So I was ready to throw some big hair in the car and hit the road. I never had any problem saying “yes” to the show. What I didn’t expect was to be quite so charmed by the town of Wayne itself.
The group that put on the show was WSC’s PRIDE (People Respecting Individuals, Diversity, and Equality); the group also put together a Q&A panel with myself and two of the other feature performers, Coco Nuttz and Tygra Slarii. I was surprised that almost 30 people attended this event, and that most of them had really interesting questions about what it was like to be a drag performer. The students I met at Wayne State all seemed very engaged and active. My friend Ron, a professor at WSC, grumbled that most of the students were too active, saying, “There’s always some activity, something going on, so they don’t have to do their homework.” So often, students are overburdened with homework and jobs and have minimal time for involvement with extra activities, not to mention the general apathy that seems to be growing among a large number of college students, but not at WSC. The students I met in the PRIDE group were very active and organized, and they ran the shit out of their event. Every detail was covered and nothing got overlooked. Give them enough money and minions, and those kids could take over the world.
The show itself was fantastic. JuJubee was amazing, so generous with her time and attention and she put on a fantastic show. Omaha was represented by two pretty fierce queens, Coco Nuttz and Tygra Slarii, and there were also a number of student and community performers. One of the amateurs, Miss Swift Hips, really impressed me. He wasn’t a budding drag queen; he was a straight guy from the WSC men’s basketball team who wanted to show his support for the PRIDE group and their event, and he took it seriously. It could have very easily become a caricature of what straight men might think about femininity, but instead it became a really great moment for the campus. Most of the WSC men’s and women’s basketball teams came out to support him in his performance, and they stayed for the whole event, cheering and clapping and tipping. The audience as a whole was so enthusiastic and excited about the show, it really was a wonderful feeling to experience as a performer. That they filled a 500-seat ballroom with excited and welcoming people is wonderful; that they did this in a community of only about 5600 people is almost unbelievable. That’s the kind of community I want to know more about.
My friend Melanie runs the Majestic, a restored movie theater that operates as a non-profit and features amazing projection and sound. In addition to showing second-run features (and sometimes first-run, for some of the bigger blockbusters), the theater provides a place for community events and productions by the Wayne community theatre group. Melanie teaches a horror film class at WSC and will show movies for her students at the theater; I joined her class for a screening of the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Draculawith Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves. It was better than I remember it being in high school, except that Keanu Reeves still couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. I just kept waiting for “Dude!” to come out of his wooden and blandly expressionless face. The Majestic is just one of the many highlights of Wayne’s adorable and quite active downtown. Rustic Treasures, one of the “Cancer is a Drag” event sponsors, is this fabulous little vintage and consignment shop a block down from the Majestic. It’s like thrift store meets boutique with a dash of garage sale, and just a touch of legit antique store to keep the mix fresh and interesting. There are carefully planned displays and random collections of items tucked away in every corner. You never know what you’re going to find when you round a corner or peek at a high shelf, and I headed home with more than a couple new “treasures” keeping the wigs company in the trunk. Mark and Lucas, the owners, are an adorable couple who have a rainbow Obama sticker behind the register and a poster for the drag show in their front window, and they seem to have become part of the fabric of Wayne in a way that some might find almost unbelievable in small town Nebraska (the city’s webpage lists the 2010 population at 5663, though how much of that number are students isn’t clear). The largest shopping options are the ShopKo and the Pak N Save, with the nearest Walmart about 40 minutes away in Sioux City, Iowa.
There aren’t a ton of food options in Wayne, but I did have a couple of noteworthy culinary experiences. I had a delicious cake donut at Vel’s Bakery, a great old cafe with a light green tile exterior straight out of an old 50s tv show. The place was about half-full of locals discussing current events over coffee and pastries. Very Norman Rockwell. I also discovered Runza, a Nebraska-based fast food chain with a few locations expanding into Iowa, Colorado, and Kansas. Runzas are apparently a traditional German sandwich, featuring ground beef, cabbage, and herbs mixed together that is then rolled up in a type of dough and baked. It was delicious and full of ethnic charm, and since we got our sandwiches on “Temperature Tuesday” (a promo where the price for a runza is equal to the temperature that day at 6 am, with purchase of fries and a drink) they were only 8 cents each, $2.87 total for the combo. On the night of the show, the PRIDE group took the performers to dinner at the campus dining center; the food was good, but in what might be some of the worst food PR ever, the dining center is known as “the gag.” Apparently this used to refer to an acronym for something (someone thought it might have been “Great American Gourmet,” though no one seemed to really know for sure) but it doesn’t exactly inspire much enthusiasm for the forthcoming meal.
Then there was Godfather’s Pizza. I had a couple of meals there (I was in Wayne for almost a week, and like I said there aren’t all that many options) and the food was good, pretty typical pizza joint offerings; apparently they are known for their taco pie pizza which wasn’t bad. Though they are becoming much more common, I was still tickled by the soda machine, one of those new touch screen affairs that allow you to have a ridiculous number of options, including a number of fruit flavors that can be added to your usual selections like Coke, Dr. Pepper, and such. I had a peach Mellow Yellow; that’s not a mistake I’d make twice. What really made this restaurant noteworthy for me was that their lunch buffet was only $5, and this included your drink. Seriously? An all-you-can-eat buffet for $5, and I don’t have to pay extra to use the Mix-Master-5000 to get my lime Fanta fix? Mind. Blown. I’m starting to feel a little like Marilyn Hagerty with all this effusive celebration of a pizza chain, but I’m embracing it. What can I say? Big girls love a good, cheap buffet!
In addition to the drag show and the film screening, I was also witness to another of Wayne’s cultural offerings: the annual Penguin Parade. Melanie’s son Owen is in kindergarten, and each year the kindergarten class prepares for the Penguin Parade by learning songs and jokes, studying about penguins, and making paper costumes with wings, penguin-faced crowns, and the occasional bow tie. Even I had a good time, despite my generalized distaste for small children; Owen was super excited to be a penguin and there is just something infectious about children in costumes singing about being a “rock hopper, show stopper” in a penguin song that clearly borrowed as much of Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” as it could without being sued for copyright infringement. The gym was packed for the program at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, demonstrating how seriously the parents in Wayne take their children’s school activities. There was even an alcove just outside the gym with a painted background and papier-mache penguins providing a photo-op for excited parents.
I was absolutely charmed by Wayne. There is a water tower near campus emblazoned with “Wayne America,” and in some ways it’s true. In the few days that I was there, Wayne really seemed to feel like the realization of the promise of small town America: safe neighborhoods, good schools, and a tight-knit community with friendly neighbors. As we were leaving the Penguin Parade, Melanie’s next door neighbor (whose son was also part of the program) stopped her in the hallway to tell her that she wanted to bring supper over for the family. She made a delicious crock pot chili and baked fresh buns and cinnamon rolls. It was all a little bit Stepford Wives for me, but without any malicious intent. It seemed far too good to be true. Nebraska isn’t known for being some kind of liberal haven carved out of the conservative midwest like Missoula, Montana; was I, the outsider, just getting to know a town putting its best face forward, with secret tensions and prejudices boiling underneath? I’m no stranger to repression; North Dakotans cover up much of their conservative distaste for diversity and difference with the pleasant face of “North Dakota Nice,” and it seemed plausible that Wayne, Nebraska was doing the same thing. But I wasn’t finding any discernible cracks in the facade. Melanie had told me about some of the small town politics and personality clashes, about supposed big city sophisticates who move to town and decide they need to “bring some culture” to the presumably unenlightened local yokels. But no one was breaking character; no one said or did anything while I was there to reveal any hostilities or prejudice. Perhaps all this focus on family, on being a good neighbor, and on community pride was allowing Wayne to process through cultural conflict in a much more polite and grounded way, by keeping the focus on the more intimate aspects of life that are the most important. A sort of “live and let live” mentality that was actually working in practice as well as in theory and kept the town free of the types of unfortunate outbursts of hatred so common across this country.
With my car packed and ready to head back home, I stopped at a gas station on the way out of town to fill up and use the restroom. A light snow was beginning to fall, and though I was sad to be leaving the spell this little town had cast over me I wanted to beat the weather and get on the road. As I closed the door of the restroom, I finally found it: evidence that all was not as serene and idyllic as I’d begun to believe. Proof that the citizens of Wayne are just as susceptible to prejudices and fears as anyone, anywhere else. Carved into the back of the door and into the plastic of the toilet paper dispenser were two words: Fuck Beaners. Seeing this slur was disappointing, but it also gave the town more depth. What I had seen up to that point was a magical little getaway town separated from the troubles of the world at large. Quaint and enticing, but ultimately false. Ironically, these words made the people of Wayne more human; after all, being human isn’t just about the best of our natures, but about the spectrum of being from good to bad and everything in between. It’s bringing your neighbor supper just because you felt like it, and it’s carving a racist rant into a bathroom stall. Being human requires us to encounter each other, to see our conflicts and our strengths, our shortcomings and our moments of generosity.
Welcome to America, Wayne.
Tags: Cancer is a Drag, Cancer is a Drag Show, Coco Nuttz, drag king, drag performance, drag queen, Drag Race, drag show, drag troupe, Drag U, Godfather's Pizza, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, JuJubee, Majestic Theater, Majestic Theatre, Penguin Parade, Runza, RuPaul's Drag Race, Rustic Trasures, ShopKo, Stepford Wives, Tygra Slarii, Vel's Bakery, Wayne, Wayne America, Wayne Nebraska, Wayne State College, WSC, WSC PRIDE