Super studds, drag queens and an Usher look-alike

Aside from the amazing but hilariously titled ‘Albert Nobbs’ there haven’t been a lot of films examining the lives of women dressing as men.  The 1982 debut of ‘Victor, Victoria’ (a remake of Viktor und Viktoria, a German film of 1933) was the last film of which I know that examined male drag in the context of stage performance.  But for those of us looking for a bird’s eye view into the world of female performers of masculine gender identity, the wait is over. 

From August 10-12, 2012, ‘M.I., A Different Kind of Girl’, a riveting documentary by Leslie Cunningham and Alana Jones, about a little known LGBTQ sub-culture will be showcased at the 2012 North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC.  Recollective producer Jeremy Helton spoke with Leslie and Alana to learn more about the film and the community it documents.

Jeremy: Were there any documentary projects that inspired or informed M.I.?

Leslie: The film was inspired by ‘Paris is Burning’, a 1990 documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston, chronicling the New York City ball culture and the African American and Latino, gay and transgender communities that made it an underground phenomenon. As  (Alana and I) watched ‘Paris is Burning’, just as we read our favorite LGBT news papers, or watch our favorite LGBT movies, we had to ask: where are the voices of lesbian women? Where are the lesbian women of color?

Jeremy: Can you tell me about a couple of the performers in the film?

Alana: Nation Tyre is the film’s primary informant. She is a spirited and passionate male impersonator, born on North Carolina’s rural coast. Nation cut her performing teeth on stages in Atlanta, Georgia, but found the gender categories within their black drag community too confining and, thus, returned to her home state to continue her career as an M.I.- Male Illusionist- freed from pressures to “be” male all the time and empowered to define her own gender identity.  Breyannah Allure and Paris Brooks are title winning North Carolina drag queens and fixtures on the Raleigh LGBT nightclub scene. Breyannah is a self-identified trans woman while Paris is an old-school queen on the ball circuit and member of the House of Brooks.

Jeremy: I had a chance to see a sneak preview of the film and I really love the part where a few of the performers are talking about how they define themselves and their performances.  Was it surprising to you to hear such varied self-definition from what appears to be a pretty rarefied group of people?

Leslie: Absolutely. As we set out on this journey, our first question to each of our informants was “are you transgendered?” and it appeared, in the beginning, that the reluctance to label oneself as such spoke directly to homophobia within the black community and fear  among our informants of being too queer within their black gay communities even as LGBT communities gain recognition in the mainstream popular consciousness.However, we quickly learned that our assumptions were flawed. The discourse must be more nuanced, and, in fact, the boxes our informants refused to inhabit were defined by both straight and gay, the marginalized and the mainstream, and were as problematic for these unique individuals as any overdetermined set of assumptions.  Ultimately, we learned that even within this distinct subculture there is still the desire and need to rail against stereotypes.

Jeremy: With out revealing too much of the film, can you talk a little bit about the extent to which the the “performance” goes beyond the stage for some of these male illusionists?

Alana: In Atlanta’s black LGBT community, we found that for drag stars and gay lay people, alike, gender performance is extremely important, determining how one is regarded, who one may date, how one may love, and much more. Black, gay, individuals in this context must choose to either perform a feminine gender identity or a masculine one and consistently or incur the wrath and ridicule of their peers.For the Tyres, our M.I. informants in Atlanta, this means performing the male illusion unfailingly, in every moment of their daily lives, lest they meet rejection from fans at clubs on the drag circuit. Still, as members of this black gay Atlanta community, they are  also themselves wholly committed to these categories in their personal lives and thus draw no distinction between performing drag on-stage and performing gender in their private lives.

Jeremy: Where can people see M.I. next after the festival in Durham?

Leslie: We are currently on a Black Pride festival tour, the next stop is Nashville, TN for their annual Black Pride celebration.

Jeremy: I feel like the term I often hear to describe these performers is “drag king”  where did the term ” male illusionist” come from?

Alana: As we see in Livingston’s ‘Paris is Burning’, there have always been discourses in the black LGBT community that challenge the power of the white mainstream LGBT terms and categories. While, there are certainly differences between the act of female-to-male dragging and that of male illusion, most notably the taping down of one’s breasts and the tendency of M.I.s to be more masculine off-stage, these are, in my opinion, incidental.The most important difference is that M.I.s are a group that speaks to and for the black female LGBT community and are committed to their own terms and categories as an act of resistance against the marginalization of blackness within LGBT society and, on some level, the preeminence of ‘queens’ (male-to-female performers) over ‘kings’ (biological women) on the drag stage.

Jeremy: The two of you working on any other projects at the moment?

Leslie: We are currently working on a feature documentary film about a “jig” show called Harlem in Havana which documents the legacy of my grandfather, Leon Claxton, the ‘Bronze Ziegfeld’ of Chicago, and one of the twentieth century’s most successful traveling show producers.

Saffron Cross

Reverend J. Dana Trent

Reverend J. Dana Trent is a Christian minister who was ordained in the Southern Baptist tradition.  She met her husband Fred Eaker on in December 2008. Their first date was at a small café in Durham, NC, where they chatted endlessly about philosophy and religion. Fred began studying Eastern religion in college. He became a devout Hindu and lived as a monk for five years. He is ordained in the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition. Though no longer living in a monastery, Fred is very active in the Gaudiya Vaishnava community and provides service to his guru. This fall Dana will be be finishing up her book, Saffron Cross, about their interfaith marriage.  We caught up with her in Durham, NC to learn more.

The Recollective:  What do you think distinguishes your interfaith marriage from other interfaith marriages?

Dana:  There are two distinguishing factors. First, the paradox of Southern Baptist minister and a Hindu monk falling love. It’s much easier for us to imagine a marriage between two persons of Abrahamic faith (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) in relationships, as they would at least begin with a common denominator of some shared Scripture and religious figures.  For the Christian-Hindu couple, there is no Abrahamic connection. It takes a real effort to forge those connections, and therefore the interfaith challenges hold greater consequences if they are not addressed with love, good communication, and understanding.  The second: Fred and I are each ordained in our traditions. This means that each of us has a deep investment in our traditions and ministries. Because of that, neither one of us is willing to live a watered-down religious life of infrequent practices, which is how some interfaith couples have chosen to compromise and make it work for them. While we are extremely committed to our own traditions, we live a mutual, connected spiritual life; we worship, read Scripture, practice rituals, pray, question, and struggle together.  These two themes, the sheer intrigue of two fundamentally different religious paths coming together in one household under two ordained persons place Saffron Cross apart from other interfaith memoirs. Fred and I believe that the most successful interfaith resources are those who encourage a shared, not separate journey.

Excerpt from Saffron Cross

The Recollective:  
At what point did it occur to you to write about your interfaith marriage?

Dana:  When we returned from our two-week Indian ashram honeymoon and we were interviewed by the Herald-Sun newspaper in Durham, NC, I realized how important this message is. Each day, humans are inundated with messages of intolerance and hate. A message of love and understanding seems like an anomaly. As our country becomes more pluralistic, it will be imperative to develop empathy and relationship skills to interface with people who have different beliefs. There is great beauty in that space. We wanted to share that story.

The Recollective:  
Tell us about the process of writing something so autobiographical.

Dana:  It’s a difficult process. There is tension about wanting autobiographical writing to be real, vibrant, and connected to the reader, but also not therapeutic. There’s a risk of dragging the reader through the muck of the writer’s struggles. I’m committed to wrestling with that myself, and then inviting the reader in once things seem clearer. Fortunately, that almost always happens naturally through time, writing draft after draft, and good editing.

The Recollective:  How did you discuss it with your family? 

Rev. J. Dana Trent and husband Fred Eaker

Dana:  Everyone has been very supportive. There are still members of our family and close family friends who do not know about the book. If it comes up, we are happy to discuss it, but realize it’s a sensitive matter with those for whom interfaith topics are still new. In those cases, we tread lightly with love and care. You have to meet people where they are. Invariably, not everyone will get the idea of interfaith marriage—but it doesn’t mean it’s not a message worth sharing.

The Recollective:  What were their reactions initially?

Dana:  People often ask us how we make it work, and that’s why family and friends encouraged us to pursue the book project. They thought it was particularly poignant because readers want to know how a Christian-Hindu marriage could possibly be successful, inside and out. Christians have such dreadful reputations for being close-minded and hateful towards other faith traditions. Fred and I want to change that conception. We want readers to know that this can work—and the foundation that makes it work is love, which is Gospel of Jesus Christ in action.

The Recollective:  Who is publishing the book?

Dana:  Upper Room Books in Nashville, Tennessee.  Upper Room Books has an imprint called “Fresh Air Books” that offers spiritual resources that are outside the traditional Christian box and appeal to a more general audience of spiritual readers. Saffron Cross is a good fit for this publisher and that imprint because of its appeal to finding commonalities in spirituality. This memoir also encourages readers to embrace and enjoy the circumstances that we encounter each day in our workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, and communities. If we look closely, there’s no shortage of interfaith situations in our daily lives.

The Recollective:  
Where can the book be purchased?

Dana:  The book will be available via Amazon (print and Kindle),, Barnes & Noble (for nook), and local bookstores. Expected publication is fall 2013.

All photos for this post are provided by Franklin Golden.


The 2011 Fall Issue of Document, a quarterly publication from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, has just been published and features a brief description of and photo from Blues Run The Game.  Blues Run The Game is one of six episodes from Sounds & Echoes: A Musical Portrait of Buffalo, NY , the award winning series produced by The Recollective in partnership with WBFO 88.7 FM.   Check out the latest issue of Document at

Old School, Still Kickin’ It

Fall Issue of Tribes Magazine

Sounds & Echoes alumni Gail Lyons, Emile Latimer and the Colored Musicians Club were the subjects of an article on urban music history in the Fall issue of Tribes Magazine.  Check out the full issue online at

Gail Lyons and Emile Latimer throw down at Black Dance Workshop

Buffalo's Colored Musicians Club

Enjoy Your Tomatoes

Twenty-four aspiring documentarians from around the country came to the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, NC to attend Hearing Is Believing I: An Audio Documentary Summer Institute.  Led by veteran producer John Biewen with the help of Big Shed’s Shea Shackelford, the institute is a week long, morning-til-night immersion in making audio documentaries.  The attendees were paired up in teams of two and sent out to interview staff and clients of local non-profits.  These interviews were the basis for the 5-minute long audio docs produced by each team within a week’s time.  At the end of the week twelve projects were played at a listening event attended by staff and students at CDS as well as many of the people whose stories were recorded.

The Recollective’s own Jeremy Helton was one of those in attendance.  He was paired with photographer, radio producer and fellow itinerant soul, Jessie Wright.  A native Midwesterner, Jessie has lived in Brazil, Colorado, California, Ghana, and France.  While living in New Orleans, she helped produce radio stories on the BP oil spill and ladies’ arm wrestling.  This fall Jessie heads north to study radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.  Jessie and Jeremy talked with staff and volunteers from Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) to produce Enjoy Your Tomatoes.  All of the stories produced at the institute can be heard here.  To hear Jessie’s and Jeremy’s project just click on the link below.

Grand Finale

On May 20, nine students graduating from the Certificate Program at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University will unveil a diverse selection of short documentaries as part of a culminating event held at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, NC.  The projects are diverse not only in content and tone but also in the mediums used to bring each story to life.

Ex Libris

Video still from Chelsea Flowers' Ex Libris

In her video Ex Libris, Chelsea Flowers interviews volunteer members of the Chapel Hill Prison Books Collective about their efforts to provide books for inmates of Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina prison systems.  The Raleigh Village Idiots are the subject of Eileen Heyes‘ audio documentary.  Heyes’ interviews with the various members of the improv comedy troupe show the hard work that goes into making people laugh and the reasons why, despite low pay and long hours,  the members of the group, like their audiences, keep coming back for more.  Conrad Fulkerson’s Godmother transcends the cuteness factor of the birth of an adorable litter of puppies by examining the deeply humane and compassionate motives of their breeder, Fulkerson’s wife, Kate.

The concept of “home” is viewed through the lenses of politics and social justice in the works of  John Crane and Paul Deblinger.  In Jerusalem Journal Crane gives American audiences raw and rarely seen glimpses into communities under siege amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In Us…Them…United States Deblinger presents the timely story of the Guzmans, a North Carolina family struggling to reunite after a series of events involving immigration authorities.

Image from Returning by Kurney Ramsey

"Curtains in the Living Room" from Kurney Ramsey's Returning

The family theme is further explored with two projects, one by photographer Kurney Ramsey and another by the Recollective’s own Jeremy Helton.  In Returning, Ramsey offers an intimate, environmental portrait of his family and the land and property passed down through his family for over 200 years.  Helton’s interview with Buffalo, NY native Jillian Mertz describes a coming-of-age story resolved, in part, through musical catharsis.  The sound portrait takes its name and part of its story from Blues Run the Game, a song by folk singer, Jackson C. Frank.

Health and human rights issues are at the center of a pair of projects by Eric Douglas and Paige Greason.  In For Cheap Lobster, Douglas offers a multimedia examination of the powerful and sometimes devastating impact of the lobster industry on the lives of Honduran and other Latin American lobster divers.   Face to Face, the final project of the evening advocates for education and empowerment of individuals and families affected by Multiple sclerosis.  Greason’s video shows women and men diagnosed with MS as they share their stories of survival and triumph.

Still from Face to Face

Video still from Paige Greason's Face to Face

The nine projects shown represent weeks, months and, in some cases, years worth of work on the part of the students who produced them.  Congratulations to all who participated!