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Rust Belt drags holiday show to two city locations

Robert Dennick Joki plays Starrlet O'Hara in "How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas," which will be performed by Rust Belt Theater Company at two locations this month. (Submitted photo)

Starrlet O’Hara will be haunted at two locations this month.

Rust Belt Theater Company will stage its seasonal favorite “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” for two shows this weekend at Club Switch, and then the musical moves to Youngstown Playhouse for four shows Dec. 15 to 17.

“We were originally slated to do this in 2020,” said Rust Belt founder Robert Dennick Joki, who wrote and directed the musical and stars as O’Hara. “The whole run was going to take place at the Playhouse. We couldn’t do it with the (COVID-19) shutdown, then Stambaugh took over administration for the Playhouse and wanted to go in a different direction for the holidays, so we did it at Club Switch last year. This year when I was directing ‘Little Shop’ at the Playhouse, (board president) John Cox said, ‘Hey, would you want to try this again? We have one free weekend in December. Could you put the show together with a couple days of tech?’ Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to do it on a bigger stage with a better sound system.”

“Drag Queen,” a riff on “A Christmas Carol” about a pill-popping drag queen / club owner who fires all of her performers on Christmas Eve and is visited by three ghostly spirits, has had a nomadic existence. It first was staged at the Oakland Center for the Arts when it was in downtown Youngstown, and then played every December at the Calvin Center (sometimes in the theater, a few years in the building’s gymnasium) when it was Rust Belt’s home base. Last year was the first time at Club Switch.

Joki decided to do the show at both Club Switch and the Playhouse, even though it will mean more work.

“We still have a large group of people who are more comfortable seeing it in a queer setting, to be perfectly honest,” Joki said.

“They’re used to seeing the show at the bar, they feel safe at the bar. Contrary-wise, there are people who are not comfortable seeing it at a bar and would rather go to a theater. We’re catering to both groups.

“If you want the up-close dive-bar experience, go to Club Switch. If you want the grander, more traditional theater experience, then Youngstown Playhouse is the place to go. We even have a matinee, which I never expected with this show.”

Joki will be joined on stage by Nicole Zayas, Caitlyn Murphy, Vicci Sfikas, Diane Marie, Wesley Miller, Lisa Torrence, Rian Davis, Johnny Herbert, Geri Dewitt, Heather Powell, Audre McDowell, Joey Shilot, Charity Bauer, Janelle Yohman and Keith Stepanic.

The stage at the Playhouse is much, much larger than the one at Club Switch. Joki said he’s been trying to give the actors an idea of how the blocking will change as they prep the show for the Club Switch opening. And instead of one brush-up rehearsal during the week between the weekend performances, the cast will have three nights of intensive rehearsals at the Playhouse to prepare for the opening there.

The actors also will need to get used to wearing wireless microphones at the Playhouse, something that isn’t necessary in the smaller space, and Joki is making changes in some of the costuming and the set so it will play better visually for audience members sitting farther away from the stage.

A bigger stage at a theater company that is one year shy of its 100th anniversary also brings more attention … not all of it wanted. Last month, a local pastor expressed his outrage on social media about a show featuring drag performers being staged at the Playhouse and ended his post with, “Get the hell out of our community.”

Those comments follow Joki being confronted by a protester during a performance at Warren’s Pride in the Valley festival in 2022.

“I went through a period of about 20 years where I didn’t encounter stuff like this, but it’s gotten worse in the last few years,” Joki said. “People who are hateful have been emboldened the last few years. Honestly, it’s exhausting. You spend hundreds and hundreds of hours working on something good for the community to have somebody like that rally people to bombard your Facebook and give you bad reviews on things.

“I’ve been doing drag and drag fundraising events for 25 years now, and it’s just these little pokes constantly. Sometimes, I feel like I’m full of holes.”

And from years of feedback from audiences, Joki knows “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” connects with people during the holidays in the same way the Charles Dicken’s tale that influenced it does.

“It’s completely unique as far as being a very dark and risque Christmas comedy that still has the spirit of the holidays in it. I never expected the show to have the effect on people it did. In the second or third year, I thought I was doing this bawdy Christmas drag show, and I’d notice people were crying. Why are people so emotional over this show?

“At the time, I didn’t have the life experience to know what this time of year can mean to people, how the holidays can amplify feelings of depression. They come to the show and not feel so alone. The holidays aren’t about happiness; they’re about reflection and hope for the coming year.”

If you go …

WHAT: Rust Belt Theater Company — “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas”

WHEN / WHERE: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Club Switch, 221 Belmont Ave., Youngstown, and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15, 7:30 p.m. and midnight Dec. 16 and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 17.

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $20. Tickets for the Club Switch performances can be reserved by texting 330-507-2358. Tickets for Youngstown Playhouse performances are available online at experienceyourarts.org and by calling 330-788-8739.

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