Workhorse Queen (2020) [Slamdance Film Festival 2021]

It’s been a long, rough journey for drag queens to become accepted among modern society. After decades of being pushed in to the underground to celebrate their art form, now we’re at a rare moment in time where the drag profession is now being celebrated. After RuPaul’s efforts to inject the drag queen lifestyle in to the world with her hit series “Drag Race,” drag queens went from being pushed in to darkness, to now taking pictures with awe struck children, and hosting concerts with families and children.

And yet, after all of it, there’s still so much more to be done.

By day, Ed Popil worked as a telemarketer in Rochester, New York for 18 years. By night, he transforms into drag queen Mrs. Kasha Davis, a 1960’s era housewife trying to liberate herself from domestic toil through performing at night in secret –an homage to Ed’s mother. After seven years of auditioning to compete on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Ed Popil was finally cast onto the TV show and thrust into a full-time entertainment career at the late age of 44. “Workhorse Queen” explores the complexities of reality television’s impact on queer performance culture by focusing on the growing divide between members of a small town drag community.

Angela Washko’s “Workhorse Queen” is a stellar, funny, charming, often compelling documentary that beautifully chronicles the drag queen lifestyle and the inherent emotions that go with it. RuPaul’s “Drag Race” was a huge milestone for the drag queen and LGTBQ community, as it was generally embraced by the mainstream, and allowed drag queens to become pop culture idols rather than underground “fringe oddities.” This works to the benefit of detriment of central figure Ed Popil whose lifelong dream to turn drag performing in to a profession tests his ability to work as hard as he can and attend to his fans in now crowded conventions and autograph signings.

Ed acknowledges that he’s not as young as he once was, and it tends to limit his travel abilities, which adds extra stress not only on Ed, but his friends and intimate partners. Like most of the stories there’s an undercurrent of sadness behind the laughs as we learn all about Popil’s life, from being disowned by his family, his failed marriage, and his distance from his children. In one instance, as Mrs. Kasha Davis, he boasts about his daughter graduating high school and now heading in to college, saddened he couldn’t attend her ceremony. Nevertheless, he lifts his head up and charges in to the gathering of Drag Queens for a local convention to greet fans, young and old.

It all feels kind of worth it when, in one scene, a fan tearfully admits that she’s suffering through breast cancer, and Mrs. Kasha Davis has helped her laugh through the tears, and inspire her to keep fighting. Of course with most of the drag queens we meet here, the big goal is to get on “Drag Race” (or be invited back), and Mrs. Kasha Davis works hard to build a potential empire in hopes of catching RuPaul’s attention. Popil is without a doubt incredibly ambitious, and he’s intent on striking while the iron is hot, even hosting an adorable kids’ show where he encourages kindness, charity, and acceptance. Angela Washko’s film is delightful, funny, charming and just superb human story from beginning to end. I hope audiences discover it soon.

The Slamdance Film Festival is running virtually from February 12th to February 25th.