- IMANI YOUNGBLOOD
Get a Slice of Broadway with "Curtains UP!"
Opportunities for performers and artists in New York were few and far between once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Statewide orders for residents to shelter in place, combined with waves of furloughs and layoffs in the theater industry, meant an end to days at the studio and nights on stage for thousands of creatives like Jada Valenciaga, a Black queer show director and performer based in New York City.
During this time of uncertainty, Valenciaga began to reevaluate their life. From teaching dance calls for a musical at Signature Theater and contracting COVID soon after to being stuck at home with personal demons, Valenciaga realized that to succeed in any possible future, they would need to prioritize their mental health and spirituality.
“I’m beautiful in all forms, and once I sat in the fact that I’m gender fluid and trans, all of the jobs and opportunities started to flow in because I realized exactly who I am, and nobody else can change that. If you’re trying to get into the theater, drag, or the arts, find what makes you special. Hold on to it and live in it,” Valenciaga said.
As New York city began to reopen, an opportunity for Valenciaga to produce a weekly Broadway-themed cabaret drag review arose. Valenciaga named it “Curtains UP!” and cultivated a space for LGBTQIA+ artists and performers of color to perform Broadway material.
“Lord knows it’s hard out here for people like us sometimes in any of these industries. If I can provide a space for them to be artistically free and get money in the process, I’m gonna do that,” Valenciaga said.
Composed of live singing, choreography, and costumes, Curtains UP! embraces different themes and tributes to popular Broadway shows, including Chicago, Wicked, and Dreamgirls. Valenciaga aimed to create opportunities for those who usually wouldn’t get a chance to and made it possible for all marginalized communities to express themselves through theater and drag. Everyone’s different cultural backgrounds and levels of experience didn’t affect Valenciaga’s process and vision.
“If you can't do it, figure out a modification. Ask questions. That's the only way it's going to get done. Especially when you're a Black show director, all eyes are on you. And this is my baby. But like they say, it takes a village to raise a child. We’re a family! We all worked our asses off to make this show what it is. I'm not leaving any of us behind.” Valenciaga said.
Among the many audience members sitting in the front row during the early months of Curtains UP! was none other than Aria Renee Curameng, who was invited to guest star. Curameng didn’t play when it came to their craft, so they came in full costume and makeup. Inspired by drag performers like their father, Curameng learned to express themselves fully.
“As a Filipino American, I had a hard time fitting in. At a certain point, I said, ‘you know what, let me get comfortable in my skin. Let me show everyone what I can do and who I am as Aria Renee,’” Curameng said.
At their lowest point, Curameng found community amongst people in Curtains UP! and at the Monster Bar in Greenwich Village.
“I felt surrounded by love— not because I was trying to be something or put myself out there, but simply because I was existing,” Curameng said.
The encounter between Curameng and Valenciaga grew into a beautiful friendship. Curameng proudly calls Valenciaga their drag mother and celebrates each opportunity they receive to perform songs from shows such as Rent, Phantom of the Opera, Grease, and Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“People need to remember to live in the moment. Be present, be yourself, and you will find people who are going to love you for who you are and who you were made to be,” Curameng said.
Curtains Up! is located at The Monster Bar on 80 Grove Street, New York, NY. 10014. Doors open at 9:00 PM EST. Showtime at 9:30 PM EST. There is no cover, but tips for the cast are highly recommended.