In 2016, Ben Schatz was planning to retire from his drag a cappella group, The Kinsey Sicks, a "beauty shop quartet" that's been putting on irreverent, politically charged shows since forming in San Francisco in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Then, on a flight to a gig in Boise, Idaho, he connected to airplane wi-fi and found out that Donald Trump won the presidential election. Schatz quickly realized that his work was not over.
"As a member of a community that was deemed at best dispensable—and a group who had prejudice against us exploited for political gains—I can’t separate myself from the others who are being viewed as dispensable and exploitable," he says of Trump's anti-immigrant and misogynistic rhetoric.
The Kinseys emerged from a dark time in American history. Schatz, a graduate of Harvard Law School, moved to San Francisco in the '80s to work in the emerging gay rights movement at a time when HIV and AIDS were ravaging the LGBTQ community. (In the 1990s, he served as the director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association and sat on Bill Clinton's Advisory Council on AIDS.)
The Kinsey Sicks formed in 1993 after someone approached them at a Bette Milder concert, where they were dressed in drag as the Andrews Sisters, and invited them to perform at an upcoming event. All four friends happened to have musical theater experience and got to work that night. Since then, they've produced several critically acclaimed shows that fuse campy drag and a cappella singing, dirty jokes and political satire—including a hit Off-Broadway production in 2001. The group was so successful that it became Schatz' full time career in 1999.
The Kinsey Sicks' 25-year-anniversary show, Things You Shouldn't Say, comes to San Francisco's Marines' Memorial Theater on Oct. 5-6. It'll also likely be Schatz' final performance in San Francisco; he says he'll soon retire from his role as Rachel and continue behind the scenes as the group's lead writer.
"We've always been a topical group," says Schatz. "We've always mixed silliness and ridiculousness with social commentary. There's a lot to laugh at, and there's a lot to weep at. And we always have included both in the show. We take people a constantly unexpected journey."
Schatz' work on the front lines of the gay rights movement continues inform the Kinsey's biting satire in Things You Shouldn't Say, which contains political commentary about as subtle as Rachel's glittery blue eye shadow. The poster for the show features the four queens ducking from Trump as a hurling, orange comet, and throughout the performance, they embrace the role of drag queens as irreverent truth-tellers who express what others are afraid to.
"Drag is many different things, and we've been long associated with the more confrontational and challenging element of drag rather than the Disney-fied version you might see on something like RuPaul's Drag Race," Schatz says. "We got some things to say."
In "The Trump Medley" from Things You Shouldn't Say, for instance, Trampolina (Spencer Brown) sings to the tune of The Addams Family theme song, "His house is a museum / To his narcissis-eum / A Nazi's carpe diem!" In the show's titular tune, the Kinseys lampoon the hypocrisy of various members of society, not least politicians: "I'll send your kind into war / I just screwed an intern on the floor / I have no idea what I voted for," sings Winnie (Nathan Marken).
"Our favorite saying is 'no refunds,'" says Schatz of those who come to a Kinsey Sicks show expecting Cher impersonations.
Beyond its bouffants and Trump jokes, Things You Shouldn't Say hits some raw, emotional points, including Schatz' monologue, "We Are Not the Ones Who Should be Ashamed." In hushed tones, he wistfully recalls the surreal experience of watching gay men die of AIDS in San Francisco while mainstream media and politicians ignored the epidemic, seguing into a powerful call to take action in today's political moment.
The friends Schatz lost to AIDS and HIV (including two original Kinsey Sicks members) continue to give him purpose as an artist. "I just don't see art being in a vacuum; art exists in the world," says Schatz. "And there are tons of dead gay men who would've been amazing artists if they had been allowed to survive if the government gave a crap about the AIDS crisis."
Of his own longevity, he reflects, "To be able to have had a 25 year career of politically controversial, challenging, provocative art is an incredible privilege."
The Kinsey Sicks' Things You Shouldn't Say is on view at Marines' Memorial Theater on Oct. 5-6. Details here.