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In Oakland, a Drag Fest for the Community, by the Community

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two colorfully dressed drag performers pose for the camera while people fill the street behind them at a drag festival
Mama Celeste and Beatrix Lahaine, founders of Oaklash, pose at 2022's festival.  (Fred Rowe)

For Beatrix Lahaine and Mama Celeste, drag has been about community from the start. Nearly a decade ago, both performers started participating in Bay Area nightlife to build queer connections. They soon found their place in San Francisco’s drag scene, with its subversive, no-rules style.

But when the fun turned into too many late nights out — “This was before Uber,” says Lahaine, “and I didn’t wanna take the late night bus” — they decided to bring it home over the bridge to the East Bay.

In 2018, the duo founded Oaklash as one night of drag shows. Now, their celebration has grown into a whole month of events designed to uplift local drag artists and provide them with resources to keep performing. For its sixth annual event this year, the Bay Area’s drag festival includes a series of panels and workshops — like one on May 17 for Black and brown drag kings — all leading up to its main weekend of “nonstop” drag, from May 19–21.

Oaklash kicks off with Backlash at Thee Stork Club on Friday night, hosted by Kochina Rude and featuring live sets by queer and trans musicians and bands.

a Black drag performer in a bright blue wig and red outfit performs in the street as a crowd looks on, smiling and cheering
Drag performer Bionka Simone at Oaklash 2022. (Fred Rowe)

Saturday brings an all-ages block party to Old Oakland with two stages of live drag performances, DJs, and more at 9th & Washington. Performers come from the Bay and beyond — including Nicki Jizz, recently crowned Drag Queen of the Year and host of SF Oasis’ Reparations drag show, as well as Jax and Naomi Smalls of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s all followed by an Afterkii at the Continental Club, hosted by Princess Panocha and going until late.

Oaklash gets a fairytale ending with an adults-only takeover of Children’s Fairyland on Sunday night. “Who needs Disneyland?” says Lahaine. “We have actual drag at Fairyland, the one that started it all!”

At each event, say organizers, equity will take center stage: “It speaks to the authentic community nature of our event that we’re not the ones making all the decisions,” says Mama Celeste. The organization’s board has built the festival around a Cultural Equity Framework, designed to mirror Oakland’s revolutionary and inclusive spirit. All talent was selected by other Bay Area artists — and they’re all being paid. Several focus on providing tough-to-find resources. For example, Oaklash hosted a workshop about lip syncing, a skill many performers aren’t even taught, as they’re simply expected to learn by watching, says Mama Celeste.

a drag performer in high heel red boots laughs as she performs outside for a crowd
Mahlae Balenciaga performs at Oaklash 2022. (Fred Rowe)

“We put out open calls for these workshops because we don’t want to decide what’s important for the community; we want the community to tell us what’s important.” All Oaklash events are ASL interpreted. Last year, the organization created the Oaklash Disability Fund to make drag even more accessible to all.

With the scale of the festival growing each year, logistics can get crazy, says Beatrix. But the community’s enthusiasm keeps organizers going. “The Bay Area really supports new ideas and people who are trying new things,” says Beatrix. “I feel like there’s this ‘I can do that’ attitude that’s very accepting. Like, ‘If you want to do it, do it!’”

It’s this love that’s helped Oaklash evolve and thrive, says Mama Celeste: “It’s why we create these safe, welcoming, accessible, loving, heart-filled spaces — queer people deserve to forget about the rest of the world for a second and just kiki and party and have the most fun in their lives.”

Oaklash hosts a series of workshops throughout May, leading up to a weekend of drag May 19–21. Highlights include the Oaklash Block Party in Old Oakland (9th and Broadway) and the Grand Finale at Children’s Fairyland (699 Bellevue Ave). Find tickets and more info here.


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