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Oaklash Stays True to the Rebellious, Political Heart of Drag

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Obsidienne Obsurd performs at Oaklash 2023.  (Edgar Ruiz)

Seven years in, there’s something about Oaklash that still feels fresh. Not only does the Oakland drag festival offer plenty of sparkly, gender-bending spectacle, it’s also a champion of disability and racial justice — and the organizers put their money where their mouth is. Thanks to their Disability Fund and Skills for Nightlife Accelerator Program (O-SNAP), Oaklash has nurtured dozens of artists who are now making politically urgent, community-minded work, and lifting up others while doing it.

This year’s Oaklash takes place May 17-19 in multiple Oakland locations. How to navigate the packed weekend of lip syncs, dance parties and immersive theater? And preferably do it without losing a wig or breaking a nail?

“Show up a blank slate. Show up ready to have your mind blown. Show up ready to meet the love of your life,” says co-organizer Mama Celeste, who founded Oaklash with Beatrix LaHaine in 2018.

The festival kicks off Friday night at Nectar Social Club with an eco-sexual-themed party produced by the latest O-SNAP cohort (Piss E Sissy, Holden Wood, Jasmine Robinson, Andrea Wang and Vanessa Hernandez). The dress code encourages green, leafy and slutty (think “plant-based perversion,” as Piss E Sissy put it). The party kicks off with a mixer for new and experienced performers alike, followed by a drag show by BB Gunz, Mommy Dommest, Evangeline Laveau and Translucent; live music from Cuban hip-hop artist Krudas Cubensi and a set by Renaissance the DJ.

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)

The fun continues on Saturday, May 18, with an epic block party on 9th Street and Broadway in Old Oakland, headlined by RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 15 winner Sasha Colby and award-winning drag king and television personality Landon Cider. With over 70 performers and two stages, this is an opportunity to see a huge variety of creative expression from local drag luminaries such as Nicki Jizz, founder of San Francisco’s only all-Black drag show, Reparations; drag king and activist Harddeep Singh; Oaklash co-founder LaHaine and more. Performances will continue at the Afterkii at nearby club ForTheCulture.

Drag queen on all fours with crowd surrounding
Nicki Jizz performs at Princess at Oasis. (Rachel Ziegler)

Mama Celeste says Oaklash especially embraces artists whose work responds to the current political moment. While many arts organizations have remained silent on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza — some have even penalized artists for speaking out against it — Mama Celeste says won’t be the case at Oaklash. (She notes that Oaklash is a fiscal sponsor of the BAD Fund, which provides funding for drag artists if they need to drop out of gigs from funders or promoters they find politically objectionable.)


“If you provide the space for artists to do whatever they want, they’re going to get up there and they’re going to talk about what’s most important to them,” she says. “What’s important to a lot of people in the Bay, a lot of people in the world, a lot of queer people right now, is solidarity with the people in Palestine and the Congo and Sudan.”

Drag kings Helixir, Papi Churro, King LOTUS BOY and Harddeep Singh. Helixir and Harddeep will both perform at Oaklash’s 2024 block party on May 18. (Vita Hewitt)

At its core, Oaklash celebrates drag’s countercultural and rebellious roots, and one of the festival’s guiding lights is the beloved, late drag mother Phatima Rude, who will be honored May 19 in the festival finale, Rebirth: The Death of Drag.

“It’s going to be very raw,” Mama Celeste says. “It’s going to be very intense. It’s going to be very emotional.”

Held at anarchist community space Omni Commons, the immersive theater piece and drag installation is led by Hollow Eve and the House of Rude — including Phatima’s drag daughter Kochina, a champion of drug safety and harm reduction in the queer nightlife community. Mama Celeste doesn’t quite know what to expect yet, but is sure the piece is going to capture Phatima Rude’s punk-rock spirit and penchant for the otherworldly, strange and surreal.

“I told Hollow to not tell me what they’re doing because I don’t want to know. I want to go and I want to be surprised and shocked as everybody else,” Mama Celeste says. “But it’s very, very different than what people have come to expect from the Pride Festival or anything like that.”

Oaklash takes place at various Oakland venues May 17-19. Individual event tickets are $20 each; $50 weekend passes are sold out. Full schedule here

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