“I love making people laugh ... in the back of all my hijinks and hilarities, you’re gong to just feel better about yourself,” said Shawn Bodey, sipping his coffee on a recent morning at Cafe Romeo. At his sandaled feet, his dog Soul searched for loose toast crumbs, settling under the table after he had found a few. Bodey pulled down his sunglasses, adjusted his plaid overshirt, and looked up at the sky, an unadulterated shade of New Haven blue with a few cloudy wisps floating past.
“If you can orchestrate a room full of belly laughs, it’s contagious,” he added.
Unbeknownst to the couple talking loudly at the other table, or the woman who passed with her large, barking dog, he was not talking as Bodey, but as his drag queen persona, Robin Banks, best known for her twice-monthly performances of “The Robin Banks Show” at 168 York Street.
This Saturday, she will appear at Barracuda Bistro & Bar for her first solo drag brunch, a one-woman show that she describes as “a piano bar without the piano ... and [with] mimosas and lobster Benedict.”
Drag brunches have long been a thing in bigger, more fabulous cities like New York and Boston. They have been in New Haven, too, since at least the ‘80s; the city’s surprisingly large drag scene often unfolds at night and goes into the wee hours of the morning.
Banks, who considers herself and drag mother Dandy Lions movers and shakers on the New Haven drag scene, has an infectious enthusiasm for things like belly laughs and toothy grins. An hour of talking to her makes you want to not only attend a performance, but understand drag’s ability to do something joyful and distinct to the human spirit. The story of her genesis — what she describes as the best version of herself yet — explains why.
When she came to New Haven almost ten years ago, she was performing as Barbie-Q: The Barbecued Barbie. She loved the character — the smudged, sweaty grill marks that accompanied lipstick and eyeliner, a suite of pink-and-green fimo shrimp dotting her elaborate coiffure, the raucous cheers from 168 York’s weekend crowd — but felt like something was missing.
And then there was the tricky part where she had to change into Judy Garland midway through the show, and would emerge still grilled. When Dandy Lions’ grandmother gifted Bodey a zip-up sweatshirt for Christmas and Lions joked that “you look like you’re robbing banks!” Barbie Q became history fast. Robin Banks was here to stay.
The brunch, a two-hour extravaganza that will feature singing, dancing, and lots of jokes about gender masquerade, is what Bodey refers to as “part of my journey to become Robin Banks, drag queen.” While shows at 168 York and Cafe Nine have allowed her to explore the divide between “drag names and boy names, drag clothes and boy clothes,” and the freedom of performance, she sees brunch as drawing a different, tamer crowd.
“Brunch allows more people who don’t want to stand up during a show ... it’s for the people who won’t come to my show because it’s just too late. Instead of working all night and then going to a show at 11 o’clock and having to stand up until two in the morning ... it’s a step up, more like dinner theater but for brunch. Once you get a following for this, I think it catches on fire if it’s done right. People think: ‘this is how I want to start my Saturday morning.’”
She also sees it as part of a series that is “a little bit of enlightenment, a little bit of empowerment, with every comic sense you can possibly imagine.” Growing up, Bodey always wanted to be a motivational speaker, and sees doing drag brunches with humor and encouragement as a natural continuation of that.
“I have a goal in mind,” Bodey said as he finished his coffee and prepared to head home. “I consider myself a public speaker with lipstick and pantyhose. I want people to feel good about themselves.”
“God bless the person that gets in my way,” he added.
The drag brunch is this Saturday at Barracuda. For more information, click here.