A group of students sporting Magic Marker mustaches, jerseys, and sweatpants run a last-minute rehearsal of a hip hop routine. Another group in heels and strappy-backed dresses teeter up and down the aisles of Adams dining hall, moving wooden chairs into rows. Performers clad in lamé and leather mingle with the audience, waiting with anticipation for the show to begin.
“This isn’t what you would imagine when you imagine Harvard,” Joel E. Kwartler ’18, this year’s emcee, says. ”And I think that’s a good thing for the spirit of the House.”
This is Adams Drag Night, an annual drag show organized by the Adams House Committee featuring student and faculty acts. While celebratory, its origins are somber: According to an email from the committee, in 1980, three students attacked a gay student from Adams in an act of hate. In response, Adams students organized a Drag Ball, attended by both gay and straight students in support of their peers.
Robert J. Kiely, Resident Dean of Adams House from 1973-1999, credits the event with increasing dialogue at Harvard. “In the seventies… a lot of subjects, including homosexuality, were just not discussed,” he says. “[Drag Night] opened up, in a friendly and bold way, a subject that had been kind of taboo, not just at Harvard but in general in our society.”
One by one, four basketball-wielding, baseball cap-clad performers take the stage to Charli XCX’s “Boys,” to seduce the object of their desire: a tall student in a red lace dress.
Not all performances opted for glamor. A medley from “Hamilton” featuring a tail-coated Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr waltzing to “Dear Theodosia” adds more somber touch to the otherwise risqué set.
“One of the most important things about [Drag Night] is that the [Resident Deans] do a performance every year,” Matthew J. Corriel ’05 says. A former resident of Adams House and Resident Tutor from 2007 to 2010, Corriel fondly recalls being a spectator at the event as an undergraduate, and a performer and songwriter as a tutor. “[The Deans] help nurture a certain spirit in the house by participating,” he says.
Resident Deans Judy S. Palfrey ’67 and Sean G. Palfrey ’67 first performed 19 years ago as Abigail and John Adams. This year, they jog up the aisles to the feel-good beat of “The Fighter,” by Keith Urban featuring Carrie Underwood. Judy Palfrey, jacketed and wearing a black skinny tie, lip-syncs the first verse. Her husband struts behind her, wiggling his hips in a form-hugging black dress with a cropped platinum-blonde wig atop his head. Their performance is charming: At least a month of preparation has gone into it.
Five years ago, the Palfreys performed as Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. This year, two more Kermits take the stage. Scout Leonard ’18 and Tina Huang ’18, clad in menswear and green headscarves with large, white eyes pasted on top, sit on the edge of the stage and sway along to “The Rainbow Connection” from “The Muppet Movie,” before standing before the audience with a rainbow flag draped over their shoulders.
While scores of students enjoy Drag Night each year, many remain unaware of the history behind the event until they are told by others.
“I was very moved to hear about the origins of such a celebrated tradition. I just didn’t know. We loved it because of what it is,” Corriel said. “You can enjoy it without understanding the history, but like with all things, it’s so much better when you do.”