John Jarboe eating up “gender cannibalism”

John Jarboe of The Bearded Ladies
John Jarboe of The Bearded Ladies

For nearly 15 years The Bearded Ladies Cabaret have been sharing exciting and inclusive performances, making them a beloved part of the tri-state area’s LGBTQ community and beyond. I had a fantastic conversation with founder and artistic director of Philadelphia’s own Bearded Lady Cabaret, John Jarboe. We touched on John’s exciting show, Rose: You Are What You Eat coming to the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington D.C., this summer, her personal experience with “Gender Cannibalism,” and how her identity informs her art.

John enters the Zoom with a giant portrait behind her of a woman in a unique cardboard frame. She explains, “It’s a cardboard painting made by an artist named Machine Dazzle, who’s the designer, and works with Taylor Mac. It is a frame made of… genitalia of all sorts. And I’ve covered up some part of it because I don’t think it’s very Zoom appropriate.”

After assuring her I didn’t mind strange art, and in fact loved it, we got started speaking about her colorful career and love of queer performance.

John Jarboe: [The portrait] was on a show that I did with Martha Graham Cracker and Stephanie Bly, called Queens of the Night with Opera Philadelphia. Wonderful.

I think what you’re doing is so creative and cool. And I think it’s an awesome opportunity for young queer people to see themselves represented in exciting performances on stage and everything. So can you tell me about how this idea came into fruition?

JJ: Yeah, when I came out as trans to my aunt I was like, “I’m using she/her pronouns.” And she paused and said you know, you had a twin in the womb, you ate her, that’s why you are the way you are.

Which, as I often say, it’s a lot to digest. And I knew that if I were assigned female at birth, I would have been called Rose. I just didn’t know that I ate Rose. And so originally during, soon after this moment, I got a commission from Works and Process at the Guggenheim to create some film material exploring the idea of eating Rose, me eating Rose and Rose eating me. And I think I coined this term called “gender cannibalism,” which I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase, “you are what you eat”.

And maybe it’s “you are who you eat”. Like who and what do we consume to become who we are? So I made a ton of films about various aspects of this story and my journey and really investing in the queer imagination and exploring what happens behind the photo, behind the family photo, like what happens in the mind of a young me, a young trans person and growing up in the Midwest. And basically, the Rose Garden is an installation of those videos that you move through and you activate. So it’s very interactive. I think of it like an escape room or rather an escape womb, like escape the room, escape the womb is kind of how I think about it. I think people should think of it less as a typical museum experience and more as a performance that you move through. So you are actually given something that allows you to turn videos on throughout the space. You’re given a little teacup and you put it on saucers throughout the space. And that makes the environment come alive.

And when you bring your show, Rose: You Are What You Eat to the Woolly Mammoth Theater in June. What can audiences expect? And also “gender cannibalism” is such an interesting phrase too… if you want to talk a bit more about that too, I’d be really fascinated to learn more.

John Jarboe
John Jarboe

JJ: I mean, yeah, I just think in metaphors. I think what’s really helpful is a metaphor. Like gender is not something, gender is not really something that we’re born with so much as something that we consume. It’s a construct: a powerful, meaningful, important, and problematic construct that we consume and it becomes part of us. And sometimes what we’re fed is not what we want to eat. It is not what is actually nutritious to us. So it’s just a helpful metaphor for me in terms of thinking about how we eat each other and how like in the queer community too, you’re like, are you siblings? Are you dating? Like, when queer folks like are twinning? You’re just consuming each other. You both got that haircut.

And as for the performance, so apparently my gender is multi-genre. There’s a performance where I perform with a band of amazing composers. So all of the videos are like music videos working with trans composers, trans and queer composers. Emily Bate, Pax Ressler, Daniel De Jesús, Be Steadwell are the four composers that I collaborated with to make the music. And then I worked with Christopher Ash and MK Tuomanen.

Christopher Ash is a filmmaker and MK Tuomanen is a director to help guide the work, and costume designer Rebecca Kanach to make the films. But we also made a show. We made a theater experience that is a kind of a 1:15 musical ritual where I tell the story of Rose and John. And you are invited to sing along and that’s going to be running for three weeks in Woolly Mammoth. And there will be a bit of the Garden, a bit of the Rose Garden that will also be right next to it on the National Mall.

Because we’re working with Cultural DC to bring a piece of the fabric workshop Rose Garden and install it in a shipping container outside the theater. So there’s a lot going on.

John Jarboe
John Jarboe on set

With The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, can you explain how singing together brings you joy and what it means to the community?

JJ: So The Bearded Ladies Cabaret is a company I founded and kind of nursed about 14 years ago in Philadelphia. We’re a queer experimental cabaret company. And Rose is a project that kind of lives both inside and outside of the Beards. So all the installation stuff, the Rose Garden stuff is just me. And the Beards are helping with some performance series that are going to happen in the gallery. The Beards are incredible. We are a queer experimental cabaret company, which kind of means we’re a constellation of queer artists in the city of Philadelphia that do work at the intersection of theater, nightlife, drag, cabaret, and opera. In terms of singalong, I really believe the only way to advocate for the power of the live space is to make it really insistent on its liveness. And I think things like singalong, audience interaction, physically engaging people, I make people do kegels when I perform sometimes.

I’m like, “Everyone do it!” I can tell if you’re not doing it. Because it gets people involved in their bodies in a different way. And a lot of the work that Cabaret does, and I’m hoping also that this installation does, is that it connects people. So it’s like almost sometimes less about the performance itself and more about the space that it creates. So that’s why with the Rose Garden, a third of the gallery is devoted to a hangout space for queer folks. And there will be snacks and there will be cool tunes and good wireless and gender-neutral bathrooms. And yeah, so I’m excited about that too.

John Jarboe
John Jarboe on the set

I love that. So do you see The Bearded Ladies Cabaret expanding beyond Philadelphia?

JJ: Yeah, we’ve, I mean, we’re touring to Woolly. The Beards have toured to New Zealand, to Paris, to Seattle. We’re going to Seattle. I’m going to Seattle this month to work with Martha Graham Cracker and an artist named Cherdonna Shinatra. So that’s exciting. Yeah, we’re both trying to connect to a larger global community of cabaret performers and also continue to establish Philadelphia as a global hub for queer arts.

Absolutely. Do you have any advice for aspiring LGBTQ artists or creatives, whether they’re in the singing space or not?

JJ: I think it’s like, find your people. Find your people. Say yes to a lot. Say yes, like working on this project. Or working on a prop here and there, you know, just find your people. And they’re everywhere. Queer people are everywhere and they’re incredible. So try to find, I feel like the hard thing right now in this political climate is finding abundance. And so my push and what I’m trying to do in all of my work is create a kind of queer abundance and trans abundance. Absolutely.

John Jarboe
John Jarboe

Yeah. Are there specific ways that you maintain your joy that maybe others can add to their own life?

JJ: Oh, that’s a good question. I get a lot of joy from community and from silliness. And one of the things I think queer people offer the world is that we can remind ourselves of sometimes is humor and irony, indirect ways of getting into an issue or a question, and like that we shouldn’t discount laughter and silliness and also boundary pushing. Those are essential queer tactics. Not that we own humor, but there’s a kind of queer humor that because of the way that we were cooked in, this is changing generationally, and also geographically. But like, because we’re cooked in a kind of pressure cooker of denial and some of us are closeted, some of us are still closeted. We’ve developed all these tactics to kind of, wiggle our way into an issue, which is to subvert the issue without the people who are in charge of knowing that we’re doing that.

I think I find a lot of joy from exploring, expounding upon those tactics, and also learning from the younger generation as to how they are approaching this work. And I’m really enjoying working with younger people. I feel like there’s a lot of joy there.

John Jarboe
John Jarboe

In June We’re doing a show called Check It Out, which is a piece for families about banned books.

Are there, and I think this is my last question, are there any queer venues or new artists or anyone that you’d like to give a shout-out to or anywhere around Philadelphia where people can support? Besides you and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret.

JJ: I’m so proud of Sapphira Cristál (who made it to the final two of Drag Race.) I love her, and she’s a friend. So I’m excited for her and for Philly. I think there’s really good stuff happening in Philly at Franky Bradley’s. I think anything Eric Jaffe does is a dream.

Anything Sam Rice does, or Cookie Diorio, is incredible. I’ll show up for it. An amazing kind of leader in the city named Vinny is doing a bunch of stuff at the Painted Mug Cafe, which is a smaller venue in Philly. I’m just excited by the kind of reaction of the youth because it’s one of the few clubs that young folks can perform in.

Yeah, those are some of the things that I would name and people should come and see the Beard Mobile driving around the city in May and June. We’re doing a show called Check It Out, which is a piece for families about banned books.

Oh, that’s wonderful. And so topical too. That’s amazing. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I know we went over a little bit. I’m sorry about that.

JJ: I was 15 minutes late as a good drag queen is.

I’m so happy that you know Sapphira Cristál. She’s killing it this season. Her and Nymphia are like, love. It was such a pleasure talking to you, John. You are fantastic in the work you do as well. So I really appreciate it.

JJ: Thanks so much, Jonny. Appreciate you. I’ll talk to you soon.

Thank you so much and good luck with performing this summer.

Visit one of The Bearded Ladies Cabaret’s pulse-pounding shows and support John through all her creative endeavors!