In ‘Mister Miss America,’ a tradition for non-traditionals takes center stage

BY BETSY Kim | In the solo show “Mister Miss America,” written and performed by Neil D’Astolfo, 24-year-old Miss Southwestern Virginia pageant contestant Derek Tyler Taylor shines a light on a central message: freedom of speech. yourself with the honesty of who you are and finding an accepting audience isn’t always easy – for anyone. But it’s worth it, whether it’s for a local contest where the finalist wins a $150 gift certificate to the Lady Mirage Day Spa or for aspirations beyond Broadway.

The 86th annual tradition cuts through some Southern tropes. An announcer introduces contestants with lines like, “Hotter than your daddy’s gun…It’s Miss Bristol, Alicia Simpcox!” and “Sugar and spice and all not-so-nice… It’s Miss Galax, Murphy Denison!

Derek’s rival is favorite Miss Roanoke who beats the Bible, Kimber Leigh Dixon. Highlighting the Southern penchant for middle names, he notes that her name is not Kimberly but “Kimber Leigh”, complete with her KLD monogrammed cosmetic bag.

Neil D’Astolfo wrote and performed in the solo play. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

The All for One Theater production at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at 224 Waverly Place has an intimate atmosphere. The show features a morals-defying transvestite protagonist in a small Southern town. It is set in a community, Greenwich Village, where such expressions historically thrived, but were once cloistered and subject to police raids. In 1969, the Stonewall Uprising, where people stood up for gay and lesbian rights, started just a five-minute walk from the venue.

Drag shows are nothing new in this neighborhood, or now, across the country. What deserves to be contemplated is how a seemingly exaggerated local production tackles issues of national importance. Discrimination continues to run rampant, enhancing the play’s relevance beyond mere entertainment.

The recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization quashed Roe v. Wade. In his agreement, Judge Clarence Thomas argued for reconsideration of the 14th Amendment’s right to privacy. He specified the possible inversion of the jurisprudence which established the rights to contraception, same-sex relations and same-sex marriage. With this contest, Derek’s fight has only just begun.

Neil D’Astolfo portrays the role of a drag performer who tries to win a traditional Southern beauty pageant. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

At one point, he nearly quit, explaining that the judges and audience see him as a joke, as he puts it, “a 10-pound Virginia ham on that stage.”

“They’re all thinking, ‘Look at this prancine fagot’ around like he’s got a real chance in hell in that capacity. How pathetic,” Derek says.

Still, he forges ahead with the talent portion of the contest, energetically giving his all in an athletic, lip-synced blitzkrieg. Derek takes songs and acting clips in a flash pastiche of “Gypsy”, “I, Tonya”, “Mommie Dearest” and other highly recognizable iconic performances.

Why? He had had a 15-year dream of going on stage to show off his talent. Throughout his childhood, no one argued that he was different or “special”. But on an arduous trip to New York to see Patti LuPone, fame encouraged him to tear down the barricades. With determination, he would express his true self, with whom other “special” children could relate, and feel reassured to pursue his own dreams and be who he is.

Although it sounds like a simple message, hate crimes plague our society. The The FBI publishes statistics of crimes motivated by prejudice based on race, sex and gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation and ethnic origin. For 2020, the agency reported 8,052 single-bias hate crime incidents involving 11,126 victims.

The preview soundtrack portrays a supportive audience, downplaying Derek’s guts to come across as the only beauty queen in drag. Yet, with the stakes representing something beyond a quirky little event, he faces a dramatic moment that asks him how far he will go in the fight to win. Who is he willing to become to beat an opponent he describes as hypocritical and dishonest? He rises to the challenge of constantly speaking his own truth – in this rather untraditional piece of morality confronting today’s world.

“Mister Miss America,” running 75 minutes, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, through August 7.