The first time Darrin Hagen walked down Whyte Avenue in full drag, he was terrified.
It was 1987 and he was appearing in a cross-dressing comedy at the Fringe Festival. That’s why he first started doing drag — for the chance to be on stage.
But just by walking down a busy street in 1980s Alberta, Hagen became aware that dressing as a queen was more than just performance.
“The activism came as a result of the fact that as soon as you dress in drag, you’re committing a political act right there, just by transgressing the gender divide,” Hagen said this week on CBC’s Radio Active.
He still combines activism and theatre, now as an actor and playwright who created The Empress & the Prime Minister, currently playing at the Roxy on Gateway Boulevard.
The play’s release was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada. It examines the relationship between a legendary drag queen and then justice minister Pierre Trudeau.
‘I am a Human Being’
That drag queen was ted northe (who used lower case letters for his name), whose gay rights activism stretches back to a time when most LGBTQ people wouldn’t have dreamed of coming out publicly.
In 1958, dressed in full drag, northe famously ascended the steps of Vancouver’s courthouse while holding a sign with the words “I am a Human Being.”
Police quickly chased the protesters away. Northe saw that day as the beginning of his revolution, which was followed by a massive letter writing campaign in support of the decriminalization of homosexuality, according to the website of the Theatre Network, the production company that’s putting on the play.
The letters caught the attention of Trudeau.
The story of their collaboration is the focal point of The Empress & The Prime Minister.
Hagen said he is still amazed at the significance of northe’s act of public activism during that era.
But until a few years ago, he knew surprisingly little about northe’s life. That’s when he attended an awards gala where northe was speaking; Hagen was inspired to tell his story. Northe died a year later but Hagen was able to access several video-taped interviews with him, which were used to inform the script of the Empress & the Prime Minister.
“A lot of the things that I say on stage are actually in ted’s own words,” Hagen said.
Northe’s stage name came after he was crowned the “Empress of Canada” by a group of drag activists who had started a mock “monarchist society.” Northe helped extend the society to Canada, bringing together a community of gay activists and starting important fundraising and non-profit endeavours.
Hagen wanted his play to honour northe’s legacy, and he also wanted to mark the anniversary of the passage of Bill C-150. He was initially surprised to learn some people didn’t like the idea of honouring the legislation.
“Equality wasn’t suddenly real in 1969,” Hagen said. “In fact, I’m kind of still waiting, and I’m 55 year olds now.
“We’ve come a long way but there’s still so much to go.”
Radio Active host Adrienne Pan will will sit down with the cast and crew of The Empress & the Prime Minister after the Friday evening show on April 26, to take a deep dive into the inner workings of the play.