Detail image for July 2023 One Night at Play story.

Leah Halston, a regular performer at Play Dance Bar.

With drag performers under attack, we visited nightclub Play, where queens rule the stage and acceptance and love fuel the party.

Written by Ben Gierhart | Photographed by Mary Helen Nunn

NOTE: For the sake of continuity, the drag artists in this story will be referred to with she/her pronouns, and out of respect for the art form, subjects will be referred to by their drag names when applicable.

Detail image for July 2023 One Night at Play story.

Gilda Wabbit, a regular performer at Play Dance Bar.

Like most artists, drag artist Leah Halston knew her calling at a young age. “I’ve been inspired by women since I was 6 years old. I knew at a young age I would be different,” she affirms. Halston discovered her gift at none other than a talent show at her high school. It wasn’t marked with the comedy, stage presence, and slick professionalism that a Leah Halston show features today, but it was the beginning. It’s the sort of origin story one might hear from someone who is passionate about playing the piano, singing, or acting. 

Similarly, Gilda Wabbit has been a performer of one kind or another since middle school. “I went to school for opera. What inspired me to do drag was that I experienced the world of classical music and the world of theater,” she says. Gilda attests that her pursuit of a mainstream theatrical career left her creatively stifled, that it forced her to sacrifice parts of herself at the altar of conformity and marketability. When she discovered drag, she knew she had found the right fit: “I get to be visibly queer on stage and perform for audiences who support me entirely for who I am. And I get to do all the music that I want to do.” Indeed, a Gilda Wabbit show is unique, often showcasing her classically trained voice, offbeat humor, and sophisticated taste. 

Detail image for July 2023 One Night at Play story.

Leah takes a moment before she takes the stage.

Leah and Gilda are only two sterling examples of the drag talent in this city, and Micah McGowan offers them and their sisters a stage as the owner and general manager of the nightclub PLAY Louisville. To be sure, the queens are the backbone of his business model, but there is a deep respect for who these artists are and their typical role in LGBTQ history: “Drag queens are the first ones in the community to step up and help raise money for non-profits and other organizations that need funding.” Micah reports that PLAY has raised over $850,000 for local charities and non-profits in the 10 years that the Louisville location has been open. 

Drag queens serve the greater LGBTQ+ community, but they also foster a staunch support network for one another, a sisterhood. Indeed, for a lot of these artists, this sisterhood is the only family they have. “We laugh, we cry, we fight, but in the end, we come together stronger than before. We support each other,” says Leah. 

Detail image for July 2023 One Night at Play story.

Gilda embraces her inner Lucy.

If all of this seems commendable, that’s because it is. So why the recent backlash against trans people and drag artists—trans or otherwise? Gilda has thoughts:   

“I have an easy answer. I’m not sure it’s easy, but I think it’s really clear to me, unfortunately. We are living in a time of increased tensions all across the country. We’ve been dealing with the aftermath, emotionally and financially, of COVID. We have had record profits in almost every major company in the country, but also extreme numbers of layoffs. And no one’s income is rising. There is this great tension and this great upset within the country. And so politicians who are on the side of business and not on the side of their constituents have to find outlets, to direct the anger of their constituents, so that they can maintain power.” 

Both of these proud activists propose solutions that start at the grass roots. “The best way to support is to show up and be visible. Support your local drag shows and/or brunches. Support your local drag queens, kings, and divas,” advises Leah. Gilda agrees and goes one step further, “Don’t vote for people who are doing these anti-drag bills. Robin Williams was a crazy, raunchy stand-up comedian and also did Mrs. Doubtfire, which we show to our kids… [I’m an] American who has a family and friends, who takes care of pets. You know what I mean? And if you’re curious or you don’t understand drag, talk to me. Get to know me. I’m not scared

Detail image for July 2023 One Night at Play story.

Leah in full wardrobe.

Detail image for July 2023 One Night at Play story.

The queens have a laugh backstage at Play.