Review: 'Workhorse Queen' Illuminates Drag Performers at the Edge of the Spotlight

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday May 3, 2022

Edward Popil in 'Workhorse Queen'
Edward Popil in 'Workhorse Queen'  

While the world applauds drag icons like Alaska Thunderfuck, Jinkx Monsoon, and Bob the Drag Queen, there's a whole cadre of other hard-working performers standing at the edges of the spotlight — queens who aren't quite the reality TV ideal.

One of those is Mrs. Kasha Davis, the creation of drag performer Ed Popil and the subject of Angela Washko's documentary "Workhouse Queen."

Popil is a born performer who found his calling after moving to Rochester, New York and discovering the local drag scene — as well as meeting the man who would become his husband (hence the "Mrs." in Mrs. Kasha Davis). Popil began doing drag in 2004, and, after sending in audition tapes for every season of "RuPal's Drag Race," he was finally chosen to complete in Season Seven.

Popil did respectably well, being the season's fifth contestant who was told to "sashay away." But the sting of not having won — and the words of judgment that spelled the end of his tenure on the show (one dismissive phrase provides the film's title) — mark this personal history, which comes replete with home video shot by Popil's supportive husband.

What Washko has set out to do is craft a narrative that critically examines what the drag scene has turned into with the mainstreaming and televising of drag, examining and celebrating a kind of drag underclass of those left on the margins, or left behind, and the dreams, aspirations, and — most importantly — community contributions that they make even as they are overshadowed by drag's new class of superstars.

But this is also a deep dive into Popil's personal story, a journey that's by no means smooth or easy, marked by giddy moments of success but also stretches of harrowing doubt. Though he modeled Mrs. Kasha Davis on his own mother — whom Popil calls an "Italian diva" — the act of coming out to his parents caused a serious family rift. ("Mom was dramatic and cried, and Dad just spit in my face and told me to get out," Popil recounts.)

The film is an unstinting portrait of the labor, expense, and raw determination that goes into a drag career. Famed queens pop up to offer their thoughts — Bianca del Rio, Pandora Boxx — but more crucial to the story are perspectives from outside the limelight, like that offered by Rochester drag performer (and constantly rejected "Drag Race hopeful) Aggy Dune, who shows off her drag closet, repository of a vast collection of wigs and costumes. Reflecting on how things have changed, Dune notes that a dedicated performer used to have to track down specialty items or else create them herself; nowdays, though, there are online stores selling everything you need... or, as Aggy Dune puts it, "instant drag queen, just add vodka."

There may be more in the way of commercial outlets for the items a drag queen needs, and the art form itself may be getting coopted by commercialization to a degree, but the spirit of hands-on innovation is still very much alive among small-time home town drag performers, at least to judge from what we see here. Popil ruefully recounts the gigs he's booked that turned out to be financially draining or professionally unsatisfying — who wants to fly to Australia, or go to Los Angeles for a drag convention and be hassled by anti-LGTBQ street preachers, and then not have much of an audience? — but the local scene, where Mrs. Kasha Davis plays to sold-out houses, entertains children and their parents at Drag Story Hours, and puts the kind of energy into the town's Pride events that she puts into her own shows, is as vibrant as ever.

Washko's portrait of the drag performance ecosystem that exists at the edges of fame is funny and heartbreaking, but it also brims with compassion and creative excitement.

"Workhorse Queen" arriving on DVD and VOD May 3, followed closely by the network premiere on Starz on June 1 for Pride Month

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.