Art and a touch of madness in Bushwick


The rumbling of the elevated J train echoes along Brooklyn’s Broadway in the neighborhood where Bedford-Stuyvesant meets Bushwick. A few blocks over from the Halsey Street stop is a brownstone located at the corner of Evergreen Avenue and Weirfield Street, where a little black light shines from the entrance of a basement apartment.

Inside, beyond the corridor painted with black and white striped walls, Macy Rodman sits on her bedroom floor. Her room is located next to an altar that sits in the hallway with occult candles lighting framed pictures of Jesus Christ and Elvira, the black-clad “mistress of the dark” from a 1988 comedy horror film. Buried in a sea of wigs and garments in front of her mirror, she begins her makeup regime for the evening show.

Macy Rodman, a drag persona created by the performer Jacob Mason Chamberlin, is 6 feet, 4 inches tall with a beautiful full face, pouty lips, blue eyes, and a pair of cheekbones capable of cutting glass. She—Chamberlin stays in the character of his drag persona when it comes to gender identification–moved to Brooklyn from Juneau, Alaska six years ago, and in 2013 took the crown at the Mr(s)Williamsburg Drag Pageant.

As Rodman fishes through her extensive collection of makeup, she comments, “If we blew up, I don’t know what that would entail. I don’t know if I’d have to do Carl’s Jr. ads.” She was referring to the possibility of achieving stardom and thus the chance of selling herself to a brand, Carl’s Jr. being a fast-food chain.

Her vehicle would be the weekly Monday night drag show she performs at Don Pedro, a bar located on Manhattan Avenue in East Williamsburg. “Bathsalts: A Drag Show for Fuck-ups,” is a zany event that has been described by Ilise Carter of the New York Times as “an off the wall experience.”

She prepares for her evening in the apartment she shares with Severely Mame (Shane Tenczar), her co-host, who is known in the scene as “New York’s favorite dead girl.”  She continues to apply her cosmetics and chooses her look. The costumes are generally mismatched pantsuits from thrift stores, or random hand-me-downs. Occasionally a designer garment will be incorporated into her look. Her size 13 heels are duct-taped to her ankles, which was done originally for function, but has become a signature mark of her wardrobe.

Each week the duo hosts performances that follow a culturally relevant theme, this Monday’s being “Shebola,” mocking the recent Ebola scare in New York. “It becomes a place for people not to be PC, but it’s never been our aim to be underground or unreachable,” Rodman says as she sharpens her lip pencil.

Musician Patti Smith avowed that New York is no longer the place for young artists to go. The performance artist Penny Arcade declared that the city has lost its bohemian scene and turned suburban. Rocketing rents are forcing artists out of artsy neighborhoods, and the lament arises that New York’s cultural underground is deceased.

Yet, somehow with minimal resources, and immense creative drive, misfits like Rodman and Mame keep the essence of subversive New York City alive, and their brand has yet to be commoditized.

For over two years, Don Pedro has been a platform for Rodman and Mame to conduct outlandish avant-garde drag shows along with other live performers such as bands and performance artists.  The night usually begins around 11:30 p.m. and opens with their mock talk show “Salty Talk,” in which the two discuss pop cultural hot topics.

They tell a “dad joke of the week,” wholesome humor that a dad would enjoy or express, which come from the audience or the website of Sandra Hill, romance novelist and joke writer. The talk show ends with a segment in which the two hosts have a website projected onto the wall and read poorly written fan fiction about contemporary sitcoms. The bar and its performers have been featured in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Out Magazine, yet this particular scene and venue remain exclusive to local outcasts and likeminded artists, drawn to Rodman and her circus.

Rodman and Mame innovated a scene that began to surface in 2011-2012.  Other parties such as DRAGnet and Hot Fruit, both at Metropolitan bar in Williamsburg, began around the same time.  Both events similarly host drag shows and performance artists.  As the popularity of the Brooklyn scene grows, promoters who are predominantly known for their Manhattan parties, like Frankie Sharp, creator of the party Westgay at Westway on Clarkson Street on the West Side, have crossed the bridge to promote. Sharp now throws a Friday night party called Girls at Lovegun on Grand Street in Williamsburg; Rodman is a host. While these parties have created a buzz and added to the notoriety of the scene, none have achieved the cult status that Rodman and Mame have managed with Bathsalts.

“I think we gained our popularity because at the time we began, nobody was doing what we were,” Rodman explained. “Our thing was obviously the super involved themes, which I’ve seen in other places, but ours were more specific, and based on insanity and the fact that we can be as ridiculous as possible.”

Both Rodman and Mame are frequently requested to host parties outside of the bar, working with “nightlife royalty” such as Susanne Bartsch, an event producer and party host who has been introducing them to a broader audience. Bartsch, known for her opulent gowns and regal headdress, was recently re-crowned the “Queen of New York Nightlife” by Village Voice columnist Michael Musto.

“When we get booked, we’ll be a part of it, but this is what it is. We’re not hiding the fact that we’re garbage people,” Rodman said. During her drag shows, Rodman performs her own songs live, or sings popular music with an ironic twist–combining, for example, the music to the Robin Thicke song “Blurred Lines,” which had been criticized as misogynistic, with the lyrics to Nirvana’s “Rape Me.”

Victor P. Corona, a professor of sociology at Hofstra University and New York University, explained that this is the cyclic way that New York nightlife runs.  Corona is finishing his book on the lineage of nightlife in New York City from the Warhol Factory to present times, and notes that this could be the beginning of a transformation in persona for Rodman and Mame, since they are being plucked from the underground by Bartsch.

“Bartsch’s strategy for years is that she appropriates them, and I mean that in a good way. She finds interesting kids who are artists and performers and elevates them into a higher light of nightlife. What happens after that is up to the will of the individual,” said Corona. “It’s like she waits at the Port Authority for kids from out of town to exit the bus, as she should be applauded for that. She’s keeping nightlife alive.”

Corona noted that in a broader sense, Rodman and Mame are leaving their mark on nightlife. Their obscure performances and “DIY” (do it yourself) mentality and aesthetic appeal to young New Yorkers, who have little money and great ambitions. “In some ways they inspire kids to come and join in, or one-up them. They inspire people around them, even if those inspired won’t admit it. Inevitably it has an effect. It becomes known and becomes a reference point,” he concluded.

Even though the performers have achieved some notice as nightlife personalities, with references in the media and gigs at larger venues, Don Pedro tends to slip beneath the radar of institutionalized forms of culture and media.

“It’s extremely dive-y and not exclusively gay,” says Severely Mame, sitting at a table in the bar while dressed as a sad clown, waiting to appear at the Wednesday night “Freak Show,” a drag performance followed by a screening of the television program “American Horror Story.” “The bar lets us have it our way. Good staff too.”

Mame is generally quite stylized in handmade garments, mimicking a 1950s pinup girl spliced with a gothic punk.  “There are three camps to nightlife–the ‘normal’ people who pay the fabulous people, the ‘club kids’ who are outlandish and over the top, then there’s the glamorous people, like Susanne [Bartsch], who exude money,” she says.  “This place kind of defies all of that.”

This defiance is the result of having no budget from the venue for their performances, and no bottle service where liquor is distributed for the guests (compliments of the bar) as higher profile establishments generally offer this to performers or hosts. Rodman and Mame split 10 percent of the bar’s evening earnings and are not charged for drinks. Other performers are paid in cocktails and tips thrown their way on stage. The set and stage are created and orchestrated by what performers bring in, and sometimes guests. Anything goes.

“We’re not exclusively a gay bar, but we’re not exclusively a punk bar.  We’re a whatever’s weird bar,” says Randy Mish, bartender at Don Pedro and bar manager.

* * *

Although this stretch of Manhattan Avenue is desolate in the evening, and only lit up by bodegas and streetlights, Don Pedro’s large orange awning and big yellow font seem to magnify the location.  The bar is dimly lit with pink and white Christmas lights, and ornamented with novelty signs such as an advertisement for Colt .45 Malt Liquor featuring actor Billy Dee Williams.  There’s amateur artwork hanging on the walls that looks like 9th grade interpretations of Keith Haring’s work. A Skee-Ball machine is passed the bar to the right, and the soundstage is on the left.

In front of the soundstage is the main stage, where artists and musicians perform before a lopsided banner that reads “DON PEDRO!” Across from the stage is a photo booth, which doubles as a dressing room for the performers. There is also a burrito stand in the back of the house, called B’klyn Burro, and a “Mystery Train Vintage” thrift store in the basement.  When it rains, the already weak ceiling leaks, and at times there are lighting problems during performances. “It’s kind of become a safe space for a lot of people,” Rodman says.

The owner of the building, Medardo Murillo, has little input regarding the comings and goings of the venue, according to Mish, but bar owner Steve Solomon is involved in the bookings.  Mish, alongside his counterpart Emily Lesser, says that the staff plays an important role in the activity conducted inside the bar. “This guy, Greg, is our booker, but we refer people too,” Mish said.  Lesser then added, in reference to Monday evenings, “It’s Macy, honestly. Both Macy and Mame have an understanding of the world that certain people gravitate toward.”

Rodman said she hadn’t a clue that when she began attending Don Pedro on Monday evenings to watch a screening of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a television reality show about the search for the next drag superstar, she would cultivate such a following.  “I never wanted to be ‘a host.’ That world confuses me. I hate promoting myself,” Rodman said.  Possessing a certain camp, the bar continues to remain off the radar, but Rodman is frequently asked to host events by the upper tier of New York nightlife, those who fall in the “glamorous” camp that Mame discussed.

“Why does Macy get a lot of attention? She is very tall, very blond, and very beautiful … and I don’t think she cares. She is easily commoditized into what can be mass culture,” says Diane Dwyer, Rodman’s former professor at the Parsons School of Design. “If she cared about that, I think it would ruin Bathsalts.”

The two met about five years ago, and became close after Dwyer attended her first Bathsalts in 2012.  Dwyer also said that the low budget trappings, the blurred gender lines of the party, and the feelings of inclusivity all contribute to the ambience of Bathsalts.

“Definitions of gender affect the drag scene.  Macy’s drag most of all is duct tape et cetera,” Dywer said.  Rodman’s drag is androgynous, and while her face is quite feminine, she mixes her costumes with male and female garments, and tailors her pieces with the use of tape.  Both Rodman and Mame identify as males, but when in drag (and sometimes out) use female pronouns.

Gender roles do not apply in this scene. Rodman said that “Macy” was “Jacob” trying to live more comfortably. It so happens that her friends and relatives are accustomed to her drag name; therefore these pronouns persist while she is not in costume. Rodman is referred to as female in the media, but is not opposed to male pronouns. “I’m gender versatile,” she said. “I’m kidding, but I actually just don’t care.”

While Macy may be billed as a mere nightlife persona, her performance is aesthetic. Her ability to satirize anything and her singing voice, which can transform from a whiny soprano to a brash baritone, are her artistic tools. “I know that I will always be able to write something new, style myself differently, or have more insight,” Rodman says. “I am confident in my own capabilities and am not coming from a place of taking ideas from other people. Our goal is not to be contrarian.”

But they stand contrary to the notion that creative souls have stopped coming to New York City to cultivate their madness to further innovation in art and culture.

“If our influence is for people to lighten up and you know, call a spade a spade, then that’s amazing,” says Rodman, now dressed in a tweed women’s blazer and a pencil skirt covering a plastic-wrapped body suit.  “If you take away a spirit of lightheartedness, then that’s great.” And then she walks out the door to head for the next show.

Photo and video: Katherine Lloyd.


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