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Black Performance on the Outskirts of the LeftA History of the Impossible$
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Malik Gaines

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781479837038

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479837038.001.0001

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The Cockettes, Sylvester, and Performance as Life

The Cockettes, Sylvester, and Performance as Life

(p.135) 4 The Cockettes, Sylvester, and Performance as Life
Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left

Malik Gaines

NYU Press

San Francisco’s Cockettes troupe staged radical anti-disciplinary spectacles onstage, in short films, in public, and in their domestic spaces. They hyperbolized the leftist political programs that informed both the liberation movements and the communal living practices in which they were ensconced. Through elaborate gender-defying combinations of drag and nudity, the Cockettes used their bodies as sites of social transformation. Sylvester, who later became a recording star, was perhaps the best-known Cockette. Using a repertoire of black virtuoso diva techniques, including a proficient singing voice, attention to black musical forms, and articulate modes of dress, Sylvester perfected a black expressive originality constructed from historically black signs. The difference between his radical virtuosity and the transgressive drop-out aesthetic of the predominantly white Cockettes troupe reveals a lack of organic unity in this revolutionary space and a racial cleavage in the project of liberation.

Keywords:   Cockettes, Sylvester, drag, San Francisco, expressivity, radical, virtuosity, liberation, leftist, diva

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