By BRUCE DENNILL
Blame It On Bianca Del Rio / Teatro, Fourways, Johannesburg 5
American comedian, actor and drag queen Bianca Del Rio (real name Roy Haylock) is known for – indeed, it’s her trademark – being an “equal opportunity hater”. An insult comic with sharp, incisive observational sense, zero boundaries and a sense of humour darker than a theatre impresario’s mood on payday, she has parlayed the popular appeal that came with being a winner of reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race into a burgeoning career in comedy, film and web series creation.
Brand awareness is perhaps more of a facet of a drag performer’s career than int might be in the day to day work of a more conventional artist, with the clothes, make-up and fake name all being part of a creation that is entirely different (certainly visually) to the person behind the act. And in the show, that mindfulness of the perception of what is being presented is a major focus, with 10 or 15 minutes up front being dedicated to variously worded disclaimers about how the easily offended should leave the room immediately and other claims regarding the harshness of the material that is to follow. All of this – there are no jokes yet, mind – is greeted with rapturous applause by a capacity crowd, thrilled by Del Rio’s bravado, something they are unlikely to feel capable of exuding themselves and which, vicariously, they particularly enjoy. This seems to be a large part of Del Rio’s appeal: the permission her outrageous confidence and bluster (not to mention her distinctive physical appearance) gives for otherwise more reticent individuals in the crowd to embrace aspects of themselves they feel they can’t share in their workplaces or other spheres of influence.
This part of Del Rio’s attractiveness – the confidence she imparts to fans and followers that supposedly refined society tends to push to the fringes – is fantastic, and fascinating to observe as she works her craft on the stage, as assured as she is contemptuous of, well, just about everything. But the other part of the act – the comedy, rather than the social comedy – is not as effective. Ther are a good number of laughs when Del Rio references other Drag Race competitors or when she presents coal-black punchlines about celebrity suicides and similar topics, but the range of her subject matter is narrower than her obvious intellect suggests should be the case, and for all the early qualifications regarding what people should expect, she is no more controversial than the outspoken likes of John Vlismas or Warren Robertson (though neither of them would look remotely as good in a sparkly dress).
As an opportunity to experience a counter-cultural force, this first visit to Johannesburg by Del Rio was an intriguing experience. As a show judged purely on its comic value, though, it was a touch underwhelming. Del Rio has shown elsewhere that she has the capacity to one day fill the niche occupied by Joan Rivers, but a wider array of perspectives are probably needed to cement that possibility sooner.