A rising star of the Astoria scene, this ex-Broadway “child swing” originally based his drag character on musical theater’s dynamic diva Angela Lansbury before discovering that actress’ most famous TV role. Now Angela Mansberry is the Murder Mystery Matinee Mamma of NYC drag, and is quite ready to sleuth her way through your digital devices as well. [Cover photo: Matt Monath]
Thotyssey: Hello Angela, thanks for chatting! So, how is your quarantine treating you?
Angela Mansberry: Quarantine life is tough, but I’m doing okay. I’m keeping busy with my day job–which has been a blessing–and I’m trying to stay motivated creatively. Despite all of the free time we have right now, it’s difficult to be creative; I never thought that would happen. However, I do find that after a long day, being creative is the best way to escape the current situation. It gives me something else to focus on, and it’s a great way to feel like I’ve accomplished something despite the monotonousness of daily life in quarantine. It makes me laugh, makes me think, and just gives me something to look forward to; that feeling of hope is very important right now. Otherwise, it can start to feel like a one woman version of Grey Gardens.
What are your creative pursuits aside from drag?
Before I started doing drag, my creative outlet was mixed media Playbill art. I would take Playbills apart and decoupage them in a design on canvas. I have a piece hanging up in Don’t Tell Mama on 46th Street that was made using an original Broadway cast Playbill of Cabaret, and I’m still really proud of those pieces I made.
It’s funny, though… during this time in quarantine, all of my creative time has been spent thinking about what is next for Angela Mansberry. Working on new games or new drag numbers just gives me hope that one day, the bars with reopen and I’ll come out of this with some sort of growth as an artist.
I’m sure we’ll get to see Angela back on the case soon enough! But before we discuss her, let’s go back a bit further… where are you from originally, and what were the mediums that interested you first?
I grew up in Howell, NJ and theater was my first love from a very early age. I saw my first Broadway show at 5 years old, and my mother always likes to say that whenever I was sitting in a theater I was completely transfixed. In second grade, my teacher Ms. Steinat encouraged my mother to take me into NYC to pursue acting professionally. My mother and I would travel back and forth to the city, constantly auditioning for all types of things.
Over the years I booked a few commercials here and there, and then my big break was when I was cast as a swing in A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden in 2001. The show’s star that year was the legendary Tim Curry and it’s surreal to think that I met him at such a young age. It was just after 9/11, so it was a crazy time to be spending so much time in the city, but the experience was absolutely life changing. Not only was I a member of Actors Equity at the age of 11, but I also learned a tough lesson about life as an actor.
I was the swing, which meant I had to be there to cover both of the children casts. But it also did not guarantee I would ever be able to play the role, and as it turned out I never did. At one performance, they brought all of the kids on stage for a bow, but over the 10 week run, I never was able to actually go on for the track I covered. Of the child swings, I was the only one that year that never got to go on. I must have watched the show hundreds of times and I remember how disheartening it was to never actually get to perform, and I knew in that moment that I didn’t want to do this as an adult because I knew it would just get harder.
I went back to audition the following year, and I was now too tall for the role… and something switched in my brain after that. Basically after that experience, I decided that I wanted my success in life to be based on my own intelligence and achievements. I didn’t want my success to be based on the way other people saw me, and I didn’t want my success to be limited by things I couldn’t change like my height, weight, hair color, etc. From then on, I wanted to perform on my own terms and I wanted it to be fun, not work. I’m glad I learned that tough lesson at such a young age, because it led to what I do professionally and creatively now.
Drag was always something I wanted to try, and seeing Sutton Lee Seymour perform at Albatross absolutely changed my life. Her humor, her love of theater, and the community she was building at Albatross gave me an entirely new perspective of what drag can be. That’s why when she announced her debutante ball at Albatross, I immediately thought, “Oh wow, this is my chance to really give it a shot.” This was a bar I knew and a host I respect more than any other drag queen I’d ever seen, so I felt safe to try something new.
I immediately sent Sutton a message to sign up and I decided to use a name I’d had in my back pocket for a long time: Angela Mansberry. I had a month to prepare my number for the show, and it was probably one of the most stressful periods of my life because I had a lot to learn. I knew how to perform, but I knew nothing about wigs or makeup. I remember being terrified walking through the makeup aisle at CVS, walking past the aisle multiple times before snatching a piece of makeup and running away as quickly as possible, and shaking the whole time.
Then I would try putting makeup on myself and I remember crying because I didn’t look pretty, which is hilarious in retrospect but it was devastating at the time. My friend Christie was a wiz at makeup, so I asked her to help me one day. And another day, I got together with Petti Cash so we could do makeup together. We went to the same college and I knew she was pursuing drag, so I was thrilled when she offered to help me. I bought a corset and borrowed my first drag costume from my hometown community theater costume designer, and before I knew it I was up on the stage performing a pie-themed number that combined Waitress with Sweeney Todd.
It went really well and I met some amazing drag artists during that show who I still love to this day. I remember before the show, Sutton said “you’re gonna get addicted to it” and she was right. Right after finishing my first drag performance, I was thinking how I could perform again and over the next few months, I continued to perform and write new material. Then it’s all history after that.
A monthly show at Albatross soon followed: “Murder Mystery Matinee!” What’s that all about?
I’ve always loved murder mysteries. Clue is my favorite movie of all time, and growing up I devoured everything from Agatha Christie. Funny enough, I wasn’t familiar with Murder, She Wrote until after I’d already chosen Angela Mansberry as my namesake. I was familiar with Angela Lansbury’s stage work, but in order to know more about her I started exploring her film and TV credits, and that’s when I watched Murder, She Wrote [where she starred for years as amateur detective Jessica Fletcher] for the first time. I fell in love with the TV show the first time I watched it, and I knew queer people would love the show too if they finally were able to watch it.
While watching the first few episodes of Murder, the idea for an interactive drag show where the audience votes for the killer in real time came to me almost immediately. The idea of incorporating the TV show seemed like a great way to provide a different type of drag show that actively involved participation from the audience. I spent a few months thinking about all aspects of the show before approaching Albatross’s owner, Nathan, about the idea. I’m grateful he gave me the chance to host my first show at Albatross last April, and I was thrilled to collaborate with Joey Paradise to pull it off from a technical perspective. The Astoria community embraced the show, and it was a wonderful challenge to essentially write a new show every month based around a new episode. It was a labor of love each time, and I could feel myself growing as a performer each show.
The murder mystery angle also brought a significant shift in the way I saw my drag character. Not only could I be a musical theater queen, I could be a campy horror queen, which seemed to fit me perfectly because my two very diverse passions are musical theater and horror movies. That’s also when I started thinking of Angela Mansberry as not a young starlet, but an older woman. So I started incorporating old age makeup into my drag look. It all started to come together over time.
Have you seen any of the episodes where Angela plays Jessica Fletcher’s cockney identical cousin? That’s clearly an ode to Sweeney Todd and her stage work!
Yes! Funny enough, for the Thanksgiving edition of my Murder Mystery Matinee, I decided to do a Mrs. Lovett Thanksgiving Special themed show where we watched one of the MSW episodes that features Jessica’s cockney cousin, Emma McGill. I loved the tie-in between the MSW episode and Mrs. Lovett, so I ran with it as a concept. Also. my fabulous drag sister Jacklynn Hyde was finishing culinary school at the time, and she volunteered to make delicious personal pumpkin pies for the occasion. During the show, I performed Sweeney Todd-themed numbers and I walked around selling pies to the audience. What an absolute thrill! Definitely one of my favorite drag memories.
Murder, She Wrote is super fun to watch now, but it always used to annoy me that you could rarely solve the murder from home because Jessica was always finding some giant damn clue off camera right before the end!
Bahaha! Yeah, some episodes are easier than others, but some of those endings seriously come out of nowhere. When I host the show, I present the audience with six suspects, so that makes it a bit easier to solve the murder. Of course, Jessica Fletcher is always suspect #1 just ’cause I think it’s a funny running joke for returning audience members. Thankfully every time I’ve done the show at least one person has gotten it right, so that is always encouraging.
Let’s be real, Jessica totally killed all those people.
Yeah! I like to think Angela Mansberry is part detective, part serial killer, so that makes it super fun.
So, now that all nightlife is on pause, queens have been doing their thing digitally. Have you been watching these home shows at all?
I am super impressed with how drag artists have adapted to the current situation. Watching Sutton Lee Seymour perform from Puerto Vallarta warms my soul every time, and I’m thrilled seeing Jacklynn Hyde share her cooking skills with the world. Also, shout out to Cacophony Daniels who is absolutely killing it each week with her live show. So many talented performers are rising to the occasion, and I think it’s something we all need right now to keep us going.
You’re entering the digital ring yourself this Sunday for “Cinema Showdown” (5pm) on Instagram, alongside another Albatross favorite, Avant Garbage. The show will center around movie trivia… tell us more!
Yes! I’m super excited to share this with everyone and I’m thrilled to work with my good friend Avant Garbage again. We co-hosted a Halloween show at Albatross this past October, and we immediately clicked over our love of movies. Our two distinct drag aesthetics combine brilliantly as well. During quarantine, we knew we wanted to do something together involving movies, and I came up with an idea of a live trivia show on Instagram Live where the questions are themed each week for different film genres.
Our first show is modern horror-themed, so the questions will be about our favorite horror movies from the past 20 years. Then the May 31 show will be themed around comic book movies, and the June 7 show will be themed around musical movies in celebration of this year’s Tony Awards that were unfortunately cancelled. We are writing 10 trivia questions each week, and we will each be performing numbers during the livestream. It’s a really exciting project to work on with Avant, and I’m sure it will continue to grow and evolve over time.
Speaking of digital drag, did you happen to catch the Drag Race socially distant reunion episode this past Friday? It was actually fun and pleasant, with the possible exception of Ru’s bizarre fashion choice!
I haven’t watched the reunion episode yet, but I’m very curious to see how this finale pans out. I think we’re all dying to see how it comes together virtually.
Yes! Any closing thoughts or plugs?
I encourage everyone to support drag artists right now any way you can. It’s a tough time for our community, and I know everyone could use a laugh and some love right now… not to mention your tips to keep them going. Shout out to the super talented queens delivering food from Fresco’s Cantina and performing for audiences in a safe way. It’s really inspiring to see.
For now, I’m focusing on Cinema Showdown because it’s my first weekly show, but I’ll also say to keep an eye out for me when the bars open back up. I’ve got some exciting plans for events I’d like to host and I can’t wait to get back into our second homes, the gay bars. Feel free to follow me on Instagram where I occasionally post stories about the movies I’m watching, and let me know of any movies you’d recommend.
And lastly, where is the first place you’re gonna go once quarantine is lifted?
It will absolutely be Albatross. I can’t wait to get back in there and see everyone. It’s become my second home over the past few years, and I miss it terribly.
Here’s hoping that’s right around the corner! Thanks, Angela!