A top queen in NYC a few years ago known for her sparkling theatrical comedy and savvy sorcery, actor and mystic Coleman Drew aka Judy Darling is now a Witch on the Rise once again with a mighty Pride show this weekend. [Cover photo: Anuj Goyal]
Thotyssey: Hello Judy, Happy Pride!
Judy Darling: Hi Doll! Happy Pride to you!
So, you are a great person to ask: what are your thoughts about the recent Tonys? Were you particularly pleased, annoyed or surprised by any of the wins, snubs or general moments?
The Tony’s were a delight! I love theatre people so much… I mean, the fashions alone! It is always exhilarating getting to see all those brilliant artists in one space, taking time to celebrate the new works of the season. Ariana DeBose was on fire as host! It was as if she had one of those coffee enemas Rupaul talks about so much. Joaquina Kalukango scorched the stage with her outstanding performance and well-deserved win. A Strange Loop was and is astounding. The entire Awards felt like a lovefest. It was sad Jaquel Spivey didn’t win, but Myles Frost is remarkable in MJ. I loved the Angela Lansbury honors, and the Sondheim tribute with Bernadette. Chef’s Kiss!
There were many great moments, and just enough drama to occupy the fandom! You’ve been involved in a recent production yourself: Justin Elizabeth Sayre’s The Gorgon Approaches, which concluded its run this past Saturday at 6B Garden on Avenue B.
It was so much fun. I got to work with Peter Donnelly onstage, and Justin directed and gave us the brilliant words. We do hope to do it again soon. We were calling it our very own queer Waiting for Godot, or “Gaydot” rather. Peter and I think we should do it on the beach on Fire Island… we’re currently looking for producers with beachfront real estate. The show takes place in 1906 on the British seashore; Sebastian and Ambrose — two young friends — discuss growing up, growing wise, and perhaps growing kind.
You are a Napa, California native. I’m assuming that you came to New York to pursue theater?
Yes indeedy, I am from Cali. I was a big theatre kid growing up, and performed a lot around the bay area. Then I headed east with big dreams and the need to be onstage.
I think Judy was always there lurking, waiting to be released from her cosmic prison that is my mind. For a long time, there was always this need and this desire to express a feminine persona. I knew I wanted to be “Judy” for Garland, but the last name took a while. When “Darling” came to me from Candy, that’s when drag started to make sense. It’s hard to describe… I almost didn’t know who I was until I had those archetypes to springboard from: an MGM addict — I mean, Hollywood Starlet — mixed with a Warhol Muse… I know who that part of me is.
As for why that time, I was around the right people: those who would become my drag family, and open a world of artistic expression to me. My drag moms are Chelsea and Bob, so I was in good hands… huge, but good.
That was only a few years ago, but with all that’s happened in drag and the world at large it might as well have been centuries!
Eight years ago, yeah… feels like forever.
The art and business of drag has changed a lot, and there are probably thousands of more queens in the area than there have ever been. Obviously RuPaul’s Drag Race and social media had a lot to do with that, but what are your thoughts on how drag has changed since you started?
So much has changed. Shows like Drag Race and those that have come from that ripple effect have only helped make this expression more popular. Drag is embraced so much now in the mainstream, and that has definitely changed who is walking through the doorway. Gender expression and inclusion are beautiful things anytime, but it does feel like Eve Harrington is not coming from the theatre world anymore… she’s a drag queen.
It’s hard to quantify, really. In many ways, the world as a whole seems more dangerous and divided… while it also feels like drag isn’t as naughty as it once was. It used to feel more like a subversive act to dress up, and in many places it is very much still. But I have felt a great shift in many of our queer metropolitan areas. It’s like you said, there’s just so many of us, it’s not as elusive as it once was.
It will be interesting to see how things in the scene develop, especially if Drag Race dips in popularity. But during circa 2016 and 2017 when you hosted lots of weekly bar shows, New York drag queens were huge and were just starting to take advantage of social media. You had all those gorgeous shots done by photographers like David Ayllon. Nowadays young queens seem more interested in TikTok and IG filters, but you must be so glad you now have those great works of art displaying your witchy visage!
David is amazing! Yes, honestly fan art and photo collaborations are one of my favorite aspects of drag. I think also because of Covid, so many had to learn how to be so much more self-reliant. Drag already was a one-person-band kind of operation, and Covid really called on performers and artists to figure out how to get their material out to the world without support in a very new way.
Your tagline is “a Witch on the Rise,” but that’s not just a gimmick. You continue to be a prolific tarot reader, and you work with items like candles and crystals, etc.
I am a real life Witch! I was just cackling down the stairs of my home, in fact. I am available for readings and custom spell work, for those needing spiritual assistance and creative unblocking support.
How important are these elements to your day-to-day life?
Energetic hygiene is very important to me. I could draw a correlation between when things were working well in my life and times when my spiritual practice was at an all-time high. If we are a Good Queen, we wash our clothes and clean our houses, etc. But it’s equally, if not slightly more important, to find a way of doing that spiritually. Knowing how you communicate with your higher self, your higher power, what your definition of Good Orderly Direction is — and tapping into the idea that your ancestors, those who’ve come before you, have your back — knowing how to discover those answers have helped me ground, focus and affirm my purpose and my work. It is at times my greatest life raft to the cacophony that is the world and capitalism.
At the height of Judy Darling’s NYC takeover, you had to take a large step away from drag. You’ve been open regarding your struggle with depression, which is particularly not contusive to the craziness of nightlife and performing. On top of that, a fire in your apartment at that time destroyed most of your drag apparel. You’ve performed as Judy several times since then, but no longer on a weekly basis. If I may ask: how do you feel today, both in a general sense and about that decision to scale back when you did?
Scaling back then was very much needed. I had to stop, or something else was gonna stop me. I have this unshakable inner voice guiding me, and when it said this isn’t where your joy is right now, I had to listen or risk losing and never finding it there again. That is where drag and any artistic expression should live: inside joyful play. Obviously, the world has changed greatly since I was a full-time queen. And even though much of the world scares me, I feel more focused than ever on the art I am wanting to create and share.
Today is a good day! I’m blessed with a wonderful family, both chosen and otherwise, who support and bolster my artistic adventures. I’ve been getting some really fun performance opportunities outside of Judy, affording me some nice balance.
In fact, the Witch will be among us once again rather soon!
Judy is debuting a new cabaret show on Pride Weekend: June 25th at the beautiful Chelsea Table & Stage at 2 pm. The working title is “Critical Gay Theory!” Judy Darling leads us through some of life’s conundrums with song, love, laughs and two beautifully critical gay eyes! I have the delightful music director and accompanist Mason Griffin helping me put together a really exciting show… and the brilliant Frenchie Davis as my special guest, it’s going to be magickal.
Very exciting! Have you worked with Frenchie before?
She recorded a poem I wrote for a performance art piece, but this will be the first time we’re getting to share a stage live. We’ve been friends for a long time, and I find her to be one of the most grounded people. Her talent transcends, but she is incredibly intelligent and so real. I just love her.
Can wait to see this! Anything else coming up for you?
This Witch is always down to clown, so if someone out there has an idea for a project you’d like to collaborate on together, let me know. I have felt the blooming of an artistic renaissance since the pandemic, and now find myself in a great place for the universes to bring me the invitations I’m meant for. And of course, Judy always has more tricks up their sleeve… stay up to date by following my Instagram for all the magickal happenings.
Oh that’s hard! if I’m being honest, it’s gotta be #TeamAgatha.
I knew it all along! Thanks Judy!