REVIEW: Bianca Del Rio’s Rolodex of Hate somehow filled with love and compassion
When I first sat down to watch the standup special of Bianca Del Rio – the impossibly fierce drag incarnation of costume designer Roy Haylock, and winner of the sixth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race – I was more than a little afraid. After sashaying onto the red curtained stage in a floor-length sequin gown of matching hue, Del Rio warns her live audience in Austin, Texas that “tonight is not for the faint hearted”. Believing that “people are too P.C.”, the comedienne prepares us for an evening of unapologetically offensive comedy, with no joke too distasteful and no topic too taboo for inclusion in her Rolodex of Hate. Nevertheless, when the hour’s entertainment comes to a close, I can’t help feeling an unexpected warmth towards this self-proclaimed ‘clown in a gown’, who just laid her soul bare for the scrutiny of all. How is it that a performance promising to be ‘hilariously hateful’ ends up leaving us overcome with feelings of love and compassion?
I’m certainly not suggesting that Del Rio’s humour isn’t incredibly caustic. Described as the Joan Rivers of the drag world (wait, Joan Rivers wasn’t a man in drag?!), she does indeed indulge in numerous cutting barbs; many of which are made at the expense of her vulnerable audience members, who sit prey to a string of ‘fuck you’s and personal insults that cut way too deep. In addition, no race or gender is dealt with politely, as everyone is considered fair game in Del Rio’s tirades of abuse (Asian male genitalia is particularly persecuted, for some reason). What stands out in spite of this, however, is the sensitive side of Haylock – the son of a Cuban mother and Honduran father who always knew he was different from his brothers and sisters, but never knew how to deal with him.
The most memorable elements of Del Rio’s show are undoubtedly the moments where she reminds us of Haylock’s humanity beneath all the feathers and makeup, like the young boy who was sent to weekly appointments with a psychiatrist after his mother discovered him making a dress. “I’m not crazy, I’m fierce!”, Del Rio protests on her childhood self’s behalf, sad doe eyes peeking out from behind those striking stage lashes. Then there are the recurring references to young Roy’s questionable relationship with his uncle. “If you’re a child and your uncle doesn’t fuck you, you’re ugly!” is one of the more difficult to swallow lines.
The anecdote which perhaps struck me the hardest in Bianca Del Rio’s Rolodex of Hate is a story that literally exposes the Roy behind the Rio, in which the performer finds herself stranded without her luggage upon arriving in Wisconsin for a show. “What’s a drag queen without her luggage..? A man!”, jokes Del Rio, before recounting a panicked rush around a midwestern Walmart, gathering up the materials to construct a makeshift costume from a towel and nightgown. The image evoked is both hilarious and heart-rending, as we picture an individual whose public self is intrinsically divided, and inextricably dependent on disguise.
Of course, these more poignant moments are dispersed between uproarious laughs about overweight Instagram trolls, experimentation with party drugs, drunk straight white girls ‘in the club’, and the ins and outs of anal sex. If I hadn’t made it obvious enough, this is a standup show in every sense of the word; and a no holds barred one, at that.
I simply dwell on Rolodex of Hate‘s more sensitive moments as I speak from the perspective of a reasonably faint hearted, soft stomached viewer, who all but balked at the idea of a comedy show promising to be hateful. I didn’t want to watch someone standing on a plinth and spouting racist diatribes or sizeist abuse, for example. Yet rather than instigating or perpetuating hate, Bianca Del Rio uses her show as a release valve for everything that’s wrong in our society today, and, clearly coming from a place of love rather than hate, talks this politically correct reviewer around to seeing the lighter side of the socially unacceptable. I feel that, if anyone is entitled to say it, this woman has earned the right.
I arrive at the end of the performance rejoicing at the fact that Del Rio is taking the world by storm, from that small town in Wisconsin, to this sold-out venue in Austin.
Bianca Del Rio’s Rolodex of Hate is available to pre-order now, only on Vimeo.