KiYanna Uchawi: Drag as Performance as Social Commentary

As the recent winner of an ArtsKC Inspiration Grant, Uchawi has put herself — and drag — on wider artistic radars. (Evening Star Photography)

The Kansas City Performer Strives for a Positive Impact on the Community Through the Art of Drag

In Swahili, “uchawi” is magic, yet at the same time, it is witchcraft. It is the awe of sleight of hand mixed with the fear of the unknown and otherworldly. Words with multiple meaning usually depend on context to define them. However, for the Haus of Uchawi, a Kansas City-based drag family, everything is intentional in their chosen name. They deliver the magic through the excitement of performance and the witchcraft through an art form that is still taboo in many communities. Being an entirely Black house with three queens and one king, the choice of Swahili — a language spoken across the African continent by more than 100 million people — was intentional as well. Their newest member and ArtsKC Inspiration Grant winner, KiYanna Uchawi (she/they), has made her home in the Haus of Uchawi and Kansas City’s drag scene. By winning an Inspiration Grant, she has also put herself — and drag — on wider artistic radars.

In basic terms, drag is a performance of gender. Queens put on exaggerated performances of femininity, while kings play up their masculinity. Traditionally, cisgender performers acted out the opposite sex, but gender and drag have both expanded beyond the concept of a binary. As has KiYanna, who is nonbinary and uses both they and she pronouns. Her drag career has been a swift upward climb, which started after she lost her job toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though COVID has been an ongoing tragedy, KiYanna admitted, “It’s so easy for us to get caught up in what we do in our everyday lives that we forget about what we’re actually passionate about. I needed the pandemic to happen to start that journey.” It pushed her to finally realize her dream. A year and a half later, she lights up stages with her late ’90s early 2000s “around the way girl” aesthetic.

“Every time KiYanna hits the stage, she shows that she is a strong symbol of Black excellence, Black beauty, and Black girl magic!”

Karmella Uchawi, drag artist

For KiYanna, “Drag is not just about going on TV. It’s more than that — it’s about making an impact on the community.” She has been an actor and singer for most of her life. As a young person, she discovered the impact stories can make. They educate, inspire and crack open tightly sealed mental pathways. Drag functions the same way, in what KiYanna calls, “a mixture of performance art and social commentary.”

The social commentary aspect is particularly poignant for a visible queer person of color. It is life-changing for children to see themselves reflected in art and media, yet for queer kids, especially queer kids of color, representation is sparse. By donning a glittery bodysuit and lip-syncing Whitney Houston during drag brunch, KiYanna embodies this much needed representation.

Drag has certainly become more mainstream with RuPaul Charles’ massive media empire — Drag Race. However, drag, previously referred to as female impersonation, has existed in Kansas City for more than 100 years.

Greatness for KiKi Uchawi is being the program director at Missy B’s and the mother of “a strong pro-Black house who express creativity through the art of drag.”

KiYanna Uchawi is the newest member of the Haus of Uchawi, a Kansas City-based drag family that is an entirely Black house. (Evening Star Photography)

Stuart Hinds, curator of Special Collections & Archives at UMKC and co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America (GLAMA), has been doing research on the history of drag in Kansas City for more than a decade. The first iterations of drag came through minstrel shows, which gave way to vaudeville. In the late 1950s, the Jewel Box, a neighborhood bar on Troost, started to feature drag shows, and they exploded in a big way. Hinds is quick to point out, “The Jewel Box was essentially a gay bar for straight people.” Middlebrow straight couples flocked to the Jewel Box because it was a good show, full of energy and creativity — a bit of spectacle mixed with high-quality entertainment.
Nevertheless, the stark truth of this time is that documentation on the history of drag is primarily about white performers. Black and Brown drag queens and kings existed, but they existed in separate spaces.

Being a Black drag performer today comes with its own nuance and challenge, which is why KiYanna was so drawn to the Haus of Uchawi. The mother of the house, KiKi Uchawi, initially reached out to KiYanna as a friend and mentor who knows firsthand what it was like to be a queer person of color (POC). KiYanna was taken by this approach, saying, “This is an entertainer who is also experiencing what it’s like to be a POC during a pandemic, during protests and still trying to help out someone new. All of that wrapped in a bow is like, ‘Okay, this person has a heart. This person knows what they want, but they do see greatness for their community.’”

Greatness for KiKi Uchawi is being the program director at Missy B’s and the mother of “a strong pro-Black house who express creativity through the art of drag.”

One such pro-Black show, the Cookout at Hamburger Mary’s, is hosted by KiYanna’s drag sister, Karmella Uchawi. The show is a play on a barbecue or a family reunion, with a red and white gingham tablecloth and a roll of paper towels on each table. Karmella, the bearded queen, features all Black performers with themes of Black excellence and joy. Of her sister, Karmella said, “Every time KiYanna hits the stage, she shows that she is a strong symbol of Black excellence, Black beauty and Black girl magic!” She is a powerhouse, unapologetically Black performer who always remains true to herself.

Looking toward Kansas City’s drag future, KiYanna envisions the art form moving beyond the few gay clubs that feature it now into spaces that aren’t specifically queer. Just as drag has broken down barriers of gender, she would like to see the art form step out of its own confines. It could get weirder, merge genres and welcome even more LGBTQ+ individuals. She said, “I just want to see even more variation of what drag can be. That’s where younger generations are going — not fitting into the binary — and spreading this art form as a display of personality versus expression of gender. Once we display personality, we don’t have to worry about gender expression. We can just display this art form.”

Emily Spradling

Emily Spradling is an adult English-language instructor, freelance writer and founding member of the arts/advocacy organization, No Divide KC. She is particularly interested in the intersections of art, culture and LGBTQ+ issues.

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