Squeezing into a dark, velvety, packed cabaret-style theater in Southern Nights on a Tuesday night just before Halloween, we're immediately immersed in a realm far away from both the bustling Milk District outside these walls, and, indeed, even the main neon-lit room at Southern. Glancing around, we see a dense crowd of regulars, young and dressed to the nines in goth-gone-glam attire, enraptured by what's happening on the stage. And why wouldn't they be?
Pennywise dances to Disturbed, a genderless Nosferatu in a wedding dress mimes to Keisha Cole, a sexy grim reaper wields a scythe, and Freddy Krueger himself follows, all MC'd by a punk zombie straight out of a deleted scene in Return of the Living Dead. Every costume is perfect down to the detail. These performers are physical and soulful and terrifying all at once. Phones record every move. Dollar bills rain down on the performers. This is Black Haüs, this is Creature Feature, this is the bleeding edge of a new wave of horror-drag in Orlando – and beyond.
Even if you've never attended Black Haüs' weekly Creature Feature night, you might recognize two of the core members of the Black Haüs family, matriarch Victoria Elizabeth Black (Demetrio Asciutto) and Dollya Black (Mason Hartenstein) from Seasons 2 (2018) and 3 (2019), respectively, of the Boulet Brothers' superlative reality show Dragula – the new season is airing now on Amazon Prime. Dragula is the flip side of RuPaul's Drag Race, celebrating the visually transgressive and ugly side of beauty to outrageous effect. Victoria was among the top three finalists of Season 2 and on the day we chatted with the Black Haüs hive mind, Dollya has just been named one of the top three for this current third season. Only a couple of episodes remain as this issue goes to press. Spirits are high.
In a city where drag houses aren't exactly the norm, the young Black Haüs collective stand tightly united. Black Haüs consists of the aforementioned Victoria and Dollya, joined by Opulence Black (Rock Kelly) and Waka Shame-Black (Alexander Rappa), along with Dollya and Waka's "drag daughters," Draggedy Anne and Annie Mae Black. They run their business like they run this interview, with everyone having their equal say. "We flourish together," says Victoria, firmly.
They stress that underneath the horns and fangs and frightwigs and prosthetics and makeup, at the heart of it all they're just two couples and four friends who enjoy one another's company. The Jekylls to Black Haüs' onstage Sister Hydes, if you will.
"Only two of us have been on a TV show and when Victoria came back [from taping Dragula], she really tried to push us forward as a group," says Waka. "Not everybody would do that, but that just speaks to Victoria as a person."
- Photo by Jim Leatherman
It's been a busy Halloween season for the quartet, even by their standards. Besides their weekly shows at Southern Nights, they've done group performances at the new Dark Horizon haunted house and at a DJ night with Killer Klowns From Outer Space composer John Massari. They also took part in the Come Out With Pride parade. Even atop the bombshell Dragula news, the group seems unfazed by the pace.
From formative drag beginnings at Pulse and Southern Nights, Stonewall in Parramore gave the group their first big break (they praise Stonewall's Taylor Bulloch for giving them creative freedom and "wanting more weirdos in the bar"), to start hosting Creature Feature Tuesdays.
"The whole premise of the show for us was that when Pulse happened, we felt like we didn't have a home," remembers Dollya. "And so instead of just constantly asking people to try to make a place for us, we would just make our own place."
Orlando Weekly witnessed some of the early undertakings, grand spectacles of DIY creativity – consciously or unconsciously channeling the likes of John Waters, Divine, the Screamers, Leigh Bowery and Herschell Gordon Lewis. "One of our greatest strengths is we can just find things and make them work for any theme," says Opulence. "We'll find things on the side of the road, pull things out of our living room and be like, here's your club night!"
- Photo by Jim Leatherman
- Dollya Black
The foursome even jumped in a van for a tour up and down the East Coast at the beginning of this year. When they reminisce about it, it's like listening to punk or experimental artists talk about the strange joys of seat-of-the-pants planning and execution. "There were nights we had to paint in the car in the dark, using just our phone lights because we were running out of time," says Dollya.
"Oh you found the box with the harnesses, got it!" laughs Opulence, remembering an hours-long stop at the border, where Canadian customs agents were dumbfounded by the wardrobe, fetish gear ... and a prop severed head.
Perhaps their biggest move this year was taking Creature Feature (back) to Southern Nights, a personally meaningful moment for the Haüs. The move reunites them with Southern Nights' Axel Andrews, an early supporter and advocate, along with a staff excited by all the new possibilities and blood (in every sense of the word) that Black Haüs bring along. "It was a cool opportunity for us to reconnect with the people that we started doing drag with," says Dollya. "It's felt like home since the first week."
Opulence also stresses the importance of being able to get younger fans into the show now (Southern Nights is 18 and up), and to bear her point out, we did spot quite a few Xs scrawled on hands last week. They and their coterie of fans and family make Southern weirder, and according to the Haüs, that's a big goal.
It's not all just horror and keeping it weird for them, though. The Black Haüs quartet speak with earnest conviction about creating a space where people can be comfortable to explore their identities, supporting other queer artists, and giving back to a queer community that fostered them since their days at Pulse. Victoria calls their hard-core audience "a little family." On a more serious note, Black Haüs threw a PrEP Rally party last year in association with Two Spirit Health to increase awareness, very much needed at this present moment.
"Three of us are positive," says Opulence. "We're all undetectable, but we think it's very important to educate the community and use our drag as a platform and open discussion and give them something to think about and talk about."
All of this springs from Victoria's overarching aim as the matriarch of Black Haüs to continually push their art forward. "Deepen the concept; make people question things," says Victoria. "It's more interesting that way."
"They both taught me that art is supposed to challenge things," says Dollya. "We want to inspire a reaction. Whether it's pitchforks and fire or you're crying your eyes out or you're laughing."
Opulence talks about a fragrance in cooperation with Black Phoenix, taking the PrEP Rally to New York in November, and continuing to bring "queer artists who aren't necessarily on Dragula" from all around the country in for guest spots: Andro Gin, Louisianna Purchase, Priscilla Chambers (for a Southern-Fried Thanksgiving) and James Majesty are confirmed. Approaching the two-year anniversary of Black Haüs, the foursome express varying degrees of amazement that this has lasted so long.
As the conversation winds down, there is talk of more abstract motivations behind their work, and it shows another side to these usually fearsome queens.
Opulence: We've had people come out to us as trans at Creature Feature, we've had people come out as gay and lesbian, the whole spectrum.
Victoria: We feel really safe with our night and that's why we keep doing it, so people have that space where they can just be free.
Dahlia: Everyone wants to feel loved and beautiful.
This monster movie has a happy ending after all.
– This story appeared in the Oct. 23, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.