(New York Jewish Week) – When Michael Witkes arrived at his bar mitzvah party, he knew he couldn’t enter to a musical theater song, his preferred genre, because he was already being bullied for being too effeminate and flamboyant. So, he simply told the DJ to just pick any song that matched the vibe of a bar mitzvah entrance.
The DJ picked “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross.
“This day that is supposed to be completely celebratory became this kind of tragic, camp event, where I had to wrestle with getting bullied because of this,” Witkes said. “I just trying to become a man, a Jewish adult, and then I was suddenly getting outted at my bar mitzvah.”
Eighteen years later, Witkes, 31, is a professional drag queen in New York City, performing as “Pink Pancake.” This week, he will revisit that troubling coming-of-age moment in his first ever one-woman drag show, “Today You Are a Man” at the Tank NYC.
“I take that moment of tragedy and I flip it on its head and I turn it into this play about self discovery and coming into your authenticity as a queer person and as a Jew,” Witkes told the New York Jewish Week.
Witkes first began developing the show, which runs for 80 minutes, two years ago as a four-minute lip sync for a “Hanukkah in July” drag performance. Since then, he’s partnered with director and queer Jewish art and events curator Stuart Meyers to flesh out a full-length performance.
“The show gives an earnest portrayal of the horror of that experience, how awful it was, and is, to be bullied for being gay and femme, yet also lifts and celebrates the story of who Michael has become through drag,” Meyers told the New York Jewish Week. “So what’s really interesting is that the piece is about his bar mitzvah of the past, but in a big way, it’s also a bar mitzvah in and of itself, because it’s a celebration of his own very Jewish process of coming into this next chapter as Pink Pancake.”
Ahead of the show, the New York Jewish Week caught up with Witkes about what it was like to make the show and revisit his bar mitzvah experience.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What would you tell your 13-year-old self about how far you’ve come?
It’s funny because I think if I told my 13-year-old self, “Hey, you’re now a drag queen in New York, and you’re making a living pursuing this queer art form,” I think that my 13-year-old self would be horrified. This might be my biggest fear at the time, realized.
First, I would give my 13-year-old self a giant hug. I think I would say, “You are wonderful as you are and just let your inner star shine. At the time, I did everything I could to make myself smaller and to try to hide the fact that I was gay, even though I was just naturally more feminine and flamboyant growing up. I did everything I could to hide that, with my clothes, with the way I walked around. Everything was a performance. I would just say, “Hey, baby, breath, let it all out. It’s gonna be okay. Own who you are.”
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What does it mean to you to have your first full-length one-woman show center on a Jewish narrative?
I grew up in a pretty Jewish suburb of Philadelphia, on the Main Line. I feel like growing up, I kind of took my Judaism for granted. In seventh grade, there was a bar or bat mitzvah every single weekend. Judaism was so prevalent that it wasn’t a huge part of my identity.
But now we’re in a time where there is this rise in antisemitism and you can feel it. In my other gigs, I have made some self-deprecating jokes in the mic about being Jewish — as Jews do with Jewish humor. Before it was just a part of my act, but now I have this inner voice in the back of my head saying “Is it safe to say this? Is it safe to make these jokes? Is it safe to be openly Jewish?” Since coming out and embracing myself fully, I’ve been really proud to be queer. Now I feel like the show is helping me be more proudly Jewish. It’s been wonderful working with Stuart Meyers, who has done a lot of queer Jewish work and queer Jewish art, because he’s kind of pushed me to embrace my Judaism even more and pull things out in the show in relation to my Jewish identity even more, so it’s been really exciting. We have to continue to be visible and proud and continue to advocate for ourselves and everyone that is marginalized in the global majority.
Do you feel like making this show has helped you process the trauma from your bar mitzvah party and given you a second chance at celebrating?
That is the structure of the show in a way, where I have the chance to do it all over again. It’s a queering of this Jewish rite of passage. The whole show, in a way, is like a redo of my own bar mitzvah, but now I’m in drag as a woman — but I’m not a woman, and I’m also very gender-queer. It’s a beautiful way to explore what it means to be a man and to explore your gender identity and sexuality.
This has definitely helped me process my bar mitzvah and re-own this moment that was kind of tragic. In general, my bar mitzvah was a wonderful event — this moment just clouded it. I think that wounds can continue to heal and come back and they can surprise you like, “Oh, I thought I got over that.” So revisiting this moment has definitely brought some things up to the surface that I’m able to now heal from.
I rewatched the video of my service many, many times while putting the show together. I had a wonderful support system in my parents, but I don’t think I fully realized that at the time because I felt so alone and othered in school. So it’s really healing to be able to look back and listen to the speeches that my parents made at my bar mitzvah. Watching myself in the video, I look awkward and I don’t like that my parents are saying nice things about me and I’m probably not fully paying attention and kind of dissociating because it’s uncomfortable. But to look back now — my parents are so sweet. My dad said that he appreciated how sensitive I was and how gentle I was. These are things that I was bullied for, because they’re not “masculine.” But at my bar mitzvah, he was saying you’re a man because of all of these things. That’s just so beautiful.
I’m excited to bring it to an audience. I’m sure that healing will happen even more when it’s in front of a live audience and I’m hoping that the same thing will happen for them as well. I hope bringing the specificity of this event to my show will allow people to bring the specificity of their own moments growing up Jewish or growing up queer and find healing and celebration.
What else can people expect at the show?
There are going to be too many costumes in a short amount of time. I’m really excited for all of these wacky costumes I’m bringing. It’s going to be heartfelt, it’s going to be drag. It’s a full production and I’m so excited to finally bring this to life after sitting on it for all this time. It combines drag lip sync with multimedia — video projections of my bar mitzvah and lots of other very fun, funny things. Of course, I have two backup dancers — it’s a one-woman show, but it’s a one-woman drag show, so that means that you need to have two backup dancers. It’s a fully realized show with a plot and a beginning, middle and end.
“Today You Are a Man,” is playing at The Tank NYC (312 W. 36th St.) Jan 18-20 at 9:30 p.m. and Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $15.