NewFest 2019 Film Review: A Night at Switch n’ Play ★★★

Switch n’ Play is a drag and burlesque collective that has been performing for years in Brooklyn, featuring performers of varied gender identities, sexualities, and body types stripping down and glamming up for largely-queer audiences. In A Night at Switch n’ Play, a new documentary premiering October 26th at NewFest, viewers are invited backstage to meet many of the collective who make Switch n’ Play happen, and to watch as they perform on stage for the applause and dollar bills of the audience.

The doc does deliver on the promise of the title: like an actual performance, we meet a performer, watch them perform, and then move on to the next. They all seem like fun people, talented and creative and well-spoken and often fascinating to watch on stage. It seems like Switch n’ Play has created something really special: a place where queer people can come and celebrate one another, while applauding and cheering for and throwing dollar bills at people of all shapes and sizes and identities. As Miss Malice — the “femme-cee” of the night — says in a talking head interview, “There’s … urgency, I think, to needing a space like this. Audience members will come to me after a show and say, ‘I feel safe here.’”

Unfortunately, though, that structure for a documentary mostly just left me wishing I was there in person, watching these fantastically complex and adventurous performances start-to-finish instead of broken up by the rhythms of editing and forced narrative. For example, Nyx Nocturne’s performance toward the end, as a sort of grotesquely beautiful devil/ram character, looks phenomenal and is engaging and must have been an absolute joy to witness in person. Here though, broken up by a talking head segment where they talk (insightfully and eloquently!) about their performing style and their relationship to gender and identity, the build and release of burlesque is disrupted, and the performance doesn’t feel as impactful as it should.

All of the performances featured here suffer a similar fate. Perhaps it’s a side effect of the incredibly powerful atmosphere Switch n’ Play has developed, but everyone who speaks about gender and sexuality seems at this point to be fully self-actualized, able to unpack and complicate and describe their conception of their own identity in smart, often funny, always-enviable ways. There’s no conflict in the doc, no struggle, no throughline aside from introducing members of the collective in a series of vignettes. 

That’s not to say that I found myself wanting these people to still be figuring out their identities, or that I think queer narratives should always revolve around struggle. Switch n’ Play is a safe space, a bubble where queer people go to get away from all that other stuff and just let loose. It seems incredible and I want to go. I just wish A Night at Switch n’ Play had taken a bit of time to breathe (and at only 70 minutes, there could have been time to spare), to contextualize, to look outside the bubble for a moment and investigate why it’s so vital that spaces like this exist.

It does, for a brief moment, right at the very end. “People are feeling a sense of disconnect,” says Divina GranSparkle, “not knowing what to do, not knowing how to help, not feeling good. So they’re coming to shows not just to get their mind off of stuff, but to feel connected. Whatever it is, they want to feel  … like their existence is legitimate. And they want to feel like they’re fighting. And us existing is a fight.” While I understand that the point is to get away from all that stuff, I wanted more engagement with what that really means.

The screening at NewFest will be followed by an “extended” performance by the Switch n’ Play collective. Based on what’s on display in A Night at Switch n’ Play, everyone is in for a fun night.

By Eric Langberg

A Night at Switch n’ Play will receive its New York City premiere as an official selection of NewFest 2019. The film will screen on Saturday, October 26th at 9:00pm, followed by a Q&A and performance by the Switch ‘n Play drag and burlesque collective.

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