While possums are considered nocturnal creatures and prefer hiding in trees and scurrying under your porch looking for scraps to eat, the East Point Possums like to strut their stuff for all to see on a stage under the setting sun — and they have no fear of anyone taking a broom to try to swat them out of their yard.
At least we don’t think so.
For 14 years, the three men who now make up the East Point Possums — Rick Westbrook (a.k.a. Shennita Lott), John Jeffrey (a.k.a. Prissy Cilla) and Chesley Thurman (a.k.a. Dina Daintymouth) — have been performing what they readily call “good work through bad drag.”
But what has become one of the largest drag shows in the Southeast first began on July 4, 1998, in the backyard of a resident of East Point, Ga., located just outside Atlanta.
It started as just a simple, fun drag show with a bed sheet as a back drop, a utility light as a spot light and about 30-40 people chipping in a few bucks here and there so the group could donate a few hundred dollars to PALS, which helps people with HIV care for their pets.
Jump forward to 2011 and the Possums are bringing out the big guns. The stage in downtown East Point will be the same size as the main stage at Atlanta Pride, and there will be more than 1,000 people in attendance, food and booze for sale and some 30 acts performing for free to raise money for Atlanta Pride and MISTER, a project of Positive Impact.
“It’s no lie now — this is the biggest drag show in the Southeast,” says Westbrook.
The main stage at Atlanta Pride is huge, though. And a main part of the Possums show is the interaction with the crowd.
Not to worry, Westbrook promises. The stage will be lowered to ensure plenty of loving, touching and squeezing (and tipping) takes place.
“The whole thing about the Possums is that we need to be able to touch people, be with the crowd,” he says.
Sending a message
When the East Point Possums were founded in 1998, there was another member — Chuck Jenkins, a.k.a. Rococo Baroque. Jenkins died in 2004 due to AIDS, but his fellow Possums are keeping his name alive through the Chuck Jenkins Foundation, with the money it makes each year at the annual East Point Possums show donated to LGBT organizations. In the past, money was donated to PALS.
For the last three years, including this year, some of the money will go to the Atlanta Pride Committee. Last year, the Possums raised $10,000 for Atlanta Pride and the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative.
This year, proceeds will be split between Atlanta Pride and Positive Impact’s MISTER project, which provides HIV testing and educates gay and bisexual men to practice safer sex.
“With a name like the Possums, you know they’ve always got something good a cookin’,” says Chandler Bearden, MISTER’s outreach prevention specialist, in a statement.
Westbrook, a founding member of the Atlanta Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, recently won the Dragnigue 2 competition at Jungle, performing as Rapture Divine Cox.
His winning performance was a public service announcement for MISTER and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence performed to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He plans to reprise the number at the East Point Possums show, but on a grander scale.
“I’m old school,” says Wesbrook, 48. “I wanted to show the audience it’s not always about how pretty you are.”
The number features Westbrook pronouncing that he has been HIV positive for 18 years, and holding the hand of his partner (and fellow Possum and Sister) John Jeffrey, who has been HIV negative for the past 17 years — the entire time the two have been together.
“As an activist, it’s important for me to get people to remember. AIDS is still a fatal disease,” Westbrook says. “These kids today seem to think it’s a social club. HIV is very tricky, it mutates so much. We just can’t go through the early ‘80s again.
“There is no reason for someone who is HIV negative to become HIV positive. This [performance] is about making a point,” he says, tearing up.
Fun and fundraising
But while there is time for a public service announcement on protecting yourself from HIV, there is also plenty of time to just have fun and enjoy such performers as Nicole Paige Brooks, Summer Knight, several of the Armorettes, drag acts from LeBuzz, numerous drag kings, and other surprises in the works, Westbrook says.
This year, there will also be a film crew recording the show for a possible documentary. Lesbian-owned Seat of Our Pants Productions will film the performances as well as some behind-the-scenes action, Westbrook says.
In addition to the renowned Possum Punch, there will be PBR and Negro Modelo for sale as well as food.
“The more you drink, the better I look and the more money people give,” says Westbrook with a laugh.
Because of the many sponsors, the entire production is paid off and all money raised the night of the show goes directly to Atlanta Pride and MISTER.
“We can count all that hot, sweaty money and give it directly to the nonprofits,” Westbrook says. “This money gets stuck in god-forsaken places but they just dry it out and put it in the bank.”
Top photo: Prissy Cilla (John Jeffrey, left) and partner Shennita Lott (Rick Westbook) open last year’s East Point Possums show in the downtown commons area in East Point. (by Dyana Bagby)