How the Drag Shows in HBO’s ‘We’re Here’ Bring Participants to Life With Season 4 Format Switch

A drag show takes a village, especially those featured in HBO’s docuseries “We’re Here.” Hair, makeup, song selection, choreography, lighting, props, Red Bull — there’s no shortage of things needed to help give life to the art form.

But it all starts with a connection between two people. In the Emmy-winning series, well-known drag queens work with marginalized people in U.S. towns that don’t often embrace inclusivity. The queens help participants build a drag persona. Then, as a final send-off, the participants perform for their community, celebrating what often isolates them.

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“It always comes down to the drag mom and the drag kid putting their heads together and figuring out what feels right and how to pull it off with the tools we have,” says Season 4 co-host Sasha Velour. “Every single number that we did on the show was a totally new process. It was like reinventing the wheel every time, but that’s drag.”

In Season 4, the series welcomed new hosts Velour, Jaida Essence Hall, Priyanka and Latrice Royale, all alumni of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Instead of traveling to new locales every episode, the queens focused on communities in and around two towns — Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Tulsa, Okla. — in order to highlight the threats facing the transgender community in various parts of the country.

At every turn this season, the queens faced vehement pushback from bigotry and hate. But it didn’t stop them from showing that drag is resilient.

“I feel like drag could take place in the biggest arenas in the world or, as you saw this season in Oklahoma, on the side of a road performing Lady Gaga, but the energy is the same,” Priyanka says. “Seeing how brave a drag performer can be ultimately lets that audience member witness the escape they needed in their lives.”

But for any of this to work on-screen, the climactic drag shows have to be infused with each participant’s identity. “You can’t just put a Latrice on a Randy,” Royale says of their Tulsa participant, who transforms into Pussy Willow Royale to perform Reba McEntire’s “Why Haven’t I Heard From You?” in a church.

“We were able to find a song that represents exactly what his message was to his community,” Royale says. “That happened to be a lot of fun because he’s a very bubbly and lighthearted guy, so he wanted something fun and flirty because that’s his personality. And of course, he hammed it up. Ol’ Miss Pussy Willow came right on out!”

It was more challenging for Maleeka from Tennessee, however. She ended up performing Alison Russell’s “The Returner.” “It was very difficult to try to find a song that encapsulated her love of country music, and also, she’s not the best dancer but she loves to throw a little ass,” says Hall, who credits a brain trust, including drag show producer Johnny Velour, with finding the right musical number for each participant. “We were all in this room collaborating, really thinking about every single moment, like the water washing to give her a rebirth. So it was a long process but it was a community effort.”

The shows are mostly shot on handheld cameras with little to no interruptions from production so as not to rob the room of its energy and emotion, says exec producer and director Peter LoGreco. And they’re always also thinking of audiences at home.

In the season premiere, Priyanka performs a Bollywood song before transitioning to an original song called “Country Queen.”

“I want little brown kids in America to see Bollywood on television,” Priyanka says. “But also, performing a country song right after is important because you don’t see a lot of people of color performing country. And Sasha’s ‘Praying’ number in a church …. Are you kidding? I think we are just always trying to think high impact for the audience at home too.”

But for all the preparation, it almost doesn’t matter how polished performances are in the end.

Says LoGreco: “They just need to feel themselves up there, they need to be who they are for that community and themselves, and have that relationship with their drag mom — and the whole thing just comes to life.”

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