Who’s the person behind the funny wigs & outrageous costumes of Baltimore’s Queen of Comedy? By Rodney Burger

If you’ve ever been to Baltimore Pride, a charity benefit show, or almost any drag pageant in the Baltimore area, you have seen her. Shawnna Alexander has been a part of Baltimore’s LGBT community for decades. I can’t remember the first time I saw her perform any more than I can remember the first time I saw Baltimore’s Washington Monument. She is just always there making us laugh as Baltimore’s Queen of Comedy. Although year after year I enjoy her work and think of her as a friend, I must admit that until recently I really didn’t know the person behind the funny wigs and outrageous costumes. Last Monday, I sat down with Shawnna, and over cocktails at Leon’s I was granted an audience with the queen. It was an evening that I’ll always remember.

Shawnna was born in Baltimore and spent almost her entire life there except for a few years when she went to Halifax, North Carolina, to live were her grandparents. When she was 12 her grandmother passed and her grandfather, who thought that Shawnna was too much of a handful for him to raise by himself, sent her back to Baltimore to live with an aunt and uncle who had no children of their own. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade because at her school “they beat up the sissies all the time.”

Her friend Ms. Toni, who Shawnna described as one of the sissie boys, introduced her to the drag community when he took her to a bar called Go West (later called Club Mardi Gras) that was located at 228 Park Avenue. The performers were like a family and she was soon given the title Ms. Nymph and was made a part of the court. It would be her first of many titles (Ms. Go West, Ms. Mardi Gras, Ms. Hippo…).

Having last year attended a conference at Stevenson University about sexual identity and the use of pronouns, I asked Shawnna how she identified. She said, “Honey I’ve been every letter of the alphabet. I don’t know what the hell I am!” I asked if Shawnna Alexander was her real name and she informed me that it is now. She has had it legally changed. Her birth name is a closely guarded secret that she said many people have tried to get out of her. With that said, I moved on.

She spent lots of time at Club Mardi Gras, the Sportsman’s Lounge, and Club Bunns. These bars were in the downtown area and she said the community thought of them as “lower class places.” Her friends called Mt. Vernon “the hill” and those bars were a whole other world.

Shawnna said that she started to enter every drag contest that came along. She never felt that she had a chance at winning, it was just a way to be seen and get her name out there. She said sometimes contest promoters would call her after the contestant interviews were over. She would be a “contestant” who obviously had no chance of taking the crown. She was just there to provide variety in the show. While many female impersonators were very serious and polished, Shawnna did comedy. It was outside the norm and that got her noticed. She said that some of the queens had such a name that they wouldn’t even have to perform or even know the words to the song, they could just stand there and folks would line up to tip. Shawnna wanted to entertain.

Her face lit up as she told me how proud she was to have been selected Baltimore’s first African-American Queen of Pride. “I was Vanessa Williams,” she beamed. In fact the following year a Queen of Pride pageant was not held so she got to carry the title for two years. She was so proud of the title that she took it to other states and performed in Virginia, West Virginia, and DC. Sometimes she would just show up at events and would be asked to perform. I asked her if she kept a CD in the car. She laughed and said, “It was a cassette, baby!”

When I asked her to recall a favorite performance, She said she loved the number that she did when she ran for Ms. Gay Maryland 2014. She performed the song “You Light Up My Life” and had a dress with lights in it. “I didn’t think the damn thing would work and when they started to blink the audience went wild. I didn’t know they blinked until later when I saw a tape of the performance!” She also enjoyed performing at the Providence Eagle in Rhode Island. It was an eight hour train trip. In fact she has turned down many projects and opportunities because she is afraid to fly. She has even been invited to perform on the west coast. She said that she currently lives in Baltimore on Television Hill where the letters on the hillside are WBAL. “That’s my Hollywood sign,” she laughed.

Her many fans keep her going, but there were many times in the last year that she wanted to throw in the towel. On January 31st, 2017 she lost a job that she held for eleven years when the business closed. She was also enjoying performing at the GAY Lounge in Mount Vernon and making good tips there, when it closed as well. She is still looking for a full-time job but is also dealing with a pending rotator cuff operation that prevents her from working any job that may require lifting. It has been a struggle. She added, “The Queen of Comedy these days is more like the Queen of Sadness.” We talked about when she worked at Crabby Dick’s restaurant that was located in Fells Point. Shawnna said that she loved that job and has been contacted several times by the restaurant’s owner who still has a Crabby Dick’s in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. He wants her to move down there to work, but she doesn’t want to leave Baltimore.

For now she is keeping busy performing in Baltimore with shows at the Rowan Tree every second Sunday of the month and at the Second Chance Saloon in Columbia, Maryland, every second Saturday of the month. She volunteers with her friend Lonnie Walker to help feed the homeless and is constantly being asked to perform at local charity shows. She rarely says no. She is after all Baltimore’s Queen of Comedy, but if things don’t look up soon Delaware may have a new queen. No matter where she’s performing, I hope that I am in the audience!

 

Author Profile

Rodney Burger
Rodney Burger
Rodney is originally from Hagerstown, Maryland and for many years has lived in Baltimore. In April 2017, Rodney was sworn in for his 10th year as the President of the ShipMates Club of Baltimore. He has been involved in the leather community for many years, but often denies that he sold Jell-O shots at The Last Supper. He has been writing THE LEATHER LINE for the BALTIMORE OUTLOUD newspaper (Baltimoreoutloud.com.) for over fourteen years. He has produced the Mr. & Ms. Baltimore Eagle Contest and the Maryland LeatherSIR/Leatherboy Contest. In 2001 he was proud to serve as Maryland Mr. Drummer 2001. Rodney also does stand-up comedy and in 2013 was thrilled to perform at Philadelphia Leather Pride Night. He has been nominated multiple times for a Pantheon of Leather Award, was selected Leather Man of the Year in 2013 by COMMAND M.C. and by the Baltimore Leather Association of the Deaf in 2006. The 11th annual 12 Days of Christmas benefit show was dedicated to Rodney and his partner Sir Steve. He has been twice selected as ShipMate of the Year. He has judged Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather 2015, Atlantic States LeatherSIR / Leatherboy and recently judged Mr. Eagle NYC 2018. He is delighted to be able to bring news of his beloved leather community to his readers every issue.