Nearly two decades before comedian Martin Lawrence disguised himself as an old lady in Big Momma's House, a real-life Big Mama was changing the landscape of Cleveland's drag-queen scene with Harlem Nights: The Mr. & Ms. Gay Black Ohio Pageant. "She saw fit to create a contest where African American female impersonators could become positive role models in the community," says Lady Deception, who won the competition in 1993. "It's groomed all of us from being entertainers at local bars to actually traveling abroad and performing."
The drag-queen side of the contest started in 1977, when Big Mama Pittsburgh illusionist James McDowell moved to Cleveland and was shocked to find that black illusionists never won any competitions. "People say everything is equal opportunity. Unfortunately, it wasn't," says Deception.
McDowell's pageant-production company mushroomed four years later, when he added the Mr. Groovy Guy contest for gay black men (its current moniker was created a few years after that). Although McDowell's death from diabetes in 2001 almost shuttered the competitions, his friends vowed to carry on the tradition. "When Big Mama died, we promised her we would keep the system and the legacy alive," says Deception. "That was one of her dying wishes, and we kept it to her."
Sun., Feb. 19, 10 p.m.