Review By Taylor Kendal
The stage has always been the prime location to tell one’s story. A chance to be one-on-one with the audience in a space that is entirely your own to be unabashedly yourself, if that’s what you choose to do. This was certainly the case for Austin Nation, bringing his captivating and hilariously entertaining autobiographical life story to the stage in Becoming Austin Nation. Filmed during the Hollywood Fringe Festival and screened all around the world for 2022 Edinburg Fringe Fest, this one man extravaganza is a rollercoaster of emotions, detailing the highs and lows of Austin Nation’s life, concisely curated into a fifty five minute show.
Greeted with a photo montage, Cher’s Believe playing in the background and with the tagline ‘From Crack to PhD: A Drag Queen’s Story’, the audience already knows that they are in for a wild ride, and they are certainly not disappointed. The staging is simple; a rack of clothes, a dressing table, and a fabulous outfit awaiting on the other side of the stage. Nation’s entrance is understated, seemingly just one of the crowd until he makes his way on stage and launches into his story. From humble beginnings in Milwaukee Wisconsin, the only black family on the block and going to a catholic school, growing up as the only son of four children, and a deadbeat dad who just wasn’t there when he needed to be, and was there causing more trouble when he shouldn’t have been.
Nation is a natural born storyteller. His effortless stage presence and familiar tone of voice makes the audience feel like they were long lost friends, having a chat while capturing their undivided attention. He talks of his determination to create a life for himself, desiring to get his education, despite his grades and become a nurse. The first in his family to graduate college, he was well on his way to living his dream. Unfortunately, addiction became the first in a series of speedbumps on his way, culminating in the moment where his life changed forever; at age 26, he tested positive for HIV.
There is a brutal honesty and rawness that comes with the way Nation tell his story. It’s so personal, so real, we as the audience are let in to this private part of his life and left reeling with the emotions as though we are experiencing them ourselves. His descriptions of that time where his entire world was hanging by a thread are so visceral, they are almost tangible. The fear of knowing your time was likely limited, living through the stages of denial and ignorance, acting as though you were untouchable. Watching most of the people you love pass on around you. It is painful and it is poignant to be granted permission to witness.
Interwoven through these tales of his life, Nation weaves carefully selected songs as he transforms himself into his drag persona. His charisma is irresistible, the way he finds humour in his worldly knowledge of a life lived as though it were his last day every day. Once told to get his affairs in order, now 35 years later, the same man has a PhD, and is an Assistant Professor at Cal State University Fullerton, teaching the next generation of nurses in the same hospital he once believed he was going to die in. It’s shockingly profound, and the honesty that is shown throughout the entire peace is truly extraordinary.
Becoming Austin Nation is a tale that needs to be witnessed to truly be believed. The richness of a life lived in such a way, the lessons learned and the way it can transform ones self is inspiring. I could say more, but that would just be giving it all away.
In parting, the audience was encouraged to leave a review, a little something something. According to Nation ‘if you didn’t like the show, you weren’t here’. Well, I was here, and I absolutely loved it! Be sure to check out Becoming Austin Nation during Edinburgh Fringe Fest online until August 29.
AUDIENCE WARNING: This show deals with some incredibly heavy and sensitive topics, such as domestic violence, suicidal themes, segregation and racism, homophobia, sexism, heavy drug use and addiction, and the impact of HIV/Aids. Viewers please be advised for any potential triggering topics.