Michael Witkes is a drag artist performing under the name Pink Pancake, who prides himself on incorporating Jewish humor into his drag stylings. In his upcoming one-woman show, Today You Are a Man!, Witkes uses his signature comedic drag to tell the story of how his bar mitzvah became integral to his queer journey. Witkes and Moment Social Media Manager Andrew Michaels connected over video chat to discuss both the show and his journey as a Jewish and queer artist. The video transcription below has been lightly edited for clarity.
So just to start, can you tell our audience a little bit about Today You Are a Man!?
Yeah, so, Today You Are a Man! is a one-woman drag show that is all about my bar mitzvah. There’s always, at the party, a big entrance song when the bar mitzvah boy enters. And at my party, I entered to “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. And rumor has it that I came out at my bar mitzvah.
I did not intentionally come out at my bar mitzvah. But it turned this moment of celebration and becoming a man, a Jewish adult, into something that was a beautifully tragic queer story. So, I took this moment, and I turned it into a one-person show exploring growing up queer and on top of that, like, identity as a whole—what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be a man, and what it means to be queer, gay, all that fun stuff. And it’s drag, so it’s a lot of fun.
It seems like you would describe this as autobiographical, then.
Oh, absolutely. I have videos of my actual bar mitzvah in the show that I interact with and lip sync to.
That sounds incredible. Was it just the Diana Ross thing or is there more to your bar mitzvah being integral to your coming out journey?
I think a bar mitzvah is this beautiful moment where a 12- or 13-year-old is celebrated and brought into the Jewish community. And having a forced spotlight on you, especially when you’re a queer kid, can be hard or challenging when maybe you’re trying to hide certain parts of yourself. I was already bullied for being gay going into my bar mitzvah, but that moment [when I entered the room] kind of solidified everything. It was like, “Oh yeah, everything that we’ve been saying about you is validated now.” So in my case, it was a very specific moment, but I think it’s hard [for anyone] to be a lil’ youth in middle school.
One thing that your director [Stuart B. Meyers] said promoting this play is that being Jewish is queer. I’m curious as to whether or not you could speak to that and what that might mean to you.
Yeah, I thought that was beautiful. I think that when he said that, I think being queer is just like outside the norm, right? So if being Jewish is outside the norm of our culture, then that means that being Jewish is inherently queer because it’s something that’s left of center. And I think that there are also so many different ways to be Jewish and so many different ways to be queer as well. But yeah, there are just so many different sects of Judaism and different aspects. I’m not super religious, but I consider myself to have a strong Jewish identity, and the tradition of Judaism is really important to me. The historical pass down from generation to generation is really important to me as well. And so, I even find my own interpretation of Judaism to kind of be a bit queer.
How does being Jewish influence some of your work as a queer artist and particularly as a drag performer?
Yeah, my drag is, like, really zany and out there, my costumes are whimsical and fun, but at its core my drag is a love letter to my childhood and my early adolescence. As I said, I was heavily bullied as a kid and my bar mitzvah was an exemplary moment of that. Doing [ Today You Are a Man!] allows me to reach the height of my drag at this current moment where I’m able to explore that. And then on top of that, I think drag is an explosion of gender and an explosion of identity. So all of the things that I am, I’m able to use in my drag and explode. And one of them is obviously being Jewish.
There’s an amazing organization called Hebro, and they did a Hanukkah in July event two summers ago, and they asked all of the queens that were performing to do a number in relation to their Judaism. I did a formative version of this play, and it got a great reception. It was the first time I was really able to embrace that on stage in a very visible way as opposed to just my humor, which I bring to the mic every time. (I think Jews have a certain kind of humor that we use to make life a little bit more bearable). But yeah, I’m excited to really embrace all that I am in the show, all the things I don’t like about myself, all the things I was taught not to like about myself when I was younger. To embrace and celebrate all of it.
I think that a lot of this show is very universal, but I’m also curious what makes now the specific time for this production.
Yeah, I’m excited because I think that this show will resonate with a lot of Jewish people and resonate with a lot of queer people when it comes to growing up. But I think the topics of identity and coming into your authenticity are universal. But right now we’re in a time where LGBT hate is on the rise, where antisemitism is on the rise. So I think it’s the perfect time to do the show where I can be a queer Jew, on stage by myself with two backup dancers and celebrate that. We need two backup dancers. Everyone does. I walk around in life and on the subway thinking I have two backup dancers, as you should. But in seriousness, there’s a lot of hate going on right now. And I think it’s the perfect time to do the show to combat that and celebrate all that we are.
I’m wondering what your message might be for a queer Jew who’s going through their bar or bat mitzvah today.
Today? Oh my God, I think maybe you don’t want to acknowledge that you’re queer yet. You obviously are acknowledging that you’re Jewish. You’ve been studying. I think give yourself grace and learn to love yourself. It takes time to love yourself, and it takes time to go against what society might deem acceptable.
Give yourself grace and continue to fight to present yourself in the most authentic way you can, because that doesn’t always come easy for every single person.
Today You Are a Man! runs from January 18-21 at The Tank in New York City. You can get more information, or tickets, here.