It is perhaps not surprising to find that Jason Johnson, aka Nova Kaine, has a master’s degree in theater arts – but a master’s in divinity?
Before becoming the sixth in a direct line of performers to take on the mantle of Nova Kaine, Johnson was well on his way to becoming an Episcopalian priest.
“That didn’t go the way I’d wanted it to,” Johnson said.
Raised on a ranch in Wyoming, Johnson spent summers evaluating livestock and eventually attended the University of Wyoming on a scholarship awarded by the Rodeo Association.
He enjoyed the public speaking aspects of the evaluation process, getting in front of a crowd and improvising creative explanations for why this or that animal was best in the show. But he went into undergrad knowing that agriculture was not his calling.
It was during the winter months when participating in theater programs wouldn’t interfere with chores and rodeo competitions that his real passion started to take shape.
“I always had a love for theater,” he said. And college finally provided the opportunity to pursue it to the fullest.
College quickly brought on another turning point when in his first year, in 1988, Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady Tour” inspired a contest.
“A bunch of my (theater major) buddies and I were sitting there, and it was like, ‘God, Dude Look Like a Lady contest?’ We have access to the entire theater department: wigs, makeup, everything.”
It all started as a joke after a few drinks. But when it came time to compete, Johnson took second place.
The local drag queen hosting the contest – Gregory Ellis, aka Nova Kaine V – pulled Johnson aside.
“She said, ‘Look, if you’ve ever considered doing this, you’ve got some real talent,’ ” Johnson said. “And now 33 years later, I’m still doing it.”
But not all of those years were as bright as that February in 1988. As Johnson continued his studies in theater, he began struggling in earnest – on the one hand with his faith and on the other in coming to terms with his sexuality.
Facing a lack of acceptance from his conservative Episcopalian parents and the church at that time, Johnson married a woman.
But, 10 years and “three amazing children” later, Johnson realized his spiritual crisis had only deepened. So, after a period of searching, he decided to enter the seminary, going on to earn a master’s in divinity from the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“But two weeks before my ordination, I went to my bishop and I said, ‘Look, I’m having some real problems,’ ” he said. “ ‘I’m not really believing everything that the church tries to beat into everyone’s heads.’ ”
“And he goes, ‘Oh, Jason, relax, none of us do.’ ”
Far from easing his concerns, this was the final straw. With his degree a more bitter than sweet reminder of the years that now felt lost to him, he left the seminary for Wyoming, and for several months barely left his family’s ranch.
“I was still functioning, but it put me in such a horrible depression because I was like, ‘Wait, I have just wasted how much time and money trying to get closer and bring other people closer to God?’ That was very tragic for me.”
Johnson eventually reconciled with the bishop, but, by that time, his relationship with spirituality and ministry had evolved. It was through theater, and finally drag, that reaching people started to make sense.
“The theatrical aspect of it – as a performer, it met what I needed,” Johnson said. An actor may do four or five plays throughout the year, he said, but as a drag queen, he could do four or five shows in a week.
From the beginning, the ability to perform was an obvious draw, but Johnson is just as passionate about the opportunities he has found for advocacy. The proceeds from at least 50% of the work he has done in drag since moving to Spokane in the early 2000s has gone to support charitable causes and organizations like the Spokane AIDS Network and Odyssey Youth Center.
“That was one of the things I was taught early on by my drag mother and forebears,” he said. “As a drag performer, people come every weekend and throw dollars at you. It’s only fair that every once in a while, you turn around and give back.”
Johnson learned everything about the art form from his drag mother, the previous Nova Kaine.
“I was literally her indentured servant for six months,” he said. “But through the course of that, you glean a little bit of knowledge here and there.
“One weekend, she would paint my face, let me get dressed up and go to the bar. Then the next weekend, she would paint half of my face, and I would have to paint the other. And if it didn’t match. I was told, ‘Go wash your face, you’re not going out.’ ”
His drag education was structured, strict even. But, he said, with that structure came a level of professionalism.
Today, in Johnson’s view, not every performer has the benefit of that kind of tutoring.
As drag goes mainstream, largely due to the rise of shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the ready availability of makeup tutorials on YouTube, among other resources, young drag queens are able to come into the art form alone, outside the traditional drag family and larger “court” system.
They’re learning the aesthetics of drag, but “they’re not taught etiquette.”
“I don’t know which way is better, which is worse,” he said. “But from my standpoint … even in a local community theater, you still have to audition, you still have to go through your paces. You still might have to spend … time behind the scenes doing set changes and working as a dresser before you ever step onstage.”
To Johnson, drag is performance art, a kind of theater that allows him to create an ever-evolving character.
“Nova Kaine is a character that I have been building for 33 years,” he said. “Every time she comes out, she changes a little bit, but for the most part, she’s a character that’s developing, just like Jason Johnson is.
“I used to say that Nova was the other side of Jason, but I don’t really see them as opposite sides of the same coin anymore. Nova is a lot closer to Jason, she’s probably just going to say everything that Jason wouldn’t say without two or three cocktails.”
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