The Queens at Play Dance Bar reign despite the pandemic

The beloved nightlife venue reopened for the first time at limited capacity Sept. 19 since its mid-March closure. Drag performers and other Play staff shared the effects of pandemic restrictions on business and the Nashville gay community.

September 20, 2020

There is no doubt that Nashville is home to some of the most vibrant nightlife options in the nation. A few examples quickly come to mind, notably Broadway and the Ryman Auditorium. For students, however, few venues have been as accommodating and accepting to the Vanderbilt community as Play Dance Bar.

Play markets itself as a queer-friendly club, featuring a spacious dance floor and performances from drag performers referred to as “Playmates.” Some of the main draw factors for Play are its Wednesday college nights, where students (in the pre-COVID era) get in for free before 10:30 p.m. Its impact on the surrounding college community and Nashville queer community at large is undeniable. This makes it all the more unfortunate to hear the effects that the pandemic has had on the beloved nightlife spot.

Forced to close in mid-March for public health reasons, Play has been deeply rattled by the pandemic. Despite a short-lived return in June, Play has only been able to open its doors at limited capacity since Sept. 19.

Playmate, show director and booking agent DeeDee Renner (stage name Deception) shared some of the struggles facing Play in light of the current restrictions for bars. At the time of the interview, regulations for bar capacity hadn’t been lifted beyond 25 patrons at time with socially distanced tables and chairs.

It’s just not sustainable for a bar as a business. Not for the bartender behind the bar or for the whole cast of girls trying to entertain a crowd of 25 people,” Renner said. 

The pandemic’s impact on the bar industry has ravaged nightlife, something Renner pointed out that has distinguished this era from previous economic recessions.

“I’ve done shows for a very long time and I can say that it’s the first time in the bar industry we’ve ever experienced something like this,” Renner said. “Even in the recession in 2007 and 2008, bars were not really affected because people always want to have that escapism. So this is really the bar’s first time being hit specifically with an economic crisis.”

The negative economic effects of the various coronavirus restrictions for bars like Play have brought about immense financial and emotional burdens for staff. Bartenders and Playmates alike fall back on nightly tips to supplement their incomes, and both positions value in-person contact and relationship-building. While some queens have moved their acts online, they are difficult to replicate in full. 

“One thing people always want to see is drag in person. People like to give hand-to-hand tips because you get a little closer to the entertainers and it’s just more of that personal experience,” Renner said. “With the online platforms I think that’s what they’re missing and I think that’s why they just kind of died off, because after so long people need that in person interaction.”

The absence of Play from the Nashville social scene is apparent. Its dual function as a nightlife venue and queer-friendly safe space has many feeling separated from members of their chosen family. 

I’m friends with lots of people I’ve met at the bars as regulars and we’ve stayed in touch through all of this,” Play bartender Matt Liles said. “As we started going through quarantine I had some of my regulars reaching out being like, ‘I just need to talk to you, I feel like I’m not able to have my weekly counseling session.’” 

These sentiments were echoed by joint owner of Play (and other affiliates; Tribe and Suzy Wong’s House of Yum) Joe Brown. Brown highlighted the shockwaves sent throughout his business and Nashville queer life since pandemic restrictions started taking effect.

“We look at Play as being a part of the community and not just a business sometimes. Believe me, we get messages from people every day wanting to know when we’re going to be back open. People just want to come out and be a part of something,” Brown said.

Play also sat out for most of June’s pride month festivities, a period they usually dominate. Playmate Vanity is the current reigning Miss Nashville gay pride, a post she hasn’t been able to fully embrace during these trying times. Although she has been lucky enough to have a secondary income to fall back on, she said other queens she knows are forced to be resourceful.

“I’ve noticed a lot of girls are doing anything they can to make ends meet whether that’s getting a second job or relying on their second talents like sewing or making wigs for other people,” Vanity said.

The scrappy resourcefulness of queens relying on their secondary talents speaks to the overall resilience of the queer community. 

“It’s a close knit community, and I know in society right now things are changing where queer people can be out wherever. I still think they hold close to each other and I think they will be really resilient. They will bounce back,” Brown said.

As for Play, both campus regulars and new students can still get involved. Keeping up to date with Playmates on social media, visiting Suzy Wong’s on weekends for “drag brunch” and looking into Play’s online events are great ways to stay connected. 

Despite the challenges posed by these unique circumstances, the staff at Play remain hopeful that they will be back in due time.

“I’ve seen how much this means to the owners and managers,” Liles said. “To still maintain your optimism for your staff and still to even refer to us as ‘staff’ after this long of us not being employed, still treating us like we are coming back and like we’re still part of the family, that helps me a lot.”

What to many Vanderbilt students may just look like a return to Play’s college night actually represents a return to family, security and self-expression for the members of Play’s staff. With the future up in the air at this point, hope remains a primary motivator for all those connected to Play Nashville. 

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