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[The Incidental Tourist]

Reflecting on ‘Zumanity,’ so much more than a Las Vegas show

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Zumanity at New York-New York
Photo: Pierre Manning / Courtesy

If you make the right choices, one night in Las Vegas can change your life.

“People say the craziest things to me. One woman from somewhere in the Midwest sent me a message years ago, saying our show completely changed her sexually,” says Christopher Kenney, who created the emcee drag character of Edie and portrayed the “Mistress of Sensuality” in Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity for more than 12 years. “She always felt like she had to be a certain kind of woman, or no man would find her attractive. She was incredibly insecure, and something about Zumanity made her feel sexy. … She said she was having more sex and was happier than she’d ever been in her life. And that’s so wonderful.”

That’s not the kind of change you expect from a Las Vegas show. But it’s not an uncommon reaction to Zumanity, which opened in 2003 at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino. It’s last performance was on March 14.

Cirque announced last week that Zumanity will not return, informing the cast and crew of about 120 of the permanent closure on the same day. Few things are truly shocking these days, and a big show ending during a pandemic that has absolutely crushed Las Vegas can’t come as a complete surprise. (Zumanity is the second big show to close; Le Rêve did so in August).

But for Kenney and other artists, it still came as a shock. “I was just not prepared at all. I just never thought Zumanity was in a position to close or that it was even a thought. It wasn’t like we had a weak show.”

A statement from a Cirque du Soleil spokesperson said the decision to end Zumanity was a mutual one between Cirque and MGM Resorts, the result of many factors including the impacts of the pandemic on the entertainment landscape and market in Las Vegas: “We have reviewed our portfolio of shows and how we move forward. MGM Resorts has expressed their intent to explore other programming in that theater space, which they will announce in the coming months.”

Just days later, MGM announced ventriloquist and singer Terry Fator—whose headlining gig at the Mirage ended earlier this year—will perform a limited engagement in the New York-New York theater through the end of the year, though that show's opening was pushed from November 26 to December 17 after allowed showroom capacities were reduced this week.

Originally intended to be Cirque’s exploration of sensuality, romance and eroticism, Zumanity was groundbreaking and somewhat controversial when it officially opened on September 20, 2003. Like any production that achieves longevity, significant changes were made in its early stages and over the course of its long run, but it has always been provocative. “You have to go too far before you know what too far is,” director of creation Andrew Watson told the Las Vegas Sun in April 2003.

After its initial breakthrough, and as audiences became accustomed to the sexy side of Cirque, the show grew into something more celebratory and inspirational. “When you come to see the show, I’m inviting you into my world, and my world is very different from your world,” Kenney says. “I want you to meet what I think is the most fabulous group of creatures in the world.”

One of its best-known original acts featured two men engaged in an intense, almost balletlike battle. The climactic ending finds the warriors locked in a kiss. In Zumanity’s earliest days, a few guests would often react by walking out of the show, offended, sometimes muttering homophobic slurs.

“I was told that happened a lot more before I got there,” Kenney says. “But all of that slowly stopped over the years. It was amazing. I’m sure people still think it, but they didn’t say it anymore, which was nice. It felt like the world may be growing and changing, becoming more loving and accepting.”

It’s rare when a Las Vegas show can serve as a barometer of societal change, but that’s just one reason why Zumanity was special. Cirque productions are known for fitting uniquely brilliant artists into anonymous roles. Zumanity put the cast’s personalities on full display. Before Edie, New York City drag performer and cabaret singer Joey Arias emceed. Different acts were introduced by their names—sometimes character names and other times real names—and there was direct interaction with the audience.

That personal recognition also strengthened the family feel for performers and crew members. Wassa Coulibaly, a dancer from Senegal, was part of the original cast and performed with Zumanity for 10 years. She spent that time learning from her peers and growing as an artist.

“It was the first time I had seen such a wide variety of people from all over the world coming together and working so beautifully together, and also just sitting together doing our makeup and laughing and having conversation,” Coulibaly says. “I can’t describe the feeling of uncovering this world, and after it was over, I realize this was the most amazing time of my life. It’s not like this everywhere else.”

Zumanity’s creative collaboration inspired her to reach beyond. “It made my whole career, my decision to stay in Vegas, to open a theater and keep being an artist,” says Coulibaly, who operates the Baobab Stage theater and café and its adjacent Wassa Boutique at Town Square.

Over the course of 17 years, Zumanity has affected many more people than those sitting in a theater on the Strip for one night. It has impacted the local community and the greater, globe-spanning idea of Las Vegas, and its message was undeniably one of love and acceptance. Maybe other shows have done that, but Zumanity will always be special.

“A lot of us really gave part of our lives to the show,” Coulibaly says. “They brought together different people from all around the world with different experiences and allowed them to be creative in their own ways, and then you’re given this platform to let out all this creativity. That’s what made it so unique.”

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