“THE GOSPEL OF EUREKA”
A Light on Acceptance
In “The Gospel of Eureka”, love, faith and civil rights meet head on in a southern town as evangelical Christians and drag queens try to invalidate stereotypes. “Gospel drag shows and passion plays set the stage for one hell of a show!”
Having lived in Arkansas for some seven years, I got to know Eureka Springs quite well since several times a year the town hosts gay getaway weekends. But Eureka Springs is the home of the Christ of the Ozarks statue, commissioned in 1966 by the far-right, anti-Semitic American clergyman Gerald L.K. Smith. Along with that the town is home to the Great Passion Play that retells the persecution, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s also the home to Eureka Live Underground, a drag and dance bar run by a pair of flamboyant and Christian gay men. Portland documentary filmmakers, Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri, examine the complex and surprising relationships that come together in the town and do so with grace and style.
The film is narrated by Mx Justin Viviane Bond, and with soundtrack contributions from Sharon Van Etten and it is a personal and often comical look at how it is possible to negotiate differences between religion and belief through performance, political action, and partnership, gospel drag shows and passion plays. This is a personal and heartwarming story that will make you laugh out loud, cry within and inspire hope.
Eureka Springs has quite a long history of tall tales and crazy characters yet not many (aside from the residents) know is how diverse this little town (in ARKANSAS!!!) really is. Palmieri and Mosher went there with the idea to show how a community operates based love and acceptance. Everyone in this film is lovable (some may seem a little more absurd than others at time but it’s easy to love everyone there—well, almost everyone [no Yip, I was not referring to you]). From the drag queens to the evangelical Christians we quickly see how much respect that they have for one another.
Migration to Eureka Springs came because of the so-called healing powers the springs in the town and of those that came, most never left. Eureka has a population that is 44% LGBTQ, yet it is considered the biker and Christian capitol of Arkansas making us wonder how such a diverse population finds a way to put aside differences and live together. The answer is acceptance which is a step quite above tolerance (a word I never cared for).
Palmieri and Mosher were asked to go to Eureka Springs to cover City Ordinance 2223 which was to be voted on. The ordinance “sought to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to be free from unfair and discrimination based on real or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, age, gender, gender identity, gender expression, familial status, marital status, socioeconomic background, religion, sexual, orientation, disability and veteran status.” It just so happened that while they were there, the two men fell in love with the people of Eureka and just knew they that they wanted and needed to tell their story.
Hence we have this documentary that is about freedom of expression and freedom to be oneself. We see footage of the passion play put on by members of the community juxtaposed by gospel drag shows put on by Eureka Live, a local hot spot. Two entirely different groups of individuals express themselves in their own way over the same common theme, Jesus.
Since I have been to Eureka many times, I can vouch for the fact that this is a true and authentic look at the town and its people Even though some of the lifestyles may be different than others there is a great sense of love, light and acceptance among the members of the community and you really feel it there.
At times, the film is very funny and we see that we are all the same although some of us have fantastic wardrobes with feathers and sequins. “We are all the same. If you cut my arm I bleed the same as you. If we could just learn to look past each other’s differences it would be a much better world to live in.” It’s all about love and acceptance.
No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on in Eureka, everyone seems to believe in Jesus. (Except for Yip and the rabbi and his family. that has moved to town since the film was made and oh yes and there is another part-Jewish gnome there as well. There is a wide variety of interpretations of scripture and faith.
Both Christ of the Ozarks and the Passion Play have their fiftieth anniversaries this year of which celebrate their 50th anniversary this year and this gives us an idea of how long Christianity has been entrenched there. (There are stories of Anita Bryant’s residency in Eureka). The film follows the actors in the Passion Play with emphasis on the guy playing Jesus through their rehearsal and performance process. Though not as popular as it once was in the late 1960s, it still attracts a crowd, some true believers and others that are just curious.
On the other side of town, there are other activities. There are only 2073 residents (Yip might make that 2074). Eureka is in the northwestern corner of the state, on the border with Missouri, has a large enough number of gay residents, and allies of gays, so a vibrant drag show stays in business. Actually co-director Mosher mentioned that he sees a lot of parallels between the drag show and the Passion Play, calling the latter “Christian drag” ( since they do dress in robes). And so there are two pageants and many ways of proclaiming The Word since even the drag queens love to sing gospel.
“The Gospel of Eureka” is a beautiful celebration of love, which is supposed to be the main tenet of Christianity, after all. The filmmakers are respectful of their subjects and allow all to be heard regardless of point of view. Accordingly, Eureka Springs, despite some discord over a city ordinance that protects the LGBT residents is a place where it is fine to agree to disagree. to disagree.
There is one little story that I would like to share that is not in the movie. Before “Eureka Live” was sold to its present owners, it was just a club for everyone. One Eureka Pride weekend coincided with a weekend of straight truck drivers who like to wear women’s clothing and they were having a fashion show at Eureka Live. Now that is acceptance. I am in Boston now and I miss the South (I’m originally from New Orleans and was evacuated to Arkansas after Katrina). Try to imagine a gay Jew in Arkansas and you will understand why I left… but I have wonderful memories of Eureka Springs.