At just an hour and 15 minutes long, The Gospel of Eureka manages to tell quite a story about a small town in Arkansas that celebrates pageantry and panache in equal measure. In one corner, the long-running (if scarcely attended these days) The Great Passion Play, where community members become actors in a grand re-enactment of the story of Christ’s crucifixion. In the other corner, a “hillbilly Studio 54,” a drag club owned and operated by Lee and Walter, a married couple who exchanged vows long before their same-sex union was deemed legal by the Supreme Court.
Directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher and narrated intermittently by Justin Vivian Bond, The Gospel of Eureka weaves together these two ostensibly opposing perspectives with aplomb. The narrative is supported by a few personal stories throughout from townspeople who share their experiences in a town that is both divided and connected by these two sides of its population. Now the owner of a Christian-centric t-shirt shop, one man recounts how his parents broke up when he was a child and his dad came out to the family as gay, all of it leaving him more open-minded than ever about love in all its iterations. Alternately, the local who stars as Jesus in the Passion play isn’t shy about his conservative upbringing as he offers a tour behind the scenes of the epic production.
Most charming of all are Lee and Walter, who happily let their freak flags fly; understandable, as it’s not just anyone who can open and run a drag disco in a town as conservative as Eureka Springs. Whether flipping through an old photo album full of snapshots from their younger, more boisterous days or inviting us inside the club for a few great numbers, they’re both a joy to spend time with. One of the most moving moments of the film comes as we get to know them better at one of the most difficult moments in their relationship (no spoilers!); it’s a sequence that practically begs to be shown to your narrow-minded relatives who are still on the wrong side of what remains of the same-sex marriage conversation.
It’s how these productions—and this town—all co-exist that makes the film a treat. There are costumes and make-up, wigs and set pieces on either side of town, after all. Both the bible story and the lip sync numbers are performances meant to entertain; if one attempts to get deep by recounting the death of God’s only son, the other expands hearts and minds through a smoky eye and fierce dance moves. Each is campy, a bit silly and equally appreciated by local and tourists alike. And as mainstays in Eureka Springs, they’re accepted and appreciated without a second thought. One of the film’s only shortcomings is its brief length; Palmieri and Mosher would’ve been well served to dig deeper into the lives of some of the performers at either production. We never get to meet any of the drag performers in depth, and given how much time we spend laughing and gossiping with them in their dressing room, it’s a missed opportunity.
But that’s a quibble with a film that’s otherwise a welcome antidote to the divisions and differences that seem too often to keep a community apart. Perhaps that “live and let live” idea is worth a shot after all.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!