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Morticia Deville

Meeting a priest of the real

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Morticia Deville has caught the Holy Ghost's vibe. Her blond wig frames her face, and cascades sufficiently down her neck to hide any back hair she worries aloud that might be visible. Her face is beautiful in its uncannily open mix of spiritual fervor and irony. She is bent slightly at the waist, singing an old-time gospel song into the microphone.

When the song ends, the crowd gathered about her at Burkhart's Pub bursts into applause, but Tish remains bent, looking downward. "My dress is so pretty," she says of her glitter-speckled purple dress. "You know, a drag queen has to be careful what she wears. We can become mesmerized by our own glitter." After a few more cracks -- about sex, her 159-pound weight loss, the muscles on a boy standing nearby -- the taped background music cranks up and Tish and the Gospel Echoes, Mark Roberts and Philip Messer, perform a rousing rendition of "John the Revelator."

Morticia, whose name is a reference to her former occupation as a funeral director, has been performing old-time gospel music in Atlanta's gay bars for 16 years. Her Sunday shows at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m., called the "Atlanta Gospel Hour," are legendary in the gay community but have attracted increasingly diverse crowds in recent years. The Gospel Hour even includes a free buffet supper beforehand, only adding to the sense of a church bulletin's inevitable summary of an event as offering plenty of "fun, food and fellowship."

A casual observer tends to see Morticia's show only as a campy take on the music that has drenched our region for years. It's not altogether inaccurate. Many, if not the majority, of Atlanta's young gay men have sought refuge here from the South's small towns and it is astonishing to look around the bar during a performance and see how many are singing along -- often ironically, often just because the music is so catchy.

But many find the experience deeply emotional even if it isn't explicitly religious. "This was the background music of my childhood," my friend Will told me. "My father put on a stack of gospel records on the hi-fi every night. So, while I don't have religious experiences, I become extremely nostalgic for my childhood when Tish is singing."

But you don't have to look far to realize that just as many are caught up in something spiritual. A man in hot pants bangs a tambourine, closes his eyes and virtually drowns out Tish as he sings along. A young woman, rapturous, hugs herself while she sings, then stops to assure you that she is not a lesbian although her boyfriend happens to be bisexual and seems to have disappeared. Here, the "collection" comes in the form of dollar bills pressed, one by one, on the performers.

"None of this is surprising," a former priest tells me. "God shows up everywhere."

"As a man in a dress?" I ask.

"Hello," he says. "What do you think the average priest is? Have you ever seen the Holy Father in pants?"

Indeed, the Catholic Church has a full roster of transvestite saints, mainly females like Pelagia, Eugenia, Anna and, above all, St. Joan. Monks were explicitly directed to feminize themselves, to "become the other." During the reign of Henry VIII in England, boys were expected to cross-dress during carnival time and, if the wardrobe was not specifically female, it was that of a priest. In India, there is a whole cult of cross-dressing religious performers. Native American culture revered the berdache, a cross-dressing male spiritual figure.

It is highly unlikely that Morticia Deville and her cast see themselves in this tradition, but it makes sense. Cross-dressing is transgressive; it takes us out of the ordinary, and the eruption of spirit is similarly altering of ordinary experience. For Tish the idea is much the same, even if not historically grounded: "I have to think it's the Holy Spirit moving at Burkhart's. It's God coming into a place you might not ordinarily expect to find him. Because he's in such a strange place, it's even more powerful."

"So, you're deeply religious," I said.

"Apparently," she replied.

Of course, the otherness of the experience is heightened by the nature of the "congregation" of gay people, historically demonized by fundamentalist and mainstream churches alike. "God shows up where he's needed and gay people, who suffer but are often excluded from church, do need him," Tish says. "But we like to have a good time, too. So, if I get too drunk for the second show, it might make me a bad performer, but it doesn't make me a sinner."

In that -- the marriage of the sacred and the profane, the Bible with booze -- the Gospel Hour is virtually a blending of the pagan and the Christian, like the Lenten carnivals of the Mediterranean area and the rowdy Easter pageants of the Hispanic world.

Morticia's show isn't limited to drag queens. Besides her backup boys, she is joined by Ramona Dugger, a thoroughly heterosexual singer who often brings a more serious tone (sometimes annoyingly so) to the proceedings. Her songs are almost always interpreted by a man who performs a kind of histrionic American Sign Language.

Another regular cast member is Tina Devore, a well-known African-American drag queen who sings and lip-syncs raucous black gospel. An astounding semi-regular is Alicia Kelly, who lip-syncs African-American gospel too, and breaks into rapturous, floor-rolling dancing, her fists full of dollar tips, sweat slinging off her lithe body, baptizing anyone nearby.

But Morticia remains the absolute star of the show. Utterly and unself-consciously devoted to that delicious boundary between sex and the sacred, with a voice that can make your diaphragm vibrate, she is the priest of the real, pouring the gifts of the Holy Spirit with a thunderous laugh.

Attend her service.

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