It's not easy to ascend to heaven, especially when you're dressed like a resurrected Jesus.
"The stage blood we use has been nice stage blood," jokes a man who professionally portrays Jesus Christ in The Gospel of Eureka, a new documentary from directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher about small-town pageantry. "We don't eat [the blood], although it is edible," he says. "Zesty mint flavor. Not cheap. It's like 50 bucks a bottle."
This pro Jesus is the star of The Great Passion Play, a contemporary passion play produced in an amphitheater in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, that depicts "the last days of the life of Jesus Christ on earth, including his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven." Almost eight million visitors have reportedly seen the show since it opened in 1968, which makes it the most attended outdoor drama in America.
Across town, another sort of pageantry is happening in Eureka Springs: drag. Small-town queens perform in a bar fondly described as "a hillbilly Studio 54." It's regular old-school drag performance: glitzy dresses, chunky eyebrows, unshocking crassness. It's not immediately clear what this has to do with Jesus.
The Gospel of Eureka meanders, but it loosely focuses on the controversy surrounding a proposed local ordinance that would provide workplace and housing protections for Eureka Springs' LGBT workers and residents. But Eureka isn't interesting or important because of this ordinance fight.
The reason to watch this documentary is its clever juxtaposition of Christian kitsch and drag-queen culture. A sincere reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, for instance, turns into camp when it's preceded by a scene featuring the deliberate campiness of drag queens. The film is also helped by an expert narrator: the cabaret performer Mx Justin Vivian Bond, best known for being one half of cabaret duo Kiki and Herb.
The best moments of the doc don't come from the drag, which is all pretty standard fare, but from the town's epic Christian pageantry. And there's a lot of it in Eureka Springs.
Most conspicuously, there's the Christ of the Ozarks, a 66-foot-high white statue of Jesus Christ erected on top of a hill in Eureka Springs. The statue is often characterized as "minimalistic" by art critics, a euphemism for saying it's a very redneck-looking Jesus. It was brought to Eureka in 1964 by a man named Gerald L. K. Smith, a far-right organizer who frequently preached about walls and making America great again. Smith hired Emmet Sullivan, a sculptor known for creating massive green dinosaurs at the nearby Dinosaur World, to construct the statue. Sullivan notably began his career by working on Mount Rushmore. He ended it by building a poor man's Christ the Redeemer.
And then, of course, there's the passion play itself. Jesus was never in the Ozarks, but he's crucified and resurrected three to four nights a week in The Great Passion Play. I legitimately gasped when the film showed the Jesus cosplayer zip up into the sky like Peter Pan on Broadway.
The Gospel of Eureka's Christian spectacle is hilarious, but by placing it against the backdrop of drag, the film divines unexpected similarities between the two communities. Devotion and pageantry is shared across Eureka Springs, even if one group chooses a sequined gown and another a faux Middle Eastern tunic. This country was built on fantasies, and it's clear that many of them are alive and well in Eureka Springs.