Let’s give a big hallelujah for Lavonia Elberton.
Artist Jared Dawson’s drag persona is a new-age guru in The Church of Lavonia Elberton, bringing spiritual enlightenment to Atlanta in an immersive, uplifting performance artwork. Sponsored by Idea Capital, the performance will take place at Nirvana Yoga at 7:30 p.m. December 13, 19 and 27.
The son of an Independent Fundamental Baptist preacher, Dawson teaches yoga, writes poetry and dabbles in witchcraft. He drew his stage name from two cities he saw on highway exit signs in North Georgia and created the character as a campy Southern witch. Definitely a drama queen, Elberton made her entrance in the first performance (on December 6) plucking an autoharp, a goddess in a vintage, Southern preacher’s wife dress with crinoline, gold glitter beard, swamp sabre at her low back, crocheted apron, and voluptuous blonde wig.
Four candlelit altars representing earth, air, fire and water transform the yoga studio into the church. Each altar has kitschy, kooky elements in place of traditional sacred altarpieces. A pair of mannequin legs in red fishnet stockings, for example, appear to be resting on the “Water” altar.
The Church of Lavonia Elberton takes elements of a traditional church service — responsive reading, hymns and even the distribution of the weekly newsletter, and rebrands them with a magical flair — and a queer sensibility. Anyone familiar with the aesthetics of Christian religious ritual (Catholic or Protestant) will see the parallels. In her service, Elberton blends old-time Southern religion with all the other forms of spirituality that preachers warn against — witchcraft, yoga, and meditation and pagan rites. The Hymn of the Cycle, which came from the pagan song “We All Come from the Goddess” is transposed into a new age doxology.
The most striking part of the performance was the original poetry. Elberton uses the divine diction of the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) to create the rhythm of her language, but blends it with Eastern-style philosophy. The reading for the Southern altar of fire was particularly memorable: “This is the arc the knife will travel as it explores the curve of your neck … Blaze and smolder, both you must — but do not tarry long in these lands.”
The yoga portion of the program is meant to be accessible to all participants, and Elberton assisted anyone who needed help finding a comfortable pose. Her visualizations were delightful meditation aides; first participants imagined a circle of fire, then turned it into a sphere of light and we placed all of our bodies into this expanse of energy.
The service ended with participants in a circle, holding hands and breathing in unison, which engendered the kind of communal experience church services are supposed to be. The final performance will culminate in a baptism — a light sprinkling, not a full immersion — which promises to be a deeply queer spiritual experience: Lavonia Elberton brings out the goddess in everyone, and shows how our perception of spirituality and self can transcend normative societal standards.
There’s a lot in this piece that might scare off viewers, but anyone with an open mind will enjoy it. Elberton is not trying to convert anyone to some occult practice; rather, she points out the ways many different forms of spirituality overlap. Rather, she shows the connections between Eastern and Western traditions, and adds a dash of Southern, drag-inspired attitude.
Wear comfortable clothes and bring a yoga mat if you have one.