As his alter ego Lavonia Elberton, Jared Dawson has been at the forefront of Atlanta’s drag scene. A yoga teacher, poet, writer, and performer, he’s a member of Legendary Children, a performance collective celebrating Southern drag and queer culture. Dawson spoke with scholar and performance artist Meredith Kooi about his Idea Capital project; their conversation delves deeply into his personal history, his strict religious upbringing, coming to terms with being gay, and finding a new family among his peers.
Meredith Kooi: Congratulations on the Idea Capital grant! Tell me about the project you submitted.
Jared Dawson: I’m currently calling it the “Church of Lavonia Elberton.” I’m not married to that name, but I grew up the son of an independent fundamentalist pastor. When we moved to Georgia, my father worked in education and became the school principal. My mom was the K-4 teacher. I went there from 4th through 12th grade. I went to Bible College after that.
MK: What’s Bible College?
JD: Bible college is, gosh, Bible college. It’s like regular college except they have a lot of educational offerings for people who are interested in continuing to work in the Christian faith. They have a seminary. Anything to create more ranks. But on top of that, girls had to wear pantyhose until after dinner. Their dresses or skirts had to be mid-shin. Guys had to wear ties until after chapel. We had chapel every day and church twice on Sunday. It’s just a very controlled, constructed environment that’s geared to making you a little soldier of Christ.
MK: What’s the difference between chapel and church?
JD: Chapel is shorter. It’s like a little snack in case you need to refocus on your dedication. This was my whole world. I used to believe that my homosexuality was a test of my faith, and that God had cursed me with this so that I could prove how strong my faith was by never giving into it. Very twisted. Lots of self-loathing. Lots of hate. When the basis of your belief is your eternal damnation, it’s kind of hard to create anything else. In my recent drag performances, I’ve begun to draw upon this space for inspiration.
When I began teaching yoga, the studio was across the street from a church. I taught on Sunday mornings, and church started in the middle of my class. One day, I was teaching class, and I looked out the window and saw all these people showing up for church, and I looked back and saw all these people practicing yoga, and I thought: “Shit. I ended up a pastor, just like my dad.” Both professions are dealing with the same aspects of the human, but in a completely different framework. That moment became a strong point of development and emotional impact for me.
I’ve begun working my poetry into Lavonia’s performances, which has always been a goal of mine, so this gives me a sort of sermon framework for that to happen. It’s sort of like, hook ’em with the music, give a little sermon, and then send ’em off. One of my favorite hymns growing up was “How Great Thou Art,” and I found a pedal steel guitar cover of it, so I sing it really twangy and loud, and I deliver the sermon: You’re light. You’re magic. You’re powerful. It’s your fucking time. The church of Lavonia Elberton will be an expansion on that project.
It’s funny to approach the fine arts when the majority of my practice takes place at bars and parties. So when I get to perform in a fine arts venue, it’s like, “Holy shit, I’ve got a captive audience. No one’s going to be too drunk. They’re going to be polite.” At my Sumptuary performances, one of my friends had a drunken Easter brawl and broke one of the installations. So getting to do the Church of Lavonia Elberton on this scale means that everyone will come and sit down, and I’ll get to speak for an hour instead of 45 seconds, so I’m starting to build that out and write material.
MK: How do you navigate the spaces of, for lack of better terms, the highbrow and the lowbrow? Where do you foresee this project living?
JD: I love kitsch. I love camp. I love macrame. I have a very cheesy, awful aesthetic. Aubrey [Longley-Cook] makes fun of me plenty for it. The visual centerpiece of the project is inspired by the 1989 performance Grace Jones did in a Keith Haring gown on New Year’s Eve. She was standing on a huge 20-foot platform that was hidden inside her giant Keith Haring patterned dress. I want a Grace Jones dress like that, and now I have the money to create it and to get a big enough space. As a writer, and particularly with Lavonia, I go for a strong emotional appeal and impact, an “impeal,” if you will! Lavonia is an experiment about creating or directly accessing a separate universe. Lavonia is not a drag queen. She’s a creature that lives in this world and when a performance is successful, it’s less “look at that drag queen” and more “look at Lavonia being Lavonia.”
MK: I like that a lot. I’ve been in a few conversations recently with people about the differences between performance art, performing art …
JD: Something that has been really interesting to me lately is how much the audience informs your performance. If they’re there for entertainment, that’s your job—to anticipate their whims and delight them. I think that was something I struggled with for a long time, trying to be more popular. Ultimately, I’ve found that no matter what I’m doing, it succeeds if I’m coming from Lavonia’s centered, authentic space—she is a fully developed personality in my brain, we hold conversations, we fight, we hang out, she gets in trouble, we have a very dynamic interaction. Yeah, there’s this whole performance artist, performative artist, visual artist … I don’t have the critical reference for it; I went to school for writing. I’ve started doing visual art because poetry readings are dead!