Kicking the habit

At one time, Coy Covington tried to avoid drag roles, but with ‘The Divine Sister,’ he’s fully embraced his inner Busch

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DON’T TRIM THE BUSCH | Mastering Charles Busch’s dialogue has been especially challenging for Coy Covington, who has made a career out of performing as the playwright’s alter ego (pictured together, below). (Photos by Mike Morgan and Arnold Wayne Jones)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Coy Covington vividly recalls the first time he met Charles Busch in person.

Busch is a legend in gay theater — heck, the theater world generally. A Tony-nominated playwright, he’s also performed in many of the shows he’s written, usually playing the heroine himself, in drag. (One of the gimmicks: No one acknowledges it is a man in drag.)

Covington, one of Dallas’ most charming bon vivants and legendary for his performances in drag, has been a natural go-to guy for Busch roles for more than a decade. So it was fitting they should meet while Covington was recreating one of Busch’s signature characters in Die, Mommie! Die!

“We had established an online relationship through a mutual friend — this was before Facebook — but had never met,” Covington recalls. “Then one of his movies was chosen to screen at the USA Film Festival, and [Busch] was coming to Dallas to make an appearance … which happened to be during the run of Die, Mommie! Die! He rarely attends because they are often so rotten, but some friends convinced him to go.”

Having the playwright in the audience might intimidate some actors, but Covington rose to the challenge.

“It was one of my best nights in the theater,” he coos. “Sometimes the fairy dust falls and everything goes right. That was probably our best performance of the run. After the show we just gabbed and dished for hours. Charles and I especially bonded over wigs — wigs are my life, and his. He was so kind and warm and funny; he even said he was gonna steal some of the bits from our show for his upcoming production.”

Since then, Covington and Busch have stayed in touch, even so far as communicating while Covington prepares for his latest role, the Mother Superior in Busch’s most recent play, The Divine Sister, which opens Friday.

Busch’s plays have spoofed ‘60s beach musicals-cum-slasher movies (Psycho Beach Party), Douglas Sirk films (Die, Mommie! Die!) , commie-baiting melodramas (Red Scare on Sunset) and even a horror-biblical epic hybrid (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom). The Divine Sister tackles another genre: The heartfelt nun movies and TV shows of the late ‘50s and ’60s, including The Nun’s Story, The Singing Nun, Change of Habit and The Flying Nun. But don’t expect it to be preachy.

“He writes such wild stuff,” Covington says. “Through him I’ve been through the Byzantine era, the Spanish Inquisition, ‘40s Hollywood, ‘50s Hollywood, I’ve been a whore, a murderess … now I’m a nun. He once said to me, ’I have to keep writing to keep you in roles!’ He’s my divine sister. IMG_7647I’m very grateful.”

Covington didn’t always feel that way. There was a time when he had to be convinced to audition for a Busch play.

“I went through a little bit of a phase where I resisted,” he says, wanting to play, as he calls them, “trouser roles.” “But I kind of succumbed to the notion that this is my niche — it’s what I’m best at. I’ll have to hang my wig on that. I would like to play a role in pants again, though.”
Being friendly with Busch has challenged Covington to do his best when approaching one of his roles — and this time, it’s especially taxing.

“I like to pay homage to what he’s created of the period. He’s a cinema historian and he takes these parodies very seriously and with a true affection for these ladies. But with his stuff the devil is in the details. The syntax is so specific, so the dialogue has been hell to master. Because the characters are so complex, you can’t skip anything. As I like to say, you can’t trim the Busch. But I also have to make it my own.”

Covington has a crew of allies helping him out. Along with producers Craig Lynch and Jeff Rane, The Divine Sister reunites Covington with director Andi Allen and costumer Suzi Cranford, plus his frequent onstage co-star Kevin Moore. And he takes inspiration from Busch as well.

“Since we have a personal relationship, it not only makes it all that more fun to do, it is more important to me that I don’t fuck this thing up,” he says.

He also gets to enjoy the ride of doing another riotous comedy that plays its humor close to the vest — or rather, wimple. Although inspired by perky nun movies, “it’s really a perverse parody of the secret lives of nuns,” he explains. ”You have horny novices, a young boy destined to go over the rainbow, a dominatrix in hiding and a monologue about extreme penile endowment. This ain’t a [dour] sermon — there’s a lot of blue humor. But my character stays true to her vows. It’s about redemption — losing your faith and then regaining it, and the mother superior is steadfast.”

Despite the ultimate message about spirituality, Covington knows it will be considered another drag comedy. And while he burns a candle that he may take on a more serious part again,  he’s come to terms with it if he doesn’t.

“I long to do some serious stuff,” he sighs,” “but I know my mission too: it is to entertain and spread God’s love.”
Just like a good nun.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 13, 2012.

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