At Mamma’Zu over the weekend, supporters unveiled a monument to Dirtwoman’s legacy at a dinner to benefit the Massey Cancer Center.
We all remember Dirtwoman: a bastion of Richmond’s LGBTQ community, larger than life, sometimes difficult, often cheerful, and always unforgettable. Now the memory of the man born Donnie Corker will be preserved for future Richmond generations, in the same unique fashion in which he lived his life.
“You move to Richmond, you’re aware of Donnie,” said Chris Dovi, local journalist and executive director of CodeVA. “He’s sort of a looming character, so to speak.”
Corker’s life is impossible to condense into a concise paragraph. He was the star of a GWAR video, performed annually to benefit the economically unfortunate at Hamaganza, and appeared grinning in many a news article due to stunts such as crashing former Governor Doug Wilder’s inauguration. He also sold the best roses you could find on Grace Street in its punk rock glory days.
In September 2017, after decades on the streets of Richmond, feet planted solid in the hearts of all who knew him, Corker died in his sleep. He was 65.
At Mamma’Zu in Corker’s old neighborhood of Oregon Hill — his longtime day job — people gathered Sunday to celebrate his life and unveil a new memorial to the Richmond icon. In lieu of tickets was a $50 donation, the entirety of which benefited Massey Cancer Center.
“As Donnie was approaching the end, he shifted his attention — he wanted anything using his name to benefit Massey Cancer,” Dovi said, “They had saved his life about a decade earlier.”
Among the approximately 45 people in attendance were members of Corker’s family and many of his friends. Attendees ate a hearty Italian multicourse meal and enjoyed a raffle of Dirtwoman-related prizes. Dovi, who organized the event, said a few words to the group, as did Jerry Williams, who recently completed a much-anticipated documentary about Corker’s life — which is set for a hometown premiere at the Byrd Theatre April 25.
After the meal, the whole group filed outside to witness the memorial unveiling.
“I promised Donnie that I would make sure that he had a monument in Oregon Hill,” Dovi said.
The monument, a well-kept secret until the moment of its unveiling, turned out to be a manhole cover. In black letters over an image of Corker’s face, it reads “DONNIE CORKER” in black letters, followed by the dates of his life, and his legendary nickname: “’DIRTWOMAN’.”
“Manhole cover for Donnie, of course!” Williams said, laughing.
As VCU pools ever outwards, the face of the city has been shifting and changing. Oregon Hill, a historically white, working class neighborhood (“redneck,” according to some of those interviewed) has not always been the safest place for the LGBTQ community. But Corker was unafraid. He flaunted his style and owned his brand.
“…He was unashamed,” Williams said, “he would call you out if you gave him any shit.”
Corker wasn’t one to step down. He wasn’t one to hide who he was. He wore it out in the open, his heart on his sleeve. And in the city of Richmond, he’ll always be remembered for it.
Top Photo by PJ Sykes