ORLANDO — The drag queen dressed in all black. For mourning. She stepped onto the stage in her long-sleeved gown, towering in her sequined heels.
At the edge of the stage she stopped. So did the music. She looked into the crowd, which got quiet.
She was supposed to be lip-synching, sashaying down the runway. But since Sunday, she hadn't felt like dancing.
"You all are brave," she told the crowd in Orlando's Parliament House Resort at about 1 a.m. Wednesday. "I know your parents told you not to come out tonight. But you did. And we thank you. We're here to give you a show."
Angelica Sanchez is her stage name. On Facebook, she calls herself Angelica Michelle Jones. She grew up in Jacksonville, graduated from Mandarin High School in 1996, and has performed ever since. For the past few years, she had been putting on shows at Pulse nightclub, which she called her home.
Three days earlier, Angelica was dancing at Pulse when gunfire crackled through the club. Somehow, she escaped the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Too many of her friends were among the 49 victims who did not.
"Every single one of those people was happy that night," Angelica sobbed into the microphone. "That night, they didn't have a care in the world. They were surrounded by friends, who were their family. They were comfortable there and knew they belonged."
She and five other performers staged the event Wednesday to raise money for the victims' families, and for Pulse employees.
More than 100 people of all ages and races had come, dropping $20s in a jar by the door.
"Don't take life for granted," Angelica said as flamingo pink strobes striped the room. "Or your freedom. Freedom comes with a price. And we never realize how many people had to fight for us just to have a choice. And when somebody tries to attack that …"
Her voice cracked. She hung her head, wiped her glittery eyes. "Well, that is the true definition of a demonic spirit."
Two men who had worked with her at Pulse came on stage and laced their arms around her shaking shoulders. She leaned on them, weeping. A throng of people approached, thrusting money into her hands.
"We are all God's people. We have to turn to him now," Angelica said. "Jesus hung out with gay people. He didn't care who you were."
For a moment, silence lingered. Then the emcee climbed onto the runway and raised her arms. "I want to hear some music," she called to the DJ. Destiny's Child sang through the speakers.
"I'm a survivor."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825. Follow @lanedegregory.