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Southern Baptist Sissies|
A Crucial Play on Religion
by J. Cookston Right
© 2006, J. Cookston Right
I twice saw “Southern Baptist Sissies” in 2002, and thought highly of it. With the current political scene, I think it critical that the return productions be widely viewed. The following article gives an assessment of the power of the play.
Seeing “Southern Baptist Sissies” is more crucial now than ever, as right-wing Christians are succeeding in choosing our president and governors.
President Bush explicitly says it is a “higher calling” from his God that places him above U.S. law, so as to imprison and wiretap — without warrants — whomever he chooses. That places him above international law, which he thinks allows him to invade any country he chooses, and torture their civilians. That places him even above the U.S. Constitution — for which he swore an oath to uphold — so as to “build a bridge between church and state” and directly fund evangelical churches with tax dollars through his Faith-Based Initiative.
Southern was launched in September 2000. Within a year, we all learned how easily any norm of ethics or humanity or love or international law can be trumped, when a “believer” hears what to do from his God.
Bush’s language is identical to the blind, religious devotion that Rudolph Hess expressed in this 1934 speech: “We believe that the Führer is obeying a higher call to fashion German history. There can be no criticism of this belief.”
It is not just here in the U.S., and not just Christians, but it is especially now. In just the past decade, we’ve witnessed the effects of stringent monotheism, as does this play. Because of this witnessing, I was unprepared for the emotional bombshell presented by “Southern Baptist Sissies.”
Although gay-themed, the play is not about homosexuality, nor is it mainly even for gay audiences. It is, at heart, about the soul-wrecking collision caused when opposing forces in a person’s psyche are totally, irreconcilably, at odds. For instance, when the desire for approval by one’s parents conflicts with that of a lover; or, when your child has been called an abomination, the conflict of loving your child collides with the love for your God. These are the issues that drive this play.
It is all shown to us via character studies. The plot is thin and hardly needed. A protagonist, loosely representing Mr. Shores himself, and three of his churchgoing buddies are shown, from 12-to-adulthood, growing up in a church and a culture which teaches them that the essence of who they are is grotesquely loathsome to God, His representative, their pastor and his flock, and their own parents. While they did not choose to be gay, and there is no way they can change, they are still condemned.
To grow up in that hammerlock was playwright Shores’ own lot in life. He grew up gay in Dallas, as the son and brother of Southern Baptist preachers. This play deals with that angst. Rarely has my heart been so pierced as when I read in Shores’ program notes: “My father and brother will not be seeing this play.”
Del Shores is an accomplished, feature film and theater producer. “Southern” is one of the most successful small theater productions ever seen Los Angeles. As of 2002, the play won 26 industry nominations or awards, and has been repeatedly held over to sold-out performances across the country.
The trigger to write this play, says Shores, was when he saw a photograph of the bedroom of one of those who committed the torture-murder of Matthew Shepard. The pictures of Jesus and other indicia of evangelical belief were prominent in the murderer’s bedroom.
Also a trigger was the book “Prayers for Bobby,” which tells the tragic story of a fundamentalist Christian mother’s struggle with God and religion after her gay son’s suicide. For years she had tried to rid her son of what she called, “the most despicable evil of them all.”
The play is obviously self-cathartic, but is not self-indulgent in the way, for instance, that Woody Allen’s middle work is.
It is not a tear-jerker or sad. While there is pathos, it is also liberally mixed with doses of touching humor, even belly laugh-sized humor, and pure entertainment.
Audience favorites were the country and western lip sync drag scene. A role I saw played by Scott Presley and Emerson Collins. Drag is not my cup of tea, but folks who are aficionados told me this was flawlessly done. The casts for the shows I saw are top-shelf Hollywood actors, working under a top-shelf director, and it made me laugh, cry, and think.
The play is not sleazy. While the protagonist curses freely, but no one else does. There is a brief factual description of a young playmate accidentally ejaculating while clothes are on.
There is no frontal nudity, even though that is now considered de rigueur for all LA gay-themed plays. There is brief, dramatically necessary, full nudity from the back. But for goodness sake I saw extended full frontal male nudity in Genet’s classic play “The Balcony,” at a mainstream, LA theater 20 years ago.
There is a scene with a male stripper. His ample diaper-like costume reveals far less than NBC cameras did for hours every day from the starting blocks of Olympic swimming. The stripper does get his jewels palmed from outside the diaper. So what? The scene only serves to afford straight women the feeling they’ve gotten their fair shake and a chance to look at some very muscular legs, which these certainly are.
And there is a brief gay kiss, nothing even as exotic as Ellen DeGenerus’s, but definitely front and center. However there never was a kiss that was more urgently set up, dramatically necessary, and resolving. Lou Sheldon himself would heave a sigh of relief to finally see this kiss, so urgently have we been made to feel the need for it.
The play is not offensive, and beyond a puerile shoving match, there is no violence.
Even for its run in the Melrose District, whose denizens would surely tolerate almost anything in a play, the play is toned down, so that as wide and traditional an audience would come, and leave with the message resonating, un-eclipsed by distracting shock material.
Frankly, the play would succeed if stripped of even these moderately racy elements, because it is a good play, with universal themes and crucial content.
The ending is one of the most successful blends of tragicomedy, bitter and sweet, the anguish of loss, but also the sweetness of hope.
Where I think Mr. Shores has done us his great service is not in his styling, but in his world-class content. The effort has gone into the substance of the script.
The lines are not going to be sending the Bard of Avon scrambling to catch up. Neither is the author’s message at any great height. Indeed, the transitions between the rare preaching/persuasive portions of the play, and the pure drama portions, are not seamless.
The transitions are confusing when the protagonist interacts with other characters. He gives us inner voice monologues while action continues around him, which breaks character.
I prefer that a character never speak directly to an audience (or to the camera). Doing so ruins my view as a fly on the wall.
I am tormented by the fact that I led two young people to Christ, who turned out to be gay, and whose souls I had to watch being subsequently poisoned, and crushed by preachers and right-wing Christianity. They have been unable to stop believing the lies about themselves, and so are in torment. And so I am, for having put them in that jeopardy.
This play, therefore, touched the depth of my soul. Because of its universal elements, it will touch yours, too. Every Christian soul should see it; everyone who has a Christian friend, every mother or father of a troubled young person, and everyone who has witnessed the freight train collision of the two most primal drives in one psyche.
The most successful play in the history of Los Angeles’s Zephyr Theatre — and the most meaningful theatrical presentation I’ve experienced — has returned after sold-out, multi-award-winning runs in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago. Writer-director Del Shores’ potent play “Southern Baptist Sissies” re-opened in LA on January 13, 2006.
This re-engagement of “Southern Baptist Sissies” contains new material. The play season — called a “Season of Shores” — also includes five of Shores’ other plays.
The late Sharyn Lane, was Shores’ previous producer. Now, the producer is Jason Dottley, Shores’ life partner since 2002. Jason Dottley is also scheduled to act in several other plays in the “Season of Shores.”
© 2006, J. Cookston Right
A version of this article first appeared in the now defunct Dallas Times in 2002.
J. Cookston Right ghostwrites technical treatises for doctors, jurists, theologians, and scientists.
He also offers music and film criticism, as well as political commentary since
the time when Baptists used to work keeping church and state separated.