Say Amen, Already

Southern Baptist Sissies is like most sermons--way too long

The mock religious Web site www.landoverbaptist.org staged a spoof protest outside the eight-month Los Angeles run of Del Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies. A director friend of Shores' turned it into a 15-minute movie that was equal parts parody and extended promo for the production. The verisimilitude to real-life conservative Christian public action was enough to fool some people who saw it into taking sides--either decrying the bigots of Los Angeles' phony Landover Baptist Church ("Where the Worthwhile Worship") or tsk-tsking the prideful homosexuals for refusing to acknowledge their sinfulness when it was being so helpfully pointed out to them.

Apparently, we've reached the point where the opportunity for satirists to exploit this ludicrous rift has closed; satire is redundant (and well-nigh unrecognizable) when the real-life participants are so pathetically funny.

Tate Taylor (from the original L.A. production) and Robert Lewis Stephenson grapple with conflicting views of a loving God in Del Shores' raw comic drama.
Michael Hiller
Tate Taylor (from the original L.A. production) and Robert Lewis Stephenson grapple with conflicting views of a loving God in Del Shores' raw comic drama.
Tate Taylor (from the original L.A. production) and Robert Lewis Stephenson grapple with conflicting views of a loving God in Del Shores' raw comic drama.
Michael Hiller
Tate Taylor (from the original L.A. production) and Robert Lewis Stephenson grapple with conflicting views of a loving God in Del Shores' raw comic drama.

Details

Southern Baptist Sissies runs through August 19 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, 3120 McKinney Ave. Call 214-953-1773.

Sinbad The Sailor runs through August 18 at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, 5400 E. Mockingbird Lane. Call 214-821-1860.

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Given the often tiresome Tex-centric comedy that Shores has scored commercially with on stage and in film--scripts like Daddy's Dyin'...Who's Got the Will? and Sordid Lives--you're shocked during Southern Baptist Sissies by the raw displays of sorrow and self-loathing that compete with characters who have names like Odette Annette Barnette and Preston "Peanut" Leroy. Over five plays set in his home state, the Texas-raised Shores has burrowed deeper into his own painful past as an enthusiastic Southern Baptist adolescent praying for God to remove his romantic feelings toward other men. There are moments when this audience member felt discomfitingly like a voyeur, although not from lack of passing familiarity. Because I've known a few gay men tortured by Christian theologies, I've been witness to the damage that's done and sometimes never overcome. Huzzah to Shores for striking his lucrative Texas camp and building a foundation in a place that rattles us with its recognizability.

The L.A. show recently closed and has been booked, with much of the original cast, for an August run at McKinney Avenue Contemporary. I'd like to report that the playwright, who also serves as the production's director, has found a craftsmanship to match his new bravery with more complex characters and feeling. But Southern Baptist Sissies jumps around different times and places in the lives of four young men earnestly worshipping at a Southern Baptist church in Dallas, sometimes energetically and other times clumsily. Our narrator is Mark (Robert Lewis Stephenson), easily the angriest of the quartet, who reflects with a mixture of rage and nostalgia on his time in the congregation, including the stirring hymns and the comical but impassioned sermons of the preacher (Terry Brannon, who thunders during one Easter service, "There was no chocolate-covered bunny in the tomb with Jesus!"). Mark takes turns addressing the audience with his childhood chums, including first love T.J. (Ted Detwiler), who wants to forget their fooling around; Benny (Michael Taylor Gray, easily the best of the male leads at being poignant and funny simultaneously), whose flamboyant flourishes during devotionals hint at his show-biz future in high heels and makeup; and Andrew (Sam A. McConkey), for whom the men's underwear section of the Sears catalog is a gateway to chronic clubbing.

Counterpoint to their fraught development are the arrested comic stylings of Peanut (Leslie Jordan) and Odette (Ann Walker), a pair of nonpracticing Baptists who drink nightly at the same unnamed gay bar and lament the state of their lives. Shores told the Los Angeles Times that many gay Baptist boys he knew wound up habitual (and habitually disappointed) bar patrons, thus self-fulfilling the prophecy of "the homosexual lifestyle" being a dead end. This is one of the more sophisticated themes in Southern Baptist Sissies--how people on both sides of the aisle who truly want to help wind up burying you deeper in your dilemma. The Baptists want to rescue our protagonists from an essential part of themselves; their transition into the arms of the gay community happens in clubs and bars, the kind of scene in which no one--homo or hetero--has much chance of meeting long-term friends and lovers.

Overall, Southern Baptist Sissies is performed with professional fervor and deft timing sensitive to its constant mood changes. But length is a problem; at more than two and a half hours with intermission, the whiplash alternating between suffering and comic relief becomes simply wearisome. The playwright-director wants to show the divergent and extreme reactionary paths that grow from Baptist indoctrination, but he hasn't carved out enough lucid details to individualize the foursome at the play's center. Benny may have become a drag queen, and T.J. a fire-breathing seminary student, but their early experiences in this show's pews are similar enough to make us feel that the same story is being repeated ad nauseum. The point is made so effectively in the first act that, during the second, Shores and his performers squander the emotional capital they've earned from us. And I wish Shores had written more thoughtfully so that the attraction of many gay men to the pageantry and ritual of religious services might illuminate some of the rites of gay male urban culture. He hints at this when Stephenson, as Mark, says, "Let's face it, Jesus is hot," and goes on to explain why Christ was his first crush. This is meaty stuff, an insightful collision between the sacred and the sexual. I wanted more. How do drag queens function as high priestesses? What's the similarity between bodies pressed close together on a crowded dance floor and under church rafters, swaying and singing with the choir?

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