By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If only Zach could see Southern Baptist Sissies, now running at Uptown Players. All summer dozens of online blogs have bounced stories and comments back and forth about Zach, a 16-year-old Tennessee boy whose own Web journal details his fears of being dispatched by his parents to Love in Action, a Christian program in Memphis that claims to "cure" gay kids and turn them straight.
Zach's diary (www.myspace.com/specialkid) hasn't been updated since early June. If he is locked up at Love in Action, he's being subjected to treatment that includes isolation from family and friends. He is prohibited from physical touching other than handshakes or pats on the back, and he cannot speak after 9 p.m. He's being told not to act "campy." According to the program's long list of rules and practices, he's supposed to "actively re-evaluate the influences of secular media" on his life. He's not allowed access to the Internet, television or movies (Zach's posted faves include Camp, Finding Nemoand Girl, Interrupted). Only explicitly Christian music is permitted. Bach and Beethoven, according to the program, are not considered Christian.
You read this stuff and wonder how? Why? Who? And then you see Del Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies and you know. Shores certainly knows. He's lived it. Now 47, Shores grew up in Texas as the son of a Baptist minister who preached harsh lessons from Leviticus and believed that gays end up in the fiery lakes of hell. Shores married, had kids and built a solid career writing scripts for bland TV sitcoms. Then in 1995 the biggest come-to-Jesus moment of his life found him coming out to his wife, family and friends. It wasn't easy, so the following year he wrote his first play about it, Sordid Lives, a comedy that enjoyed a 15-month, sold-out run in Los Angeles before going to regional theaters (Uptown Players did it here). Shores also wrote and directed the film version starring Delta Burke, Beau Bridges and Olivia Newton-John.
Now an executive producer and writer for Showtime's out-as-out-can-be Queer as Folk series, Shores has followed Sordid Lives with more autobiographical plays with gay themes. He's slick at scoring easy laughs from broadly written characters who say funny, trashy things in accents that migrate between Slingblade and Mayberry. With names like "Aunt Booger" and "Uncle Humpty," Shores' creations are so swishy and trailer park they make the gals of Steel Magnolias sound like King Lear's daughters.
So Southern Baptist Sissies, his fifth and most serious play, might disappoint some of his fans with its darker mood and tragic plot turns (one character commits suicide rather than tell his mother he's gay). But it might also hit close to the heart for anyone who survived being raised in a religion that teaches that only the straight and narrow-minded make it to heaven.
At the center of the play are four boys who grow up in Dallas attending a small Baptist church. All four realize early on that they're gay, but only two--Mark (Carter Hudson) and Benny (Emerson Collins)--are brave enough to admit it. Benny jets all the way over the rainbow as a professional drag queen. Mark, the poetic type, suffers the rejection of his first love, T.J. (Kevin Moore), the butchest and most religious of the foursome and the one most likely to live in the closet and marry a big-haired ol' Baylor gal. Sensitive Andrew (Chad Peterson) secretly cruises leather bars by night but still sings in the church choir on Sundays. He's the doomed one.
Scenes in Sissies alternate between the starchy sermons of the preacher (Rick Espaillat) and revealing, often profane, monologues from Mark, Benny, T.J. and Andrew. Everything is told from Mark's point of view. Thinking back to the church and his three childhood friends, he says, "For God so loved the world...ironic...this is the place we learned to hate ourselves."
Even in serious work like this, Shores can't help but reflexively turn to gags to lighten things up. Some of the best moments in Sissies are provided by two sideline characters, Peanut (beautifully played by Terry Vandivort) and Odette Annette Barnett (Molly Moroney), a couple of over-the-hill boozers who meet and swap sad life stories in a gay bar. "I'm a social drinker," twangs Peanut. "If you'll have another drink, 'social' I."
The writing is sometimes soap operatic and overwrought. Uptown's opening night ran about a half-hour too long, thanks to some indulgent emoting by a few of the actors (overall the cast is excellent). But Sissies is worth seeing because of what it says about acceptance and redemption. It dares to shake its fist at those who really do believe that you can pray the gay out of a boy by confining him to some program in Memphis that promises it can rid him of the urge to sing along with Cher and turn off his fantasies about the hunk on the swim team. Shores, through his main character, Mark, reassures anyone who doubts it that there is hope and grace for every troubled, questioning spirit. The little piece of scripture that says "God is love" isn't followed by an asterisk saying for whom that love is reserved.